A 15-minute neighborhood sounds like something out of a guidebook tour: how to see the highlights of Le Marais in Paris in 15 minutes or less. But it’s the newest flavor in urban planning: a city composed of small districts that include all the key services for residents within a short walk.
Though the concept, dubbed the “15-minute city,” is of recent vintage, it gained traction during the pandemic lockdowns, when advocates observed that the vast reduction in activity created more “human-centric” neighborhoods, with residents exploring their local streets and availing themselves of nearby services that they might once have ignored. “For the first time, people experienced the city without cars, and they understood we can live without cars and it’s better,” enthused David Belliard, deputy mayor of Paris, whose officials have promoted the idea.
Though the concept seems innocuous—who wouldn’t want everything you need nearby?—plans to adopt it have lately ignited street protests, press denunciations, and social-media warfare, especially in European cities. One spark has been a move by the city of Oxford in England to impose traffic restrictions, including closing off some neighborhoods to cars during the day, to encourage more biking and walking. Protesters hit the streets in February to fight the initiative, with signs reading “NO TO 15-MINUTE CITIES” and complaints that the traffic restrictions recalled the lockdowns. Marchers also objected to the traffic cameras being installed to scan license plates to see if a car had entered a no-go area—deeming it a troubling expansion of the surveillance state.
The local protests drew some notable outside reactions. Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson observed that, while walkable neighborhoods were “lovely,” he rejected the idea that “tyrannical bureaucrats” should decide where one should drive. The former head of the U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, called the Oxford plan a preview of “climate change lockdowns.”
Advocates for the Oxford measures defended them as simple efforts to provide people with what they want nearby. One Guardian journalist described the 15-minute city as a “mundane theory of urbanism,” while others in the press were more combative, denouncing the protesters as “conspiracists” and “climate-change deniers.” A few American publications expressed outrage, too. USA Today even performed a “fact check,” quoting the originator of the 15-minute city idea, Sorbonne University professor Carlos Moreno, who insisted that it has nothing to do with climate-change lockdowns.
Reading these accounts, one would think that no one outside of right-wing conspiracy groups would find anything controversial about 15-minute cities. In fact, the idea has been criticized across the political spectrum—from left-leaning observers, who charge that it’s just a form of “champagne socialism,” to academics worried about the privacy issues involved in such micro-control of the design of every neighborhood. Harvard economist and Manhattan Institute senior fellow Edward Glaeser, for instance, describes the 15-minute city as “not really a city at all. It’s an enclave—a ghetto—a subdivision.” He added that the idea is a “dead-end which would stop cities from fulfilling their true roles as engines of opportunity” because in practice, it would undermine one of the chief benefits of urban living: connecting people. Urbanist Alain Bertaud has written that the 15-minute city is an idea of mayors who “pretend that a city is a complex object that must be designed in advance by brilliant specialists. They would then impose their design on the city’s inhabitants who lack vision and genius.” Bertaud notes that the 15-minute city would necessitate direct “government intervention in the job and retail market” to ensure that all services are available locally and to minimize the kind of commuting for work that people in Western societies engage in to expand their employment opportunities.
The winners in this new urbanism scheme, critics argue, would be wealthier neighborhoods, where services already exist because providers, like retailers, value these locations. By the same token, 15-minute cities might further segregate poorer neighborhoods, with commuting restrictions making it harder for people there to get ahead. In a working paper, MIT and Harvard researchers contend that “15-minute cities may . . . exacerbate the social isolation of marginalized communities.” France’s Chroniques d’architecture expresses the same concern, arguing that the urban plan behind the concept amounts to “refusing progress, refusing real living together, refusing sharing, refusing openness, refusing embellishment, refusing consumption.”
Despite the protestations of Moreno, the idea’s originator, 15-minute cities can’t easily be separated from some of the more extreme programs of climate-change activists. The idea’s leading supporter among politicians is Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo. She is the former chair of C40, a group of mayors calling for “urgent action” on climate change that has made the 15-minute city a central goal. The same group also promotes a series of radical actions not far from the charges of the “conspiracists.” Among C40’s objectives is reducing the annual consumption of meat in their cities from 58 kilograms to 16 kilograms per person, slashing dairy consumption by more than 40 percent, limiting the new clothing items people purchase to eight per year, and reducing private ownership of vehicles by at least 20 percent, with an “ambitious” target of eliminating it. The fears of recent European protesters against the 15-minute city don’t seem so far-fetched.
And the concept is already being talked up as a climate solution for the U.S., too. One study ranked cities such as San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston, and Miami as having the most “potential” to adopt the idea. Bertaud observes that American publications such as the Washington Post and the New York Times are already latching on to it. He calls the 15-minute city “the last utopia.” It’s certainly the latest utopia promoted by elites anxious to impose a top-down vision. It may be coming soon to a city near you.
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