Our “15-minute city” cynics

UK motorists resist the popular climate-saving initiative

The 15-minute city model was not new when, in 2016, it was proposed as a significant way to help save the planet from the devastating effects of climate change. Before the arrival of motor vehicles, cities around the globe necessarily comprised multiple districts where people could access amenities by travelling for no more than fifteen minutes on foot or by bike. So when it was suggested that modern urban planning policies could follow suit and in the process help reduce carbon emissions from cars and other vehicles, many cities enthusiastically embraced the idea. From Barcelona to Buenos Aires, from Melbourne to Milan and from Portland to Paris, city leaders began developing a range of 15-minute city neighbourhoods in the hope of inspiring local governments around the world to come up with schemes of their own. Parisians, under the stewardship of their mayor Anne Hidalgo, and Carlos Moreno, the Sorbonne university professor who originated the concept, now inhabit fifty 15-minute city arrondissements. More will follow. They are generally celebrated as prosperous and pleasurable to live in, with new green spaces that are part of an urban plan committed to climate change awareness. In the UK, by contrast, the 15-minute city concept has taken a fresh setback amidst conspiracy theories and increasingly vocal opposition. Oxford has removed mention of 15-minute cities from its local plan, claiming the concept has become “too toxic and incendiary”. This follows protests in the city organised by opponents of 15-minute neighbourhoods that incorporate traffic filtering. They claim such schemes have the effect of confining people to their local area. Council officers and local councillors are reported to have been subject to online abuse by protesters. Rishi Sunak has voiced his opposition to the idea, describing it as a “relentless attack” on motorists who “depend on their cars to get to work, take their kids to school, see the doctor,” thus side-stepping the fact that car reliance is precisely what the 15-minute city model aims to tackle. Transport minister Mark Harper went further, calling the concept a “Labour-backed movement” that will “remove your freedom to get from A to B how you want”.

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