Analysis | No, 15-Minute Cities Aren’t a Threat to Civil Liberties

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By Amit


Congratulations to everyone who had “emergence of an urban-planning alt-right conspiracy theory” on their 2023 bingo card.

It may be tempting to dismiss the controversy over 15-minute cities as the ravings of a minority, albeit a very vocal one, but the hysteria ultimately tells us a lot about the climate fight and the speed bumps we’ll hit along the way.

The 15-minute city is a neighborhood-planning principle in which everything people need for day-to-day life — green space, schools, doctors, grocery stores, places of worship — is available within a short walk or cycle from home. Reducing the need for car journeys can cut carbon emissions, reduce air and noise pollution, and improve people’s health. It’s really quite wholesome, rooted in making humans and the planet happier.

Lots of people already live in what could be described as a 15-minute city (or 20-minute neighborhood, a similar concept), according to Alex Nurse, a lecturer in urban planning at the University of Liverpool. His analysis of Liverpool, for example, showed that about 21% of residents lived in a 20-minute neighborhood. In a dense city like London, that percentage is probably even higher. The issue is ensuring that everyone across a city has equal access to equally good services. It’s a huge challenge: How do you meet everyone’s needs? What about older or less mobile folk? For these reasons, Nurse suggests that 15-minute cities will always be more of a guiding principle than an enforceable standard.

So it’s a little jarring to see a fairly mundane and harmless idea described as “deeply illiberal” or a “socialist concept” that threatens our personal freedoms. How did that happen?

Sander van der Linden, author of Foolproof: Why We Fall for Misinformation and How to Build Immunity, explains that the controversy isn’t motivated by specific policy details, but a broader narrative — common to many conspiracy theories — in which people believe a higher power is taking control away from them.

It’s not too hard to sketch out the ingredients for this particular recipe. Mix high levels of distrust in governments and institutions with pandemic lockdowns, an underlying conspiracy theory about a “new world order” and an urban planning concept backed by an international network of mayors, and garnish with a toxic car culture. Marinate on the internet, and voila! You now have a lot of people primed to believe that local councils are going to imprison them in 15-minute zones.

So last year, when the English cities of Oxford and Canterbury proposed new traffic filtering schemes aimed at reducing air pollution and making bus routes faster, unfounded fears about climate lockdowns were already brewing. These plans aren’t strictly to do with 15-minute cities at all; but in the fuzzy world of conspiracy mongering, the ideas have been conflated with other traffic-calming initiatives such as Low Traffic Neighborhoods and the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone expansion in London.

The controversy spread like crazy after controversial Canadian academic Jordan Peterson tweeted a thread about the Oxford scheme at the end of December, ominously calling it “part of a well-documented plan.” What that plan is went unspecified, but subsequent viral TikToks went further, referring to plans in Canada and the UK. One British TikTokker claimed, falsely, that you’d need a permit to leave your zone. Other high-profile right-wing figures also got involved, including Nigel Farage, Katie Hopkins and Lawrence Fox. On Feb. 9, the conspiracy even made it into the House of Commons when Conservative MP Nick Fletcher asked for a “debate on the international socialist concept.”

Fletcher’s request was met by giggles in parliament, but there are reasons to take this seriously. For starters, the spread of misinformation has sown genuine fear and confusion among residents.

The involvement of Farage and other alt-right influencers is also worrying. Though he’s always been on the edge of mainstream politics, Farage fundamentally changed the political landscape of Britain by cleverly exploiting pre-existing vulnerabilities. After being instrumental in getting Brexit to happen, he’s now got net zero in his sights.

The UK’s climate policies enjoy plenty of public support, but the controversy about 15-minute cities shows that’s not to be taken for granted. And if we’re going to be successful in halting climate change, we need everyone on side.

Reaching net zero will require a lot of upheaval, and people are already naturally resistant to change. Culture wars have already flared up around other mundane topics such as getting rid of gas hobs, cyclists and veganism. People don’t like being told to change their lifestyle, and that’s ultimately at the heart of the recent hysteria: Drivers unhappy at the realization motoring isn’t going to be so easy. It’s going to get harder to promote climate-friendly switches if other climate conspiracies spring up – what if there’s a brouhaha about heat pumps?

Nurse doesn’t think that this 15-minute city hysteria will prevent change — there’s enough momentum toward less car-centric planning and, importantly, it’s popular with residents. In a Sustrans survey, more than half of people want to see more government spending on walking, cycling and public transport while only a third want to see more money spent on driving. But it makes innovating harder if planners have to debunk conspiracy theories every time they announce a new cycle lane.

Van der Linden suggests that the best way to fight these conspiracy theories is to halt them before they exist, using a technique called “pre-bunking.” That might mean preempting specific misinterpretations, or training people on manipulation techniques used in conspiracy theories, such as cherry-picking and false dilemmas. This is proven to be effective – an experiment showed that watching a short video on typical manipulation techniques in the ad slot on YouTube improved people’s ability to spot misinformation, and boosted their confidence in being able to do so again. People don’t like being manipulated, especially those who are more prone to believe in conspiracy theories. Van der Linden likened it to jiu-jitsu: “You use the weight of their own arguments against them.”

In the fight against climate change, we’ll come up against a lot of enemies — including conspiracy theorists. We’d do well to anticipate their meddling, so good work isn’t halted by bad actors.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Hydrogen Is Not the Answer for Heating Our Homes: Lara Williams

• A Zombie Climate Technology Gets a Lifeline: David Fickling

• EV Battery Recycling Boom Has Arrived Too Soon: Adam Minter

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change.

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