Editorials, Opinion

15-minute cities: Fact vs. fiction

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of “15-minute cities” before today. 

And if you have heard of 15-minute cities, there’s a good chance you heard about them through social media. 

And if you heard about 15-minute cities through social media, then you might have heard that 15-minute cities are a government conspiracy to eliminate cars and limit people’s movements to restricted designated areas. Because, unfortunately, this very simple urban planning philosophy has been co-opted by right-wing conspiracy theorists. 

First, let’s start with what a 15-minute city, or a 15-minute neighborhood, is: It’s the idea that someone should be able to walk, cycle or use public transportation to reach all their basic necessities — schools, groceries and health care, but also parks and entertainment opportunities — within 15 minutes. 

This proposal is not a new one. However, it recently gained traction as people begin to push back against the sprawling suburbia development model that has essentially required people to have their own personal vehicles to get to work, school or the store. Many European cities are increasingly adopting the 15-minute city design, including Paris, France, and Barcelona, Spain. 

Although the 15-minute design is human-centered approach to accessibility, some cities that have adopted it have combined it with other initiatives. For example, 15-minute proposals are sometimes combined with climate pledges, since 15-minute cities focus on not needing your own car. They may also be combined with traffic plans. At the same time the small town of Oxford, England — at the center of which is the famous university — endorse the 15-minute city idea, the surrounding county (Oxfordshire) was considering different ways to deal with heavy traffic congestion, including limiting some roads to be permit-use only during certain times of day. 

And that is how the conspiracies started. 

One TikTok user specifically said the of Oxford/Oxfordshire plans, “Residents are gonna need a permit to leave their district from 2024.” (Which is completely false.)  

The Associated Press reported an Instragram video with 5,400 views claims, “You won’t be able to use your own car on certain roads and highways without the government’s permission and consent. … You will be constantly monitored by surveillance cameras to ensure that you don’t leave your designated residential zone without first being authorized to do so.”  

The New York Times reported conservative commentator and YouTuber Jordan B. Peterson “warned of ‘idiot tyrannical bureaucrats’ deciding where people can drive and said 15-minute cities ‘are just another fad hijacked by wannabe authoritarians.’ ”  

If anything, the 15-minute city design harkens back to the days when bustling main streets that had everything a person needed were the soul of a town, and residential neighborhoods gathered around closely. In fact, that core idea of walkability has repeatedly come up in Morgantown over the last couple years. 

More and more, there are business areas and there are residential areas, but there are few places where residents can walk (safely) to a business area that meets their basic needs. And more and more often, business centers are developing on the outskirts of the city and out into the county, making most of them only accessible by car. 

Hopefully the next time you hear “15-minute city” or “15-minute neighborhood” it’s in the context of improving Morgantown and the surrounding areas — not from some conspiracy theorist on the internet.