Proponents of the “15-minute city” say it will reduce emissions and improve residents’ quality of life, but critics say the concept, supported by the World Economic Forum, is discriminatory and will lead to “climate lockdowns.”
Under the filter plan, Oxfordshire will be divided into six districts. Beginning in 2024, residents will be able to drive within their neighborhoods, but license plate recognition cameras will fine private cars £70 for passing a filter without a permit. Vehicles such as bikes and public transportation will be exempt.
Residents can apply for a permit to drive through the filters up to 100 days per year, and residents living outside the zones can apply for a permit for up to 25 times per year. The filters will be in effect daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The county council said the plan is not meant to coerce residents into staying in their neighborhoods, but rather to address traffic congestion by “making walking, cycling, public and shared transport the natural first choice.”
Critics of the plan garnered thousands of signatures on petitions opposing it. The plan also sparked several protests, with local workers speaking out in the press.
For concerned workers who pass through several districts daily to get to work, the council suggested they use a less central route such as the ring roads outside of the city center.
Community critics pointed out that this solution would add time and pollution, contrary to the plan’s goal to tackle climate change.
Conflict over the plan went international. Polarizing figures like bestselling author Jordan B. Peterson tweeted that the plan was the “worst imaginable perversion” of the idea that cities should be walkable, and Piers Corbyn went to an Oxford City Council meeting to protest. City council members reported being harassed.
Major media organizations, including The Guardian, Reuters, PolitiFact, USA Today, The Times and the BBC weighed in to support the local policy and discredit dissent as “conspiracy theory,” by pointing to some exaggerated online claims that people would be confined to their districts by force.
But the 15-minute city concept has sparked widespread public concern beyond Oxford, particularly among the growing number of people concerned by policy proposals promoted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) that involve widespread implementation of top-down environmental and urban policies, as seen on Twitter, in numerous articles and in videos.
What is the 15-minute city?
During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, mainstream media, urban planners, the U.N. and developers — many with ties to the WEF — began promoting the 15-minute city — a new urbanist proposal that cities be redesigned into decentralized microcities where people could meet their needs for living, working and playing within 15 minutes of their home.Fifteen-minute city advocates say the self-sufficient neighborhood concept is an old one and is how cities were imagined before cars.
Building [cities] back better?
Dave Reay, Ph.D., chair in Carbon Management & Education, School of Geosciences, at the University of Edinburgh, told The Guardian it was incumbent upon countries to “build back better” — a WEF slogan.
Different global actors began to hold up the 15-minute city as the way to do that — “to reduce emissions and improve residents’ quality of life,” as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) put it.
Mike Haigh, then-chief executive of the Mott McDonald consulting company and now chair of the WEF Infrastructure Industries Governors Group, spoke on a September 2021 WEF panel about the 15-minute city:
And in March 2022, the WEF published an article arguing the model would be critical for dealing with shocks caused by “climate change and global conflict.”
The pandemic gave the idea new relevance, WEF author Lisa Chamberlain said, referring to the lockdowns.
She cautioned that implementing the idea would require sacrifice, or “creative destruction brought on by a technical revolution,” but cities that don’t redesign themselves in this way will “struggle mightily.”
Who’s behind the push for the 15-minute city?
Efforts to pilot the 15-minute city in practice are largely driven by C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, made up of 96 mayors of cities from around the world, funded by major corporations and philanthropic foundations and focused on urban activism for climate change.
The group was founded in 2005, by the mayor of London, and in 2006, it merged with the Clinton Climate Initiative.
C40 Cities also works closely with developer Arup Group, a WEF-affiliated organization, to create development plans to redevelop “sustainable” or “net zero” buildings to address the problem of climate change.
In July 2020, the group published a framework for cities to “build back better.” The organization promotes the 15-minute city model as a new roadmap for a post-pandemic world.
C40 Cities in September 2022 announced it is partnering with a developer, Nordic Real Estate Partners — a Danish development firm with 18 billion euros in assets — and UN-Habitat to deliver proof-of-concept for “15-minute city” policies by implementing neighborhood pilot projects in at least five cities.
Cities such as Paris, Madrid, Milan, Ottawa, Seattle, Milan and Vancouver are among those that have declared plans to transform their cities into a 15-minute city model.
Melbourne has adopted a long-term strategic plan for 20-minute neighborhoods.
Recently Cleveland, Ohio’s new mayor announced, with the support of the city development department, a bike advocacy group and real estate developers, that the city is “working toward being the first city in North America to implement a 15-minute city planning framework where people — not developers, but people — are at the center of urban revitalization.”
More city councils throughout the U.K. also announced they will investigate or implement 15-minute city plans.
A walkable city with amenities close to home, what could be the problem?
Some planners, even within the new urbanist school of thought, link the concept to the history of top-down urban planning approaches that exclude the marginalized.
At the CityLab 2021 conference, hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute, Jay Pitter, a Toronto-based urban . . . said many marginalized communities are opposed to ideas like this because they lead to further displacement.
Politico reported that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has been internationally lauded, winning prizes for her leadership in fighting climate change and landing herself on Time’s list of 100 most influential people in 2020.
But she faced backlash from Parisians who charge her with destroying the city’s heritage and disrupting their lives by supporting the 15-minute city concept.
Analysts critical of the program in Oxford raised concerns about the concept more generally. They cautioned that the inspiration for the concept in the lockdowns, which were responsible for widespread social and economic devastation and new forms of social control, ought to be concerning.
They point out that while the concept of, “climate lockdown” sounds “ridiculous,” articles in publications like the BBC’s “How ’15-minute cities’ will change the way we socialise,”
Several organizations, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), have circulated the idea that “climate lockdown” might be necessary for several years.
They promoted an article written by University College of London professor and WEF contributor Marian Mazzucato, Ph.D. suggesting that “climate lockdowns” might become necessary to address the looming “climate emergency.”
The WBCSD is a partner of and supported by the WEF-affiliated Arup Group. Arup and C40 have been partners for over a decade in their project to redesign cities. The 15-minute city is part of that project.