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March 7, 2023

A Stalinist plot?

A recent planning concept that seems to have caught the attention of planners and communities alike is the 20 minute neighbourhood or variations on that theme – 15 minute cities etc. Although somewhat problematic when trying to tie down the practicalities of what a 20 minute neighbourhood should look like, the principle of being able to walk or cycle rather than drive seemed broadly attractive. That is until a more sinister interpretation of the idea began to surface. Was this just a Stalinist plot to control the movements of local residents? A 2000 strong demonstration in Oxford clearly thought so.

Jack Marley, Environment commissioning editor, The Conversation

Fifteen-minute cities were originally proposed to cut the amount of time people have to spend in their cars to reach local amenities. This once-mundane town planning concept is now so provocative that people have demanded its abolition in street protests, with one MP describing it as “an international socialist concept … [that will] cost us our freedom”. 

What’s the truth behind 15-minute cities, and what does it have to do with climate change?

You’re reading the Imagine newsletter – a weekly synthesis of academic insight on solutions to climate change, brought to you by The Conversation. I’m Jack Marley, energy and environment editor. This week, we’re debunking a conspiracy theory and assessing the damage of urban sprawl to daily life.

“The 15-minute city itself is a simple idea. If you live in one, it means that everything you need to go about your daily life – school, doctors, shops and so on – is located no more than a 15-minute walk from your house.” So say Alex Nurse, Alessia Calafiore and Richard J. Dunning, town planning academics at the Universities of Liverpool and Edinburgh. 

Oxford’s city council has been trialling traffic filters and restrictions on car travel in residential areas to ease congestion, while encouraging people to walk or cycle. The authority’s plans for 15-minute neighbourhoods were the target of protesters in 2,000-strong demonstrations last month. So why has the idea provoked so much ire? 

The brainchild of French-Colombian urbanist Carlos Moreno, 15-minute cities gained international prominence when mayor Anne Hidalgo pledged to turn Paris into one after being reelected in 2020. Nurse, Calafiore and Dunning say that COVID-19 made the case for 15-minute cities more widely, as lockdowns proved the importance of well-served neighbourhoods.

“Yet this connection to how our towns and cities are changing in the wake of COVID is also probably the reason that 15-minute cities are now a hot-topic in the conspiracy world,” the team say. Among other things, the 15-minute city concept has been characterised as a “Stalinist” plot to prevent people straying too far away from where they live.

Moreno’s actual intention was to design neighbourhoods with high-quality services nearby, so that travelling by foot, bike, wheelchair, bus or train makes sense for most journeys and the car isn’t the inevitable choice.

What difference might a shift away from car-dependent lifestyles make for the climate? Christian Brand is an associate professor of transport at Oxford University who has studied this question in depth.

“The emission savings from replacing all internal combustion engine [cars] with zero-carbon alternatives will not feed in fast enough to make the necessary difference in the time we can spare: the next five years,” he says.

“One way to reduce transport emissions relatively quickly, and potentially globally, is to swap car [journeys] for cycling, e-biking and walking – active travel, as it’s called.”

Brand asked 4,000 people living in London, Antwerp, Barcelona, Vienna, Orebro, Rome and Zurich to keep diary entries of their journeys. After sifting through 10,000 entries collected over two years, he found that people who cycled daily had 84% lower carbon emissions from all their daily travel than those who didn’t.

“We also estimate that urban residents who switched from driving to cycling for just one trip per day reduced their carbon footprint by about half a tonne of CO₂ over the course of a year, saving the equivalent emissions of a one-way flight from London to New York,” Brand says. 

“If just one in five urban residents permanently changed their travel behaviour in this way over the next few years, we estimate it would cut emissions from all car travel in Europe by about 8%.”

Reducing car-dependency also has health benefits according to Tolullah Oni and Rizka Maulida, epidemiologists at the University of Cambridge.

“Research has shown, for instance, that 20% of all deaths could be prevented if cities were designed to meet the recommendations for physical activity, air pollution, noise, heat and green space,” the pair say.

And 15-minute cities are just one way of achieving this. Another idea is to create compact cities with high-density housing, direct public transport and abundant green spaces. There are also “superblock cities”, where residential blocks are bounded by roads in which pedestrians and cyclists have priority. “In Barcelona, urban planning in this way is estimated to prevent almost 700 premature deaths every year from air pollution, road traffic noise and heat,” say Oni and Maulida.

There are reasons to doubt concepts like the 15-minute city, the pair stress. For instance, a failure to appreciate how urban centres were segregated along racial lines in places like South Africa could mean such ideas for reforming neighbourhoods exacerbate existing inequalities.

But the problem the concept identifies is a real one. Sales of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) continue to rise worldwide, bringing CO₂ emissions from these cars alone to nearly 1 billion tonnes, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency. An effective climate strategy must involve making such travel choices less attractive. For that to happen, car-free lifestyles must be viable – and that’s something 15-minute cities can help with.