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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