What is a 15-minute city? How the urban-planning idea is tangled in a conspiracy

15-minute cities would allow residents to access amenities by walking or cycling (Micheile / Unsplash)
15-minute cities would allow residents to access amenities by walking or cycling (Micheile / Unsplash)

The idea that everyone should have basic amenities within a 15-minute walk from their home shouldn’t be a controversial one.

It’s a simple urban-planning idea that proposes that we make cities more accessible to everyone.

However, conspiracy theorists, led by right-wing commentators, are using the idea to push false claims about restrictions on freedoms and surveillance technology.

Twitter user Carla Francome started a conversation on social media earlier in February when she shared how living in Bounds Green means her 78-year-old father is able to access everything he needs within a short walk.

She said: “For my father, it’s given him the freedom to live independently for longer, knowing he has all the support and services he needs nearby.”

But her Twitter thread generated a lot of abuse, with people seeming to take the idea of a 15-minute city as an attack on their personal freedom.

One Twitter user told Francome: “This is you, it doesn’t mean that everybody has to agree with it. Telling me what I can make do with, rather than I’d like.

“[Maybe my favourite] bar is a 40 minute drive, [maybe my favourite] cafe is 30 minutes away. Maybe I don’t like Tescos right next to me. It is my choice where I go, what I do.”

So how did an award-winning urban-planning idea derail into a right-wing surveillance state conspiracy theory?

What is a 15-minute city?

A 15-minute city is an urban-planning idea that households in cities should have amenities, like a doctor, school, and local shop, for example, within a 15-minute walk.

People would be able to get to work and to cultural facilities within a short walk or cycle.

The idea is that 15-minute cities are accessible to everyone by walking, without the need to drive.

While the aim of the 15-minute city is to create more accessible and enjoyable places to live, it would, as a result, decrease the need for cars, creating less emissions.

The urban-planning model was developed by French-Colombian scientist Carlos Moreno and won the Obel Award for 2021.

Moreno first introduced the idea in 2016, but it was popularised in 2020 by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, as part of her re-election campaign, according to Dezeen. Moreno served as scientific advisor on the campaign.

Why have conspiracy theorists co-opted the idea of a 15-minute city?

Conspiracy theorists have jumped on the 15-minute city idea and are spreading false claims that the idea of a 15-minute city means that people will be confined to a 15-minute radius of their house, unable to travel to another part of their city, or out of their city.

They are claiming that the idea is being pushed to keep people confined to their homes, only allowed to leave their area a limited number of times a year, as long as they have a permit.

The people who believe the theory have appeared to conflate the idea of a 15-minute city with traffic restrictions.

Jordan Peterson said on Twitter: “The idea that neighbourhoods should be walkable is lovely.

“The idea that idiot tyrannical bureaucrats can decide by fiat where you’re ‘allowed’ to drive is perhaps the worst imaginable perversion of that idea--and, make no mistake, it’s part of a well-documented plan.”

The conspiracy theorists claim that surveillance technology will be used to confine people to their neighbourhoods.

Katie Hopkins is among those falsely claiming that licence-plate recognition and electronic gates will force people to remain in their neighbourhoods.

Hopkins used the example of the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) in Oxford to share the misinformation.

LTNs reduce traffic in residential areas (Hackney Council)
LTNs reduce traffic in residential areas (Hackney Council)

What’s happening in Oxford?

In July 2022, after consulting with the public, Oxford’s council decided to make a few LTNs permanent.

LTNs reduce the number of cars passing through residential streets and have been around since the 1960s.

Traffic filters will be installed in certain areas, which means that private cars will need to apply for permits to pass through. The traffic filters will remain accessible to pedestrians, cyclists, public transport, and emergency vehicles.

Oxford City Council explained its decision in a statement and said: “Our aim is to reduce traffic levels and congestion, make the buses faster and more reliable, and make cycling and walking safer and more pleasant.

“Oxford needs a more sustainable, reliable, and inclusive transport system for everyone, particularly for the 30 per cent of our households who do not own a car.”

Thousands of Oxford residents who oppose LTNs protested over the weekend, resulting in five people being arrested.

Not everyone protesting the LTNs in Oxford believes in the conspiracy theory, though. The LTNs have generally been controversial in their own right, as some people claim they harm businesses and restrict motorists’ freedom.

Separately from the LTN scheme, Oxford adopted the 15-minute city concept into its Local Plan 2040, a report published in September 2022.

As a result, some conspiracy theorists have conflated the LTN controversy with the idea of the 15-minute city.

So what’s the truth about 15-minute cities?

It’s true that Oxford’s LTNs will restrict motorists from driving on certain routes at certain times of day without a permit.

But residents will still be able to access any area of the city they choose via any other method of transportation.

The idea of a 15-minute city means that people will have everything they need within a short walk or cycle, without the need to drive.

No part of the 15-minute city idea suggests that residents will be restricted to their neighbourhood, subjected to surverillance, nor that cars will be banned.