How “15-minute cities” became a conspiracy theory


(CNN) — Duncan Enright never imagined he would receive death threats over a plan to reduce traffic in the city.

But that’s exactly what happened to the local politician in the UK, who was inundated with abusive messages on social media and by email about his involvement in a test to filter traffic proposal in the city of Oxford.

The plan, designed to reduce the use of the city’s congested roads during peak traffic hours, would require residents to obtain permits to drive through camera-monitored filters on six key highways.

The accusations leveled at Enright were wild and varied, and mostly from people with no connection to Oxford, he said. Many were from outside the UK.

They claimed that he wanted to confine people to their neighborhoods and accused him of being part of an evil international plot to control the movement of people in the name of climate action.

“It was pretty alarming,” Enright told CNN, “I’ve really never had anything like this before in my many years in local government.”

Enright had been drawn into a conspiracy theory, rapidly gaining pace around the world, that has rebranded plans to reduce traffic, reduce air pollution, and increase walking and biking in cities. as “weather lockdowns”.

Oxford became a flashpoint, in part, because its plan to filter traffic was merged with a different proposal in the city to create “15-minute cities,” the main focus of conspiracy theorists’ ire.

What are 15 minute cities?

Type “15 minute cities” on social media and prepare for a barrage of claims that the idea will give way to dystopia, people will be fined for leaving their “district” or is it “urban incarceration”.

However, the concept is quite simple: everything you need should be within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from your home, from health care and education to supermarkets and green spaces.

The goal is to make cities more livable and connected, with less private car use, which means cleaner air, greener streets, and lower levels of planet-warming pollution. About a fifth of the global man-made pollution that causes global warming comes from transportationand passenger cars represent more than 40% from this.

Carlos Moreno, a professor at the Sorbonne University in France, is credited with the first reference to the term 15-minute cities, but the broad concept is not new.

“This idea is inspired by many urbanists, starting with Jane Jacobs, who in recent decades have been advocating for compact, lively, and therefore more walkable urban environments,” says Alessia Calafiore, Professor of Urban Data Science and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh.

It has gained strength internationally. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo based her 2020 re-election campaign in part on a plan to create 15-minute cities. The city has banned parts of the Seine from cars, added hundreds of kilometers of bike paths and created mini-parks.

Ottawa proposed neighborhoods of 15 minutesMelbourne in Australia plans to adopt 20 minute neighborhoods and Barcelona, ​​in Spain, has implemented a strategy of car-free “superblocks”.

People walk the Champs Elysees during a car-free day in central Paris. (Credit: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Even some cities in the United States took up the idea. Portland introduced 20-minute neighborhoods over a decade agowhile O’Fallon, Illinois, recently published a strategy to “grow from a typical suburban community to a community with everything you need in 15 minutes.”

The pandemic lockdowns helped boost the popularity of the concept, as people, confined to their neighborhoods, were forced to reassess their local area.

“We have become more aware of how important it is to live in well-served areas,” Calafiore said.

Now, however, the mere mention of 15-minute cities on the internet will bring a host of angry commentators.

“Such planning has become the conspiracy theory of 2023, who would have thought?” asked Alex Nurse, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Liverpool, who was showered with messages after his recent article on 15 minute cities in Conversation.

“My inbox crashed,” he told CNN.

The birth of a conspiracy theory

So how did this rather mundane strategy become a flashpoint for a spiraling weather conspiracy theory?

For years, certain players within the fossil fuel industry have tried to stir up anger about climate action by renaming it “climate tyranny,” said Jennie King, director of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank. experts focused on disinformation and extremism.

However, prior to 2020, they struggled to get traction, he told CNN.

That changed with the pandemic.

A series of articles in the media arguing that we should rebuild a post-Covid world that could sustain drops in planet-warming pollution was seized upon to push a narrative that governments wanted to limit freedoms in the name of climate action. .

The World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset” initiative, heralded as an effort to address inequality and the post-pandemic climate crisis, fanned the flames.

The term “climate lockdown” began making the rounds, pushed by right-wing think tanks and climate-skeptical media figures. From there, it leaked to more extreme conspiracy communities, King said, including QAnon-affiliated groups and anti-vaccine groups.

Fox News took it over, along with high-profile climate deniers.

Common people were also swept away. The pandemic left millions with genuine trauma and real concerns about government overreach, King said. “And that has been put together by a vast ecosystem of disruptive actors.”

Misinformation is opportunistic

The idea of ​​15-minute cities fits perfectly into the “lockdown climate” conspiracy theory, in part because it’s easy to go around in circles like that.

“The conspiracy theorists are right that you can’t make a real city out of autonomous enclaves; those would just be towns,” Carlo Ratti, an architect, engineer and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he runs the MIT Senseable City Lab, told CNN.

But you misunderstand the idea, he said. “It gives people the freedom to live locally, but it doesn’t force them to.”

However, “misinformation is opportunistic,” especially when it comes to the weather, King said. Anything can become a lightning rod for fabricated controversy, and when an issue starts to get attention, a whole host of different players “floods into the space,” she added.

In December, Canadian clinical psychologist and climate skeptic Jordan Peterson published a Tweet attacking 15-minute cities: “The idea that neighborhoods should be walkable is lovely. The idea that idiotic and tyrannical bureaucrats can dictate by decree where it is ‘allowed’ to drive is perhaps the worst imaginable perversion of that idea.”

In early February, British politician Nick Fletcher raised the conspiracy in Parliamentcalled 15-minute cities an “international socialist concept” and stated that it “will cost us our personal freedom”.

And last weekend, internet theories turned into real life protests, when thousands of peopleMany from outside the area took to the streets of Oxford to protest traffic filtering and the city’s 15-minute proposals.

A woman holds a banner at a protest against 15 minute cities in Oxford, England, on February 18, 2023. (Credit: Martin Pope/Getty Images)

Of course, there are many criticisms of 15-minute cities, including their potential to fracture cities, thus increasing existing inequalities between the richest and poorest areas.

And Enright, in Oxfordshire, acknowledged that local people have legitimate concerns about the plan to filter traffic. They will continue to consult, she said.

But this successful twist on a grand conspiracy theory, by confusing the intentions of 15-minute cities, has troubling long-term implications for climate action, King noted.

Governments, both local and national, can find it very difficult to implement any policy that even touches the climate crisis, he warned. “They are the most vulnerable right now to this huge wave of hostility and public mobilization.”


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