Of late, there has been plenty of talk about the idea of 15-minute cities.
But who knew that if you walk to your local shop to pick up milk, or take your children for a run to the local park, then you are part of an "international socialist concept"? It certainly gives the mundane activities of daily life a subversive edge. And as a boring suburban working mother, whose most radical act is to try and squeeze in a 10-minute power nap into a mid-afternoon schedule, the idea that I might be part of a global discussion does add much-needed frisson to my life.
Last week, UK MP Nick Fletcher made headlines when he called for a debate in Parliament on the "international socialist concept of so-called 15-minute cities and 20-minute neighbourhoods". He said that these will "take away personal freedoms". British TV channel GB News picked up the comments and added to the mix that 15-minute cities are "deeply illiberal" and "un-British".
In case you feel like you’ve entered a twilight zone, a 15-minute city is literally what you think it is – a city where people have access to key amenities without needing to travel more than 15 minutes by foot or bike. That includes housing, working, commerce, health care, education and entertainment all at a convenient distance. That is, your local food shop, school, community centre, park, doctor’s surgery, a place to grab a coffee with friends, a nice evening meal and, perhaps, easy access to a film or theatre show.
The idea of the 15-minute city was developed by a French-Colombian scientist Carlos Moreno in 2016, as a way of living and to improve quality of life for those in dense urban areas, by reducing the need to drive. The World Economic Forum suggests that more than half of the global population lives in cities, and that number will rise to 80 per cent by 2050. Pollution in urban centres is a problem, more so for residents of lower-income cities, according to the World Health Organisation.
Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, made the introduction of the 15-minute concept part of her 2020 manifesto pledge. And other cities have been championing the idea too, such as Barcelona, Melbourne, New York and Copenhagen. And Dubai, for example, announced it wants to develop “20-minute neighbourhoods” as part of its overall 2040 urban masterplan. The aim common to all plans of 15-minute cities is to ensure that daily amenities are within easy reach.
People would, naturally, be able to travel further than 15 minutes. But I know for myself that commuting – the stress, the dead time, the cost as well as the unpredictability of timing and effort – takes away significantly from productivity of daily life as well as my health and satisfaction. Why commute if you don’t need to? And why beg for the opportunity to travel farther if you could have everything within walking or cycling distance?
Mr Fletcher was championing a theory that will apparently take away people’s "freedom" to move about, and will culminate in people being locked down in their areas and needing to seek permission to leave. And it is now easy to see how this has become an extension of anti-lockdown protests. The author Jordan Peterson even suggested that it was part of the “Great Reset” – the name of the World Economic Forum’s post-pandemic recovery plan – to bind us into small areas and according to some, even have to apply for permits to visit our mums in the next town.
The lockdowns accelerated a shift that had already been happening, such as the closing down of local independent shops and the move to online shopping. But the lockdowns paradoxically also crystallised the loss that many of us were feeling – of local community, neighbourly connections, and the sense of individuality in our neighbourhoods and localities. People do value their local physical neighbourhood, and people they interact with, gain support from and build relationships with.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that during the lockdowns, my children and I pored over new and old local maps. I filled an entire shelf with literature on local history and we drove past streets and landmarks that we had previously passed without knowing the background.
That made me reflect on how much the locality where we live matters, and all the things it can give us – community, belonging, convenience, life’s necessities, as well as the opportunity to contribute, build something, even create a circle of influence where we can make an actual difference and where, if we want to, we can see a future for our children. What could be better than having all that just within just 15 minutes' reach?