In praise of the ‘15-minute city’ – the mundane planning theory terrifying conspiracists

There’s an international socialist conspiracy afoot, and it wants to make it easier to walk to the shops. Fringe forces of the far left are plotting to take away our freedom to be stuck in traffic jams, to crawl along clogged ring roads and trawl the streets in search of a parking spot. The liberty of the rush-hour commute, the sanctity of the out-of-town shopping centre and the righteousness of the suburban food desert is under threat as never before. The name of this chilling global movement? The “15-minute city”.

Westminster can often seem like a badly scripted spoof of itself, but rarely has parliament descended into parody as far as it did last week, when the Conservative MP for the South Yorkshire constituency of Don Valley, Nick Fletcher, launched a plucky tirade against the concept of convenient, walkable neighbourhoods. “Will the leader of the house please set aside time for a debate on the international socialist concept of so-called 15-minute cities and 20-minute neighbourhoods?” he asked, in an ominous tone. “Sheffield is already on this journey, and I do not want Doncaster, which also has a Labour-run socialist council, to do the same.”

It is not the first time that an online conspiracy theory has made it into the Commons chamber, but it may be one of the most surreal. Simply put, the 15-minute city principle suggests you should have your daily needs – work, food, healthcare, education, culture and leisure – within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from where you live. It sounds pleasant enough, but in the minds of libertarian fanatics and the bedroom commentators of TikTok, it represents an unprecedented assault on personal freedoms.

“Creepy local authority bureaucrats would like to see your entire existence boiled down to the duration of a quarter of an hour,” warned a furious presenter on GB News last week, as if describing a plot line from Nineteen Eighty-Four. The 15-minute city, he suggested, was a “dystopian plan”, heralding “a surveillance culture that would make Pyongyang envious”.

Never before has a mundane theory of urbanism been such a lightning rod for outrage. It’s like suggesting that public parks are part of a sinister plant-worshipping plot to demolish our homes and replace them with grass. Or that public transport is the work of a satanic bus cult. Some online forums have claimed that the 15-minute city represents the first step towards an inevitable Hunger Games society, in which residents will not be allowed to leave their prescribed areas. They see it not as a route to a low-traffic, low-carbon future, but as the beginning of a slippery slope to living in an open-air prison.

As one irate TikToker shrieked, while jumping around his room in disbelief: “You’re going to have to apply for a fucking permit to leave your zone!” (Although he also ascribed the 15-minute city plans to the Tories, so it’s not quite clear which deranged Reddit forum he got his information from).

There are lots of good reasons to interrogate the cute logic of the 15-minute city – could it actually lead to further social segregation? Would wealthy residents, and their money, remain in the prosperous enclaves? Who is providing the services and where do they live? – but the threat of our rights being curtailed by travel permits isn’t one of them.

The conspiracy theory pot was given a powerful stir in December, when the Canadian rightwing culture warrior Jordan Peterson decided to get involved. “The idea that neighbourhoods should be walkable is lovely,” he tweeted, in a post that has since clocked up 7.5m views. “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,” he continued, “and, make no mistake, it’s part of a well-documented plan.” Peterson quoted a tweet that featured the telltale hashtag #GreatReset, referring to the World Economic Forum’s post-pandemic economic recovery plan – widely used in the stranger corners of the internet as a byword for a shadowy global conspiracy intent on robbing us of our freedoms. The anti-vaccine, pro-Brexit, climate-denying, 15-minute-phobe, Great Reset axis is a strong one.

So where did the fear come from? Many of the UK conspiracy theorists highlight that these “un-British” ideas of urban walkability emanate from France, so they must be distrusted on principle. Worse than that, they point out, the ideology has been driven by a bearded Colombian scientist with radical roots. The ideas had been around since the 1920s, but the 15-minute city phrase was coined by Carlos Moreno, esteemed professor at the Panthéon-Sorbonne in Paris, who was once a member of a leftwing guerrilla group in the 1970s. And now he’s coming for your cars.

“Their lies are enormous,” Moreno said in a recent interview , describing some of the claims made by his critics. “You will be locked in your neighbourhood; cameras will signal who can go out; if your mother lives in another neighbourhood, you will have to ask for permission to see her, and so on,” adding that they “sometimes post pictures of concentration camps.”

Moreno first promoted his concept of la ville du quart d’heure in 2016, but it gained international attention when the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, adopted it as part of her re-election campaign in 2020. She promised she would close off roads and turn them into public plazas, plant more trees and turn schools into the “capitals of the neighbourhood”, open to everyone for sports and recreation in evenings and at weekends.

Related: Is the tiny little neighborhood the city of the future?

The pandemic proved to be a powerful trial for how a 15-minute city might work in practice, and led to bodies such as UN Habitat, the World Economic Forum, the C40 Global Cities Climate Network and the Federation of United Local Governments championing the cause – which also helped to boost unhinged fantasies that it is all part of a grand global scheme of totalitarian oppression.

More recently, the principles have gained traction in the UK, with Oxford, Birmingham, Bristol, Canterbury and Sheffield councils considering 15-minute city ideas. Cue outrage from those with no other cause left to flog. “The climate change lockdowns are coming,” tweeted Nigel Farage, in response to Canterbury’s innocuous traffic filtering scheme, while Oxford’s plans triggered similar ripples of incredulous fury.

“Oxfordshire County Council yesterday approved plans to lock residents into one of six zones to ‘save the planet’ from global warming,” screamed one alarmist headline. “The latest stage in the ‘15-minute city’ agenda is to place electronic gates on key roads in and out of the city, confining residents to their own neighbourhoods.” The claims had zero basis in fact, but they poured further fuel on the fire of those battling low-traffic neighbourhoods, and their fellow band of assorted culture warriors.

It seems fitting that a leaflet drop warning against Oxford’s traffic filters plan was organised by Not Our Future – a new pressure group led by none other than Fred and Richard Fairbrass of 1990s band turned anti-vaxxers Right Said Fred. Too sexy for their car? Maybe they could try cycling to the shops instead.

  • Oliver Wainwright is the Guardian’s architecture and design critic

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