Jack Brown: Conspiracy theories about “15-minute cities” are false. But advocates should explain the concept better

Jack Brown: Conspiracy theories about “15-minute cities” are false. But advocates should explain the concept better

Has there ever been as great a mismatch between a concept and the conspiracy theories it has attracted than that consuming the “15-minute city”? How this extremely benign, rather geeky urban planning objective has become the subject of international conspiracy theories and mentioned in the House of Commons by a Conservative MP who should know better is both fascinating and worrying. “Urbanists” and local policy-makers across the land may feel a little depressed and powerless to stop such madness. I share this feeling. But it has also sparked some thoughts about how these types of idea are communicated.

First, the “15-minute city” itself. The concept is most associated with Professor Carlos Moreno, who coined the phrase and helped it find its way into Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo’s 2020 election manifesto. The idea has since travelled around the world and arrived in London. Newham Council says its plans for “15-minute neighbourhoods” aim to “create healthier and happier communities around our high streets, where people in Newham can access all the basic, day-to-day needs within a 15-minute walk or cycle from their home”. Other boroughs, including Westminster, have similar plans and objectives, even if they avoid the phrase itself. My home borough of Waltham Forest has also made “15-minute neighbourhoods” a priority.

 The theory goes something like this: a well-planned neighbourhood should provide its residents with essential services within walking distance; this would be extremely convenient for people as well as reducing the congestion and pollution associated with driving and encouraging more walking and cycling instead, which are good for public health and wellbeing; you might even help build stronger communities along the way. What’s not to like about that?

“Hold our beer”, say the online conspiracy theorists. What if this was actually a plan to forcibly prevent residents from leaving their “15-minute city” in an effort to control them – just like during the pandemic? Somewhere along the line, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) have become intertwined with all this too. Suddenly, they and the 15-minute city idea have been deemed part of a global conspiracy to control and constrain citizens. Small steps to limit motor vehicle travel, it is proclaimed, are part of a journey towards total lockdown.

Such claims are fundamentally, clearly and provably not true. Listen to softly-spoken Moreno describe his idea. It seeks to provide human scale and community within the growing cities of today. It is, in fact, almost a direct pushback against what the professor perceives to be the inhuman scale of modern life – the very opposite of all-controlling government. So the conspiracy theory is plainly incorrect, rooted in a basic misunderstanding at best. But I wonder if there is a lesson here for policy-makers, particularly at a local level.

Urbanists can often be guilty of using jargon, as is common in all professions. Theirs can be an insular world. The more local the level of government, the more obscure the terminology tends to be. And local government does not necessarily have armies of communications and public relations experts to workshop and help present new policies. I imagine that part of the reason why the idea of 15-minute cities or neighbourhoods has fallen foul of the conspiracy theorists is that many people who find it mentioned online are hearing about it for the first time. If properly explained, I doubt many would have an issue with it.

Debates around LTNs might be slightly different. Studies have been published suggesting they reduce traffic congestion overall, but the evidence is mixed. In some (though not all) cases, those living near the boundary of an LTN may find they are living in High Traffic Neighbourhoods, at least for a while.

LTNs also ultimately entail telling people that they can’t do something – drive a motor vehicle – where they used to be able to. There is an element of government control here. It is a reasonable, limited control of the same kind that tells us we can’t drive into lakes or other people’s living rooms. But it is still government control. That’s why the thinking behind the policy must be effectively explained.

I can’t help but wonder if the current arguments about the even more controversial topic of Sadiq Khan’s proposed further expansion of London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone would be less polarised if “the ULEZ” as it is known had a name that actually explained itself. I found Nick Bowes’s recent tweet about the history of the central London congestion charge, which has been going for 20 years, fascinating. In the lead-up to its launch in 2003, the name for the policy was hotly discussed and thought extremely important. Explicitly designed to reduce congestion, the name “congestion charge” is pure Ronseal – it does exactly what it says on the tin. Critics could claim that reducing congestion wasn’t the real motivation, of course. But at least the name set the starting point for debate.

It can sometimes feel as though government and the governed are speaking different languages. I support ULEZ expansion, but can also understand the strength of feeling about the issue. Might those affected have been more understanding of a “clean air charge” or a “pollution charge”? I accept that there are plenty of other, more significant issues at play here – money and politics could matter more than language. But might it have helped?

We could surely do better. I work at King’s College London, part of a university now called an “anchor institution” in a neighbourhood divided into several “business improvement districts” (BIDs). Plenty of my colleagues don’t recognise those terms. Both originated overseas, but we are perfectly capable of generating our own confusion. How many different definitions of “affordable housing” are there now? Does anyone ever plan to “active travel” to the shops or use “micromobility” modes? And while we’re on the subject, who on earth – if anyone – is actually responsible for the Metropolitan Police?

 To be as clear as I possibly can, I do not blame anyone but the online conspiracy theorists – and any MP who is unwilling to do even the most basic research to debunk them – for the current “15-minute cities will kill us all” nonsense. And I accept that, in most of these cases, language is only part of a much bigger picture. But it does make me wonder if we could do better.

As the devolution agenda progresses and politicians endorse the benefits of decisions being taken closer to the places they affect, we need to think about how those policies and decisions are best communicated. What would be the point of replacing a centralised system which leaves people feeling powerless and distant from decision-making with a more localised one that does the same?

Jack Brown is a lecturer in London studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem.

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Categories: Comment


  1. Philip Virgo says:

    Good article. 25 years ago I moved next door to what was then a vibrant high street, sustained by the “urban village” of those living within a one mile (roughly 15 minutes) radius. It is now a choking jam of traffic channelled through it by surrounding LTNs with escape impossible other than on foot, unless you are fit and able to use a bicycle, scooter or moped. Changing the rhetoric is not enough. The concept needs to be embedded in the integrated transport policy that the GLA (including TfL) has never had.

    1. JP says:

      Whilst I generally enjoy the latest conspiracy theories because they are often crackpot, they’re also good at making you question what you think you know.
      For those who say that the 15 minute city is on the way, I’d point them to the fact that they’re already here in part in London.

      If you own a car, you’ll have a parking permit. Whilst these obviously only work in your home council area, unbelievably, all boroughs but RBK&C further restrict where you can park to a tiny number of streets or even area just by your house.

      No going shopping in the car for those heavy loads. You will stay where you are and drag that IKEA box back home on the bus!

  2. Paul says:

    A particular flash point for the current fuss seems to have been the announcement of plans for essentially an LTN scheme in Oxford, widely reported as “dividing the city into 15 minute neighbourhoods”. That might just have been journalists confusing two different initiatives, and the details of the scheme were confusingly reported too, but it was easy to take from those reports the idea that the filters were somehow intended to *create* ’15 minute neighbourhoods’ (which is, of course, impossible).

  3. Jack Brown has touched on the exposed tip of a very big iceberg.

    The loss of any coherent idea of ‘the city’ and its replacement with unrelated solutions to often very precise problems which are then individually labelled mostly to sell the idea of some sort of achievemnent, is very rapidly creating a chaotic dystopian world. Yes, language is used to sell not explain or clarify. Problems created by the answers to other problems are ignored, I’ll offer one simple example:

    The dropped kerb, presented as freedom for the disabled to cross the road without negotiating the kerb. Yes but then pedestrians and wheel chair users alike passing along the pavements are presented with a series of dangerous destabilising waves. One answer creates another even more dangerous situation. And what are LTNs except gated communities by another name, but without a gate or any clue that one is entering a closed area – no signs to explain, nothing.

    So how does one navigate the city when it’s like a maze? How do we distinguish the visual signals of surface and kerbs which says ‘a road ahead’ from the contradictory sign on a pole which appears out of nowhere to say, no entry? And do we have time and place to stop, get out of a car to read and digest all that coded ‘information? No of course not.

    Ray Attfield ex director of Urban Architecture Research.

  4. Cait says:

    I see the damage that the conspiracy theory mill is doing online, particularly on Nextdoor.com, which is a useful bellweather for understanding what the ground level criticism is of both LTN’s and ULEZ (not to mention a very unhealthy dose of vitriolic ‘anti anything’ with regard to the current Mayor). It is, rare to find anything like the above, which is a confident debunkink of conspiracy, that also comes from a not overtly ‘pro’ perspective. I think it’s the blundering on, without confidently addressing points raised by conspiracy nuts that helps a particularly unhealthy us/them attitude, where (I kid you not) Mr Khan is in a global socialist cabal with the current govt to force “poor people” (us) in to what are essentially prison camps, run by the dark state/liars/thieves/incompetent politicians who were elected via fraud (them)…
    It would be laughable, if it didn’t feel so disturbing that such ideas promote what could become almost terrorist actions by the most gullible. Traffic camera as having their wires cut all over London by crowing anti-ULEZ campaigners, but how long is it before more sinister and dangerous activities take place, because those who see themselves as disenfranchised and ignored (many of whom assume a sense of superiority over more recent migrants in to London) genuinely believe bizarre and ludicrous theories spread in a vacuum, given that there is little to no effort taken to gently but thoroughly debunk and engage?

  5. Theresa says:

    “Jack’s research interests include the history of London, the capital’s governance and politics, urban regeneration and British government in general.”

    Low traffic neighbourhoods aside maybe we should be discussing other smart city/digital ideas in the pipeline.
    Fourth Industrial Revolution and digital empire building?
    The conspiracy theories may be detracting for the need for further valid research, dig deeper around the alleged corporate/WEF (?) takeover of the UN. Discussing the pros and cons of WEF’s strategic intelligence is important. Discussing pro innovation regulation and precautionary regulation is important.
    Further food for thought:

    Interesting to see the Jordan Peterson hyperlink in the article. Jordan Peterson and ARC, another can of worms.

  6. Sean O'Connor says:

    There are two reasonable things that the ‘conspiracy theorists’ can point to.

    Firstly, there have been many,mostly progressive policies where, from the conservative point of view, large parts of the policy were first denied, then imposed, and only then defended.

    Consider many of the debates around sexuality and transgenderism; there’s no denying that things moved on from ‘we just want to get married’, without a lot of public debate or even legislation, whether you like those changes or not.

    Secondly, the lockdowns showed that reasonable objections to government controls can and will be falsely labelled conspiracy theories. Lab leaks in Wuhan, predictions that lockdowns would not just be a few weeks, that unprecedented states of emergency would be extended, etc.

    So when it comes to 15 minute villages, why would anyone expect mere denials of ill intent and labelling things conspiracy theories satisfy the critics? As far as they’re concerned, progressive assurances are worth nothing.

    Maybe instead of just insulting them and arguing with them, meaningful legal safeguards should be put in place. Legislate that 15 minute villages CAN’T metamorphosise into lockdowns. Guarantee freedom of mobility, both in general, and specifically on the urban level. You want trust?
    Earn it.
    Go further than they are asking, even. Show that you have nothing to hide.

    Calling safeguards unnecessary can and will be interpreted as a marker of bad faith, as will all the ‘conspiracy theory’ insults, with their implied threat of deplatforming.

    Earn their trust. Give them meaningful assurances.

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