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15-minute cities: What they are, and why some people are lashing out against them

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RELATED: How your neighbourhood impacts your health. – Sep 27, 2018

If you’ve spent more than a few minutes on social media recently, chances are you’ve heard debate around the concept of the “15-minute city.”

As governments become increasingly focused on climate change and sustainability, many urban planners are looking for ways to help city dwellers become less dependent on cars. One way to do this, they say, is by keeping the essentials for daily life — entertainment, shopping, green space, work and school — close to home.

The term “15-minute city” is not a new one. It was coined back in 2016 by Carlos Moreno, an associate professor at Sorbonne University Business School in Paris, France.

In a 2020 TED Talk, Moreno outlines the idea of the 15-minute city, which boils down to giving area inhabitants access to the essential services they need “to live, learn and thrive within their immediate vicinity.”

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Ideally, residents should be able to walk or bike to work, groceries, health care and more, in approximately a quarter of an hour, he says.

In the video, Moreno argues that humans’ sense of time has become “warped” due to urban sprawl, and we now accept long commutes of car-centric cities as normal.

In 2021, Moreno won the Obel Award for developing the concept.

“We need to broaden our focus to include different densities and territories: from the small cities to the mid-sized cities and even to the rural territories,” he said at the time.

“We need to keep the concept of the 15-minute city but imagine new ways to implement its principle of proximity in other densities.”

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And while the concept has been picked up by a bunch of cities — Paris adopted the concept in 2020 and a group of cities in the U.K. will begin piloting their own plans next year — it’s Edmonton’s recent interest that’s been causing a bunch of hullabaloo in Canada.

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has been peddling his city’s proposal to create its own “15-minute districts” by, in his words, “widening sidewalks or multi-use trails that encourage walking, or sustainable infrastructure in communities where they make sense,” reports the Western Standard.

But as the idea picks up steam in Canada, it’s also sparked controversy. Mildly concerned citizens argue that 15-minute cities will increase isolation, while more zealous dissenters have imagined scenarios were citizen movement is monitored through surveillance or that people are fined for leaving their neighbourhoods.

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While these ideas, which have thoroughly been debunked as conspiracy theories, have gained traction overseas, Edmonton city council is the latest subject of the backlash. Despite never saying that they plan to limit travel between neighbourhoods, and clarifying that they’re simply interested in creating more walkable neighbourhoods, it hasn’t stopped people from protesting the idea and spreading misinformation.

In December, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson retweeted a tweet containing false information about 15-minute cities.

“The idea that neighborhoods should be walkable is lovely. The idea that idiot tyrannical bureaucrats can decide by fiat where you’re ‘allowed’ to drive is perhaps the worst imaginable perversion of that idea–and, make no mistake, it’s part of a well-documented plan,” Peterson wrote.

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Calgary businessman and philanthropist W. Brett Wilson also drummed up a fair bit of alarm around the topic when he tweeted a map labelled as Edmonton, showing colour-coded neighbourhoods with an overlay text box saying that cars would not be permitted to drive between zones.

However, as many pointed out, the map is not of Edmonton, but rather the town of Canterbury, England, which plans to use the concept to close some roads to car traffic at points in the day to clear up areas of congestion.

The pushback in Edmonton, based mostly on false and made up information, resulted in a group of concerned university students meeting up last Friday to protest the idea of the 15-minute city.

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“Our mayor, Amarjeet Sohi, would like Edmonton to become a 15-minute city, which will be limiting our movement between districts, as they call it. They want us to spend 90 per cent life in this 15-minute area so they can monitor our carbon footprint, also known as our actual footprint,” Alexa Posa, a representative for YegUnited and organizer of the event, told the Western Standard.

A lot of the concern around 15-minute cities, notes Vice magazine, is the fact that the concept has been discussed and promoted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), an organization already at the centre of a bunch of COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

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While the WEF has peddled its “Great Reset” plan as a rapid post-pandemic overhaul of business models, economic systems and societies, conspiracy theorists have glommed onto the plan’s title, baselessly arguing that COVID-19 was created in a lab and unleashed on the world by leaders who want to take over the global economy. Essentially, they argue, it’s a one-way path to big-government socialism.

It appears that those sharing mistruths about what a 15-minute city could look like in Canada are taking prompts from across the pond. When Oxford City Council in the U.K. revealed last year its intention to introduce the concept, in an effort to cut down on traffic in the city’s centre at certain times of the day, they proposed ideas that could discourage people from driving outside their designated district. Vehicle monitoring cameras designed to recognize licence plates would enforce compliance, they said, as well as having people apply for permits to travel into other neighbourhoods.

Really, though, no Canadian plans for a 15-minute city have come even close to suggesting that level of monitoring, so far.

“It is not about restricting movement, monitoring people or tracking an individual’s carbon emissions,” Edmonton’s District Planning website clearly states. Rather, it “is about changing the way Edmonton plans and supports development and growth and moves us closer to our vision for a more connected, prosperous, healthy and climate-resilient city.”

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