How ’15 minute cities’ became an international conspiracy theory


Duncan Enright never imagined he would receive death threats over a plan to reduce the city’s traffic.

But that’s exactly what happened to the local politician in the UK, who found himself vilified with abusive messages on social media and via email over his involvement in a proposed traffic filtering trial. in the city of Oxford.

The plan, designed to reduce the use of snarled up roads during peak traffic times, would require residents to obtain permits to drive through the filters, implemented by cameras, on six main roads.

Enright’s allegations were wild and varied, and mostly from people who had nothing to do with Oxford, he said. Many were from outside the UK.

They claimed he was trying to confine people to their neighborhoods and accused him of being part of a nefarious international conspiracy to control the movement of people in the name of climate action.

“It was pretty scary,” Enright told CNN, “I’ve never had anything like that before in many years in local government.”

Enright was swept up in a conspiracy theory, rapidly advancing around the world, that rebranded plans to reduce traffic, reduce air pollution and increase walking and cycling in cities as “climate greens”.

Oxford has become a flashpoint, in part, because its traffic screening plan is combined with a separate proposal in the city to create “15-minute cities”, the main focus of conspiracy theorists.

Type “15-minute cities” into social media and be prepared for barrages of claims that will make the idea usher in dystopiapeople shall be fined to leave his “area” or that he is “urban incarceration.”

The concept is pretty simple, though: Everything you need should be within a 15-minute walk or bike ride of your home, from healthcare and education to grocery stores and green spaces.

The aim is to make cities more liveable and connected, with less use of private cars – meaning cleaner air, greener streets and lower levels of planet-warming pollution. Around a fifth of human warming pollution in the world comes from transport, with passenger cars accounting for more than 40% of this.

Carlos Moreno, a professor at Sorbonne University in France, is credited with first coining the term 15-minute cities, but the broad concept is not new.

“This idea takes inspiration from many urbanists, starting from Jane Jacobs, who for decades has been advocating dense, vibrant, and therefore more walkable urban environments,” Alessia Calafiore, Lecturer in Urban Data Science and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh. .

It has achieved international traction. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo based her 2020 re-election campaign, in part, on a plan to create 15-minute cities. The city banned cars from parts of the Seine, added hundreds of miles of bike lanes and created mini parks.

Ottawa has proposed 15-minute neighborhoods, Melbourne in Australia plans to adopt 20-minute neighborhoods and Barcelona, ​​Spain, is implementing a car-free “superblocks” strategy.

People walk on the Champs-Elysées during a car-free day in central Paris.

Even some US cities have embraced the idea. Portland introduced 20-minute neighborhoods more than a decade ago, and O’Fallon, Illinois, recently published a strategy to “grow from a typical suburban community to one with everything you need within 15 minutes.”

Pandemic lockdowns helped increase the popularity of the concept, as people, confined to their neighborhoods, were forced to reassess their local area.

“We’ve become more aware of the importance of living in well-served areas,” Calafiore said.

But now, just mentioning cities 15 minutes online will have many angry commenters.

“That planning has become a conspiracy theory in 2023, who would have thought?” asked Alex Nurse, a lecturer in Geography and Planning at the University of Liverpool, who was inundated with messages after his recent article about 15-minute cities in the Conversation.

“My inbox died,” he told CNN.

So how did this modest strategy become the flashpoint for a spiraling climate conspiracy theory?

For years, some activists within the fossil fuel industry have tried to defuse climate action by rebranding it as “climate change,” said Jennie King, head of Climate and Policy Research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a focused think tank. on disinformation and extremism.

Before 2020, however, they struggled to gain traction, she told CNN.

That changed with the pandemic.

A series of media articles arguing that we should rebuild a post-Covid world that could contain the drops in planet-warming pollution were seized upon to convey a narrative claiming that governments were trying to limit freedoms in the name of climate action .

The World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset” initiative, billed as an effort to tackle inequality and the climate crisis after the panel, fanned the flames.

The term “climate greening” began to be thrown around, pushed by right-wing think tanks and climate-skeptic media figures. From there it filtered down to more extreme conspiracy communities, King said, including groups affiliated with QAnon and anti-vaccination groups.

Fox News picked it up, along with high profile climate deniers.

Ordinary people were also swept away. The pandemic has left millions with real trauma and real concern about government overreach, King said. “And that’s armed with a huge ecosystem of bad actors.”

The idea of ​​15-minute cities fits neatly into the “climate greening” conspiracy theory, in part because it’s easy to spin that way.

“The conspiracy theorists are right that you can’t make a real city out of self-contained enclaves – those would just be villages,” Carlo Ratti, architect, engineer, and Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the MIT Senseable City Lab, said CNN.

But he misunderstands the idea, he said. “It gives people the freedom to live locally, but it doesn’t force them to do so.”

But “disinformation is opportunism,” especially when it comes to climate, King said. Anything can become a lightning rod of manufactured controversy and when an issue starts to gain attention, many different actors “step into the space,” she said.

In December, Canadian clinical psychologist and climate skeptic Jordan Peterson posted on tweet attacking cities 15 minutes: “The idea that neighborhoods should be walkable is great. The idea that idiot tyrannical bureaucrats can decide by fiat where you are ‘allowed’ to drive is perhaps the worst distraction of that idea.”

In early February, UK politician Nick Fletcher raised the conspiracy in Parliament, calling 15-minute cities an “international socialist concept” and claiming they will “protect us from our personal freedom”.

And last weekend, online theories spilled over into real-world protests, as thousands of people, many from outside the area, took to the streets of Oxford to protest traffic screening and the city’s 15-minute proposals.

A woman holds a placard protesting 15 minute cities in Oxford, England on February 18, 2023.

There are, of course, many criticisms of 15-minute cities, including breaking their potential as cities, exacerbating existing inequalities between richer and poorer areas.

And Enright, in Oxfordshire, admitted that local people have legitimate concerns about the traffic screening plan. They will continue to consult, he said.

But this successful spin on a massive conspiracy theory, by mistaking the minds of 15-minute cities, has long-term, worrying implications for climate action, King said.

It could be very difficult for governments, both local and national, to implement any policies even related to the climate crisis, she warned. “They are the most vulnerable people right now to this huge rise in hostility and public mobilization.”

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