The Recent Furore Over 15 Minute Cities
Except it's not about that.
In olden times (before Henry Ford got his hands on our transportation options), we had to be able to access what we needed within a reasonable walk, bike, or horse trot.
It is, of course, why we cluster as humans. We have tended to live in happy(ish) little bunches near the things we need - by the port for commerce, the river for water, the flat land for growing food, the castle for protection, the canals for transportation, the mine for work and fuel.
Around these central resources, we built villages, towns, and cities. There, people could buy a bag of vegetables from the street stall on the way home from the dressmaker or from the fish seller on the wharf. You could get your shoes repaired, or purchase a hat just up the street. There would be some local music in the town square on a Saturday night, church was a pleasant walk away on a Sunday, and a small child could usually run and get the doctor or midwife as needed.
This all changed with the automobile, and all of a sudden, we could live in new-fangled things called suburbs, or we could commute to work in the city from villages an hour away. We could live remotely without having to be self-sufficient because we always had the option of hopping in the car. We stopped walking. We built malls so we can drive our cars to giant parking lots and get everything we needed in giant department stores and giant supermarkets.
In some ways, life became more convenient. One-stop shopping replaced errands to the green grocer, the butcher, the fishmonger, the bakery, the dressmaker, and the stationers. In other ways, although we now had more choice about where to live, work, go to schools, and shop, life became inconvenient. Time sitting in traffic, having to get fast food because there is no time to go to the store and cook and get to the kids’ soccer game two towns away, business travel that takes you away all week, and finding somewhere to go for a walk in safety now often involves actually getting in the car.
And as we now know, our use of gas-powered cars is changing the climate and congesting the very cities that we built mostly out of an attempt to be near what we needed to walk to. And we are losing connection to one another - our sense of community.
The idea behind 15 minute cities is to rebuild neighborhoods that reclaim the option of having everything you reasonably need within a 15-minute walk or bike.
The central premise is about building around what people need, not what cars need. It is changing the dynamic back to ‘access’ rather than ‘mobility’.
Over the last couple of decades, this has gone from a rather unnoticed planning framework to suddenly lots of cities and developers claiming it as a goal.
On the surface (and I think in actuality), this is a really good thing. It’s about rethinking how we interact as a community and reducing our reliance on the automobile for everything. Of course, it doesn’t force you to give up your car, or forgo road trips, nor does it prevent you from going to that great sushi restaurant across town. The aim is simply to give you the option to not have to get in your car for all the essentials.
There are certainly challenges with it, including neighborhoods that already underserved possibly not getting as much attention as the wealthier downtowns or suburbs, but in my view, it is a thoughtful beginning to redesigning how we live (rather than how we drive).
Recently however, it has become a target for protest. Wrongly.
In a recent example: In Oxford, England, there is a trial project (just a trial mind you) that only allows cars to pass through a ‘filter’ on certain congested roads by residents first applying for a permit to do so. This is not very different than the ‘congestion charge’ already enacted in many cities, but the permitting part is another step.
This particular approach to limiting congestion is something that is being tested and debate should be part of the process. I’m not sure I agree with it myself, for all sorts of reasons involving cost and equity, surveillance and bureaucracy, and more.
But, it has nothing to with the 15-minute city.
Separately, Oxford has proposed plans to develop more inline with 15-minute city concepts and the two actions are being conflated.
Some of the city officials involved in the projects are getting targeted on social media and threatened. The rallying cry of infringement on personal freedoms (I am so tired of this) has been hollered across the internet and now all sorts of people (not in Oxford) are leveling accusations of ‘urban incarceration’, ‘climate lockdowns’, confining people to their districts, and other ALL-IN-CAPS outrage.
These people are conspiracy theorists.
Or they are people who are buying what the conspiracy theorists are selling.
The fact that 15-minute city design ideas are now the target of conspiracists, climate deniers, and gosh - how shocking - Fox News (but I repeat myself), is why this newsletter sometimes strays into issues of education, democracy, our use of digital communities and so on.
We simply cannot let ultra-right wing mobsters misinform us and derail perfectly good (non-partisan) ideas about solving some of our problems while also increasing the convenience and degree of service regular people can access in their neighborhoods.
There is legitimate debate that must be had about how the 15-minute city idea could be implemented as well as how to reduce traffic (with or without a rise in electrification). But we can’t have these debates if anyone trying to do any good at all is labeled socialist or communist, and any new idea that benefits real people is called ‘climate tyranny’ or whatever else they have already come up with.
We have to be smarter than them.
We have to believe in the power of community - real community - not online vats of vitriol trying to pretend to be an online ‘town square’.
We have to be informed - by listening to and reading the actual plans.
We have to show up at the town meetings with calm voices - to both voice objections, and to support experiments and new approaches. Sometimes in the same sentence.
We can uplift the idea that we need to evolve our way of doing things, without always agreeing with the current plan.
And at the same time as engaging in the immediate community goals, we must support education for our children that develops their skills in critical evaluation. In a world of technological communication that spews disinformation - sometimes unintentionally, sometimes with very deliberate, anti-democratic aims - our kids need better mental tools than some adults evidently currently possess.
We also have to teach and elevate (and reward) respect, kindness, and curiosity. I know this sounds a little histrionic, but I believe we will not get out of this mess alive, if we do not.
The 15-minute city idea is unlikely to be the ‘the one’ that solves everything, but it might be an important part of a toolbox that addresses multiple challenges we currently face. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all, judging by our recent tendency towards believing others are part of a socialist conspiracy, is our lack of community and empathy for our neighbors.
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