Backlash Grows Against 15-Minute Cities Amid Fears of Curtailed Movement

Backlash Grows Against 15-Minute Cities Amid Fears of Curtailed Movement
A cyclist rides along a road in Oxford, England, on Jan. 30, 2023. (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)
Lee Harding

The concept of 15-minute cities is advancing in Canada, as is a backlash from those who regard it as a threat to freedom.

The framework, pioneered in 2015 at the Paris COP21 climate summit by the French-Colombian professor Carlos Moreno, calls for areas where a 15-minute bike ride or walk would connect residents to everything they would need. Urbanist Dan Luscher promotes the idea on but acknowledges its inherent curtailment of free travel and free markets.
“We must define and quantify who has access to what and where. It is a big data exercise,” Luscher wrote in his initial blog post on June 16, 2020.

“It’s important to work with market forces where possible, rather than fighting against them, while always recognizing that market forces will provide too little of many of the things that make cities great.”

A pilot project in Oxford, England, has become the poster child for the idea. Oxford introduced three low-traffic districts in 2022 and will implement another six in 2024 to blanket the city, with the goal of "targeting unnecessary journeys by cars." The use of traffic “filters” will also begin in 2024, which involve cameras that monitor vehicles driving through roads with time restrictions and facilitate the charging of fines for violations.
“If a vehicle passes through the filter at certain times of the day, the camera will read the number plate and (if you do not have an exemption or a residents’ permit) you will receive a fine in the post,” said an Oxford city and county council joint statement last December.
The £35 fine (C$57) doubles after two weeks if left unpaid. Exemptions will be granted to public transit, police, businesses, and emergency services.

Edmonton: 'Small Towns in Our Big City'

The City of Edmonton is in Phase 4 of implementing the 15-minute city approach for 15 districts, covering the entire city, and expects to finalize its plans during Phase 5, from July 2023 to January 2024.

“The plans will describe how the City is supporting more housing, businesses, amenities and transportation options in each district so that more of a person’s everyday needs are a 15-minute walk, roll, transit trip or bike ride from their front door,” the city’s communications coordinator Kali Broda told The Epoch Times by email.

“The City of Edmonton’s District Planning project will not restrict movement of people in any way,” Broda added.

Edmonton resident Alexa Posa, founder of citizens’ group YEG United, organized a protest against the scheme. On Feb. 10, more than 100 people gathered on Whyte Avenue to voice concerns and raise awareness.
 Alexa Posa of YEG United speaks at a protest against 15-minute cities on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton on Feb. 10, 2023. (Courtesy of Alexa Posa)
Alexa Posa of YEG United speaks at a protest against 15-minute cities on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton on Feb. 10, 2023. (Courtesy of Alexa Posa)

“If it's just about efficiency and they want to bring amenities closer, by all means, I'm for that, but that's not what I think the city is going to do,” Posa said in an interview.

“When I saw what was happening in Oxford, I knew that that was probably going to end up happening in Edmonton.”

Posa says she believes that if Oxford succeeds in implementing its mechanism for 100 annual passes, they could later reduce them.

“It's going to be easy for them to start it at 100, and it will be pretty simple for them to turn it down to 50 and 20, and then 10. And then who knows, they might not even have any at all,” she said.

“It's easier to control us when we're split up into these little districts, kind of similar to the COVID lockdowns.”

Posa started YEG United after vaccine mandates were introduced. She says the precedent of broken promises during the pandemic give her reason to doubt the city’s assurances that Oxford-style traffic curtailments won't come to her city.

“It's really hard for me right now to believe what the City of Edmonton is going to tell us and what our politicians are telling us.”

Douglas Farrow, an ethics professor at Montreal’s McGill University, believes scenarios of regulation and control are entirely possible as a result of creating 15-minute cities.

“I don't know that the talk about dystopia is just fringe now. Perhaps a good many people realize that the ceding of controls over their movements is a move of submission to totalitarianism. I'm not quite sure how else one would read it,” he told The Epoch Times.

Farrow suggested the urban concept doesn’t make sense for minimizing an environmental impact because the stores and amenities would have to be made present in every district.

“You're going to have to reduplicate everything for each community or deprive some communities of those things,” he said.

“It's not viable from an economic standpoint. It's not viable from an environmental standpoint, in spite of that being the justification given. What it is viable for is political tyranny, and that's why people are objecting to it. We are not children, and we are not dogs, and we will not be penned in our own communities.”

Widespread Adoption, Growing Backlash

For better or worse, the 15-minute city has become the “north star” for many Canadian urban centres.
In the summer of 2020, Montreal added about 300 more kilometres of temporary bike and walking paths to increase accessibility for non-motorists. Ottawa adopted the 15-minute city concept in 2019 as part of its 25-year plan. A team of Toronto designers recently won a World Architecture Festival award for its 15-minute concept for the Downsview neighbourhood. And Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Action Plan 2020-2025 aims to have 90 percent of residents “living within an easy walk or roll of their daily needs” by 2030.
The widespread adoption of the concept juxtaposed with the specifics of the Oxford experiment have also drawn a fast-burgeoning backlash. Three Canadians lead the Rejecting the 15 Minute City Facebook group, which has grown to around 11,000 members since its recent Feb. 2 launch.
In a post to the group, The Epoch Times asked members what they believe the 15-minute city entails and why they were opposed. Over 260 comments followed, including from admin Branden Witteveen.

“That's a hard question to answer. Let's begin with the end in mind,” Witteveen wrote.

“Picture a world where you literally own nothing, cameras are everywhere, and you're forced to be happy or you lose social credit points. A world where there is no more [independence], privacy, or free will without consequences. A world where … cars are banned, personal belongings don't exist, freedom of speech, expression, and travel is almost not allowed and everything is service based,” he noted.

“The jobs you once had no longer exist due to high carbon use and buildings will be deemed ungreen and shut down. Replaced with ‘green’ jobs … with rewards, incentives, leaderboards, levels and badges to captivate the people so they enjoy being a slave to the system. ... 5 years? 10 years? 30 years? What a brutal world that would be.”

Dystopian characterizations of the 15-minute city have prompted a reaction from its proponents. In a Feb. 9 tweet, Luscher said “multiplying conspiracy theories … have mischaracterized the #15minutecity as an instrument of totalitarianism.” The tweet cited a Feb. 8 Forbes article where Moreno, a professor at Panthéon-Sorbonne in France, called some opponents “insane.”

“As the UN-Habitat, the World Economic Forum, the C40 Global Cities Climate Network, and the Federation of United Local Governments, among others, have supported the [15-minute-city] concept, it feeds their fantasies that I am involved in the ‘invisible leadership’ of the world,” Moreno told Forbes.

On Feb. 7, the city council of Southend, UK, bucked the trend and rejected the restrictions Oxford implemented.

Farrow believes the concept calls for people to take sides.

“If you want to be penned in a 15-minute city and totally dependent on those who will decide what you can and can't do, where you can and can't go, and what they will and won't bring to you and to your community, get behind this," he said.

"But if you don't like that sort of thing and you believe in human freedom, get out in front of it and stop it.”