A protester holds up a sign saying '15 minute cities Welcome To The Real Hunger Games' as he joins the march across town...
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What Are “15-Minute Cities” and Why Are Conspiracy Theorists Worried About Them?

Imagine if the essentials of daily life were all within a 15-minute reach of your home.

Imagine waking up in your apartment, noticing you need a carton of eggs or a container of milk, and heading to the grocery store — on foot or by bike because it doesn’t really matter. Either way, it will take you 15 minutes or less to reach your destination. You don’t have to worry too much about setting an early alarm for work or school because those places, too, can be reached in 15 minutes. And on the weekends, when you just want to relax, the amenities of modern life like the gym, cinema, and parks will all be that close as well. 

Welcome to the 15-minute city, an urban-planning philosophy coined by Carlos Moreno, associate professor at IAE Paris, the Université Panthéon Sorbonne. With climate change top of mind, Moreno introduced the strategy at the United Nations COP21 summit in 2015, where the Paris Agreement was adopted. Cities make up 70% of the world’s CO2 emissions and industrial and motorized transport systems that result on fossil fuels are the biggest culprit, according to the World Bank.

The concept is not necessarily new, but the marketability and dissemination of it are. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo championed the effort in her 2020 reelection campaign, becoming one of the first to make Moreno’s axiom a reality. American cities have attempted to do the same on a local level. In 2009, the government of Portland, Oregon, put forth the goal of having 90%  of its residents live in neighborhoods where non-work needs were easily walkable or bikeable by 2030. Los Angeles’s Livable Communities Initiative aims to bring this model to a region where more than 84% of residents are commuters. 

The proliferation of Moreno’s buzzy concept comes at a time when the environment is in dire need of a solution — all the solutions. In March, a new report came out from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announcing what we might have all expected and still feared: By the mid-2030s, the Earth is set to warm by the 1.5 degrees Celsius laid out as a threshold in the Paris Agreement. That increase could threaten humanity’s very existence — and makes it clear that improving the climate crisis is an issue that cannot wait. Could 15-minute cities be a part of the answer? It’s no surprise that Moreno says yes. 

“If you want to reach 2030 with a stronger reduction of CO2 emissions, the solution is not a technical question,” Moreno says. “The solution is, in fact, a new path for changing our lifestyles and our work styles.” 

How would 15-minute cities work? 

Let’s start with a fact: The 15-minute city model is not looking for a total ban on cars, but the strategy does want to reduce dependency on cars. Moreno quickly points out this statistic: In Paris, in 2021, 50% of public space was occupied by roads and parking lots, while cars made up only 10% of total trips taken, according to a Slate interview with David Belliard, Paris’s deputy mayor for transportation and public space that year.

Since 2020, Paris has been putting the 15-minute city theory into practice. This has resulted in changes that seem small but have a big impact, like opening schoolyards to the public on the weekends, banning cars on streets near schools, and building on an existing network of bike lanes and cycling routes. 

But in America, a country where the car largely reigns supreme, is this feasible? Moreno doesn’t deny that inherent difficulty but says the time has come to accept a lifestyle change for the future of our climate and the planet. He pointed to Amsterdam as a city that changed its car culture significantly. There, car use grew after World War II, which, soon enough, led to an increase in deaths. In 1971, more than 400 children died in traffic accidents in The Netherlands, according to The Guardian. Citizen protests and bicycle demonstrations proved effective and eventually, the country became one of the most bike-friendly places around the globe with 22,000 miles of bicycle paths. In Amsterdam, 36% of all trips taken are by bicycle, based on 2015 data.

“In America, you are concerned as well with heat waves, with the rising of the sea, with pollution,” Moreno says. “It is mandatory for the American people to change lifestyles.” 

San Francisco strategic advisor Dan Luscher was called back to urbanism in 2019 after studying to be a civil engineer and then working in alternative energy and tech. He started The 15-Minute City Project shortly after as a way to write and blog about urbanism and what he sees as an important development in the space. It wasn’t so much that the concept was new. Luscher points as precedent to garden cities in England at the turn of the 20th century and the New Urbanism movement of the 1980s and 1990s. “There’s a long lineage,” he says. “But this particular framing of the issue has gotten a lot of attention because it’s very intuitive and it resonates with a lot of people.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic was a flashpoint in the United States for what cities could be like without cars, Luscher says. In the first two months of the pandemic, miles traveled in a vehicle decreased in some US cities by as much as 75.5 to 88.9%, according to data from the Brookings Institution, published in May 2020.  “It sort of opened our eyes when cars stopped driving briefly during initial lockdowns in the US and Europe,” Luscher says. “How much space do we give to cars and what can we do with that space?” 

Much like what’s happening in Paris, working toward 15-minute cities starts with small policy and regulatory changes, like changing zoning to allow for multifamily homes, eliminating subsidized free parking, and reducing some of the governmental constraints that have prevented us from making cities better connected, Luscher says. He points to Los Angeles’s Livable Communities Initiative as a constructive effort. The group is working to increase walkability and get more flexible zoning approved on major corridors. “They have the right strategy in not doing it top-down, but bottom-up,” he says because residents can take action to make their city better rather than waiting for a broader government program to institute mandates. “If they are able to succeed then you can say, ‘Well, they’ve done it in LA.’ No other big city has an excuse at that point.” 

What do climate activists think about 15-minute cities?

Given that our very future is threatened, could these small changes actually make enough of a difference? Twenty-year-old Alice Dubois, cofounder of Fridays for Future France, is optimistic. The political science student at Sciences Po’s campus in Nancy, France, started the French chapter of Greta Thunberg’s climate strike movement as a way to energize youth around climate during the pandemic. Dubois and her seven friends and cofounders felt that striking was an “easy way to have a first step” in climate activism.

Dubois says she still doesn’t have her driver’s license, a topic of much debate in her family. In Nancy, a town near the German border with a population of around 100,000, almost everything can be done on foot or by bike, Dubois says. “I don’t want to have my driving license because that’s a personal choice and my parents say that I may regret it afterward,” she says. “If we want to change society, we have to change ourselves first. If I don’t make this effort, well, who will do it?” 

In 2019, 54% of people in France said they used a car almost every day, according to data from Statista. The cost of public transit can be a barrier. In Paris, the price of public transit tickets rose in 2023, with a monthly pass increasing by almost 10 euros. But other French cities are experimenting with free public transit options. A plan to make all public transit free in the French city of Dunkirk resulted in a 65% increase in ridership on weekdays. About 48% of new users say they now regularly use public transit instead of cars. 

These efforts become more significant when we consider that transportation is the sector that relies most on fossil fuels. In 2021, it represented 37% of all CO2 emissions out of the combined transportation, industrial, commercial, and residential sectors (referred to collectively as “end-use sectors”), according to the International Energy Agency.

While the quantitative benefits of the 15-minute cities model are clear, it’s the qualitative benefits that young people like Dubois and also Moreno still return to. “The 15-minute cities idea doesn’t mean isolation or segregation,” Dubois says. “On the contrary, it is a way to reopen our mind and imagination to create better living places.” 

For American climate activists like Kevin J. Patel, who first started organizing when he was 11, the 15-minute cities model is promising. He hopes it might ameliorate some of the ills that plague American cities, like air pollution, gridlock traffic, lack of walkability, and poor access to fresh food for marginalized communities.

The 22-year-old activist and college senior knows these problems intimately. One day, in the middle of his sixth-grade class, he suffered heart palpitations so severe that paramedics were called. He was diagnosed with an arrhythmia and had to have a minor heart ablation, a procedure that burns or freezes cardiac tissue to decrease irregular heartbeats. 

Even today, his heartbeat is still irregular. It is the smog and air pollution around his south Los Angeles neighborhood that, he says, are in part to blame. And Patel’s daily lifestyle is the opposite of Dubois’s — nothing is walkable. “You can’t walk to the grocery store, you can’t walk to the doctor’s office, you can’t walk to go get food for your dog,” he says. “I have had to take a car every single day since elementary school. Now I’m in college and I still have to take a car to my university.”

But Patel is in a position to make a change on a local level. He helped create Los Angeles County’s Youth Climate Commission and has already researched the 15-minute cities idea. He sees it as particularly valuable in low-income, marginalized communities. Ensuring that everyone can reach the essentials needed to live, either on foot or by bike in 15 minutes, could be a powerful tool for social inclusion, he says. But it’s not without its obstacles. “It’s a slow process of implementation, but we have a motive to really act upon it and really bring justice to these communities,” Patel says. 

Why are conspiracy theorists pushing misinformation about the 15-minute city?

But like many progressive ideas these days, even the 15-minute cities model has been commandeered by conspiracy theorists. In the United Kingdom, they argue that the movement is a way to force people to stay in a certain area, rid them of their physical autonomy, and fine them if they try to leave their mandated zone. It’s a far leap from how experts define the 15-minute cities model, but it’s caught on among far-right protesters — roughly 2,000 of them descended on Oxford after the city attempted to limit peak-hour car traffic in central areas. Moreno dismisses the conspiracy theories as “totally insane.” The professor himself has been a target of conspiracy theorists, who have sent him death threats and even deemed him a member of an international world order set on domination. 

But conspiracy theorists are not the biggest obstacle to the widespread adoption of 15-minute cities.  The challenge, according to Patel, is really convincing a capitalist society to invest in something that may take years or decades to pay off. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. “We have the ability to change and make lasting impacts for our community,” he says, “if only we are able to step out of our comfort zone.”

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