Ah, the 15-minute city! An exciting new urban planning concept that has been gaining momentum in recent years. This idea is simple, yet powerful: create neighborhoods or districts where residents can access all of their daily needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their home. This includes access to shopping, healthcare, education, and entertainment. The ultimate goal of the 15-minute city concept is to reduce reliance on cars and other forms of transportation, decrease traffic congestion, reduce pollution, fight climate change, and improve the overall quality of life for residents.
Sounds awesome, right?
We can trace the origin of this concept back to Paris, France, back in 2015, where Mayor Anne Hidalgo has been a leading advocate for the idea. Back then, Hidalgo launched a plan called "Reinventing Paris," which called for, among other interesting ideas, the creation of a series of "eco-neighborhoods" that would prioritize pedestrian and bicycle traffic and offer a full range of services within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from residents' homes.
Without taking anything away from Anne Hidalgo, the concept has been around for a long, long time. It may seem as though cars have been around forever, but you don't have to go too far back in time to find cities that weren't built around the automobile. Even today, there are places where bikes and public transportation are the norm vs driving around in a personal automobile. Some names that come to mind include (not surprisingly) Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen, Singapore, and Amsterdam; all of these are places that successfully answer the question, "do we really need to drive everywhere?"
Post "Reinventing Paris", the idea of the 15-minute city gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic as people sought more local and resilient lifestyles. Some cities that have adopted or experimented with the concept include Paris, Melbourne, Portland, Barcelona, Milan, Bogota, and Edmonton.
As you might expect, not everyone is enthusiastic about the whole 15 minute city concept. Some critics argue that it is unrealistic, elitist, impractical, or even dangerous. And then, of course, we have the conspiracy theorists who see a hidden agenda. If there are always so many hidden agendas, how is it that so many people see them all the time? Isn't that kind of the opposite of hidden? I digress...
The classic starting point for any good conspiracy theory is a plan to control and manipulate the population, and this one is buried deep within the 15-minute city proposals. Some believe that the concept is part of a globalist agenda to eliminate private car ownership and force people to rely on public transportation or shared mobility services. Next step, prisons, concentration camps, and even the freaking Hunger Games!
One of these conspiracy theories claims that the15-minutee city concept is part of a global plot by the United Nations to impose a totalitarian regime under its Agenda 21 program (a non-binding plan to foster sustainable development). According to this theory, the UN wants to force people into high-density urban areas where they will be controlled by smart technology and surveillance, while losing their property rights and freedoms. Tech companies would then collect even more data on people's daily lives, using sensors and other technology in public spaces to monitor people's movements and behaviors. Next step, the Hunger Games!
But let's be clear, these conspiracy theories are not based on any concrete evidence and, not surprisingly, are not taken seriously by urban planners or policymakers. Maybe, they should pay attention. Back in April, in Essex Country, Ontario, of all places, hundreds of protestors filed into what should have been a boring meeting of the planning council, fueled by their belief that the council was working on implementing a new totalitarian regime (in Essex County?) based on the 15-minute city concept. The meeting had to be cut short while the chair tried to talk down the protestors by promising that this meeting had nothing to do with 15-minute cities.
When a mob gathers for a planning council meeting in Essex County, Ontario, there's something going on, even if it's driven by QAnon-like hysteria. At the end of 2021, the whole of Essex County had a population just short of 423,000. The town of Essex had just over 21,000.
Another conspiracy theory suggests that the 15-minute city concept is a way for governments to implement “the Great Reset”, a term coined by the World Economic Forum to describe its vision for a post-pandemic world that prioritizes sustainability and inclusivity. According to this theory, governments wanted to use COVID-19 as an excuse to destroy capitalism and democracy, creating a socialist world order where people will be dependent on universal basic income (UBI) and digital currencies, while inexorably being robbed of their individuality and sovereignty. Next step, the Hunger Games!
It's all very dramatic!
Like all good conspiracy theories, they're based on misinformation, fearmongering, cherry-picking facts, or taking them out of context. They're ignoring or distorting the evidence and benefits of the concept while exaggerating or fabricating its risks and drawbacks. I mean, who falls for that kind of crap? Oh, right. Lots of people. Moving on...
Conspiracy theories like these are tailor-made to appeal to people who are distrustful of authority figures and institutions, or who feel threatened by change. Realistically speaking, that's most of us, at least some of the time.
To be fair, the 15-minute city concept is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every urban challenge, even if it doesn't lead to the Hunger Games. It requires careful planning, consultation, adaptation, evaluation, innovation, and probably lots of other words that end in "ion". It also faces many barriers such as zoning regulations, infrastructure gaps, funding constraints, political opposition, cultural resistance, or social inequalities.
But, and here's the thing, the 15-minute city concept also offers many opportunities for creating more livable, walkable, bikeable, healthy, resilient, and sustainable cities for everyone. It invites us to rethink our relationship with our neighbourhoods, and how we can shape them for the better. Sometimes, people really are trying to make things better and not everything is a canary in a coal mine exposing the inner workings of a secret international cabal of Illuminati.
Sometimes, bike lanes are there simply to make it easier to get around on bikes.
Please take a moment (it doesn't have to be 15 minutes) to leave your comment.