As the world’s most urbanized regions continue to increase in density, the urban planning concept of 15-minute cities has gained quick traction -- and some backlash.
In fact, the concept has been the subject of what some could call conspiracy theories.
What is a 15-Minute City?
First things first, just what is the 15-minute city? Well, it involves creating cities whereby all of the daily necessities and services are within -- you guessed it -- a 15-minute walk or bike ride. The idea behind it is that this will create more environmentally sustainable cities by eliminating dependency on the car and that it will result in more equitable access to community services.
“It’s just a very catchy name to describe a very walkable lifestyle,” says Toronto-based urban planner Naama Blonder. “This means things like groceries, daycare, transit, gyms, healthcare, and other necessary services are within a 15-minute walk.” Blonder is a vocal advocate of modern communities that prioritize transit, cycling, and walking over a reliance on the car.
In increasingly dense cities like Toronto, which have been characterized by a move away from the car in recent years -- something reflected in everything from the reduction in allotted parking spaces in new residential buildings and widespread transit expansion, to a notable increase in bike lanes -- a 15-minute city sounds like a sensible idea to many.
“Especially in North American cities, sprawl controlled our urban planning for decades,” says Blonder. “Now, we understand that we can’t just grow outward and consume more land and build more infrastructure. The 15-minute city concept is just a way to have a more walkable lifestyle; to build inwards, grow inwards, and intensify using the infrastructure we already have -- existing schools and amenities. It’s about intensifying rather than building new infrastructure.”
As Blonder highlights, many of Toronto’s most desirable neighbourhoods already fit into the 15-minute city concept. Take Yorkville or St. Lawrence Market, for example. While 15-minute neighbourhoods had already been staples in Canadian cities for decades, the urban planning concept of 15-minute cities was first officially recognized by Parisian urbanist and university professor Carlos Moreno in 2016. Moreno’s vision was that everyone would have equitable access to schools, shops, fitness facilities, cultural centres, parks, and restaurants.
Moreno outlined his idea in a 2020 TED Talk, explaining that urban sprawl has warped our sense of time in our acceptance of long periods of time spent in the car. In July 2020, the 15-minute city idea was embraced by a group of nearly 100 mayors globally to help with pandemic recovery.
Paris somewhat famously adopted the idea in 2020. In the United Kingdom, Oxford City Council endorsed the 15-minute city concept in its Local Plan 2040 published last September. This included a proposal for a trial project to filter traffic on six roads, via traffic cameras that can read license plates. If a non-exempt vehicle passes through the filter at certain times of the day, the camera will read the number plate and the driver will receive a fine in the mail.
What followed news of this proposal was a swirl of theories spread on social media, a torrent of abuse thrown at Oxford city councillors (something that prompted the release of a statement to clear the air), and protests by passionate people who were worried that the communities would be used to monitor and control residents.
The Right Take On 15-Minute Cities
Globally, there is a cry from the far right against the concept of 15-minute cities. Not surprisingly, this includes outspoken Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. In December, he took to Twitter to express his views on the topic.
“The idea that neighbourhoods should be walkable is lovely,” he wrote in a Dec. 31 thread. “The idea that idiot tyrannical bureaucrats can decide by fiat where you're ‘allowed’ to drive is perhaps the worst imaginable perversion of that idea -- and, make no mistake, it's part of a well-documented plan.” In a subsequent Tweet, Peterson wrote, "For [those] of you wilfully blind enough to consider this a 'conspiracy theory' think again."
Peterson, who didn't reply to STOREYS' request for comment, isn’t alone in his sentiment. We only have to look to Edmonton to see significant backlash to the concept in our own backyard. When Edmonton mayor Amarjeet Sohi campaigned on the idea of creating 15-minute districts within the city, he faced criticism from some groups who worry that the concept is potentially an unfeasible form of control.
Edmonton resident Alexa Posa, member of special interest group Yegunited, says she has multiple concerns about 15-minute cities. “The 15-minute city is a concept that comes across as convenient and efficient, promoting social cohesion and interaction,” Posa tells STOREYS. “While this could be true, it may also contribute to the homogenization of urban areas, and a standardization of urban designs and architecture, with all neighbourhoods looking the same. This could have a negative impact on cultural diversity and could lead to a lack of creativity and innovation.”
Furthermore, Posa doesn’t think that Edmonton is equiped to make the shift. “One of the most significant challenges with a 15-minute city, is how to provide all the necessary amenities and services within a 15-minute radius of each person's home,” says Posa. “This requires careful planning, investment in infrastructure, and community engagement. I am not confident that the city of Edmonton has all three of those requirements.”
Lack of diversity and expenses aside, Posa is concerned about the restriction of movement. She points to daily protests in Oxford, where protesters are upset about being fined for leaving their designated 15-minute area.
“Although Edmonton has no plan yet to fine us, it could easily be put in place. I think Edmontonians became very worried when the city used the same label that Oxford England is using,” says Posa. “I talked to city councillor Andrew Knack, and he even stated that the city of Edmonton would not put in writing that they won't be fining us. We are not looking for permission from our elected officials to freely move in our city and province. Efficient and effective planning is one thing, restriction of movement is another. This is a World Economic Forum initiative and they have no legal jurisdiction in Canada and should not be affecting policy regulation choices at the municipal and provincial levels.”
On Edmonton’s District Planning website, it states that the 15-minute city “is not about restricting movement, monitoring people, or tracking an individual’s carbon emissions.” Rather, it “is about changing the way Edmonton plans and supports development and growth and moves us closer to our vision for a more connected, prosperous, healthy, and climate-resilient city.”
Like Toronto, Edmonton has goals to move their city away from a reliance on the car. The City website states that they want 50% of travel to be done by active transportation or transit. “Edmonton has terrible LRT and homeless problems, and out of all of Canada, Edmonton is the city where most citizens are afraid to use the transit,” says Posa (Toronto residents may beg to differ, in light of recent events).
Finally, Posa has concerns with where everything will fit geographically. “The city planners mentioned they would be removing parking spaces and roads to build more amenities, as people won't need to drive if everything is within a 15-minute walk,” she says. “However, we live in Alberta, where seven months of the year we are covered in snow, and I can guarantee individuals would not be interested in walking or biking. Overall, there will be less places to drive a car, less places to park a car, and more incentives not to have a car. Will this drive us away from private car ownership? Will we still have the same mobility and freedom rights we once had without a car?”
While equating walkable city with the removal of rights is extreme (to say the least), perhaps the concept of a 15-minute, largely car-free city does, indeed, work more smoothly in some places compared to others. But, as Toronto, for example, moves toward the direction of Manhattan when it comes to the relationship with the car, 15-minute cities seem inevitable. In fact, at a time when city congestion feels worse than ever and we live in a society where convenience is key, the concept is one many embrace.
As the city increases in density, one towering new condo at a time, a congestion fee has even been discussed for vehicles in the Toronto core as of late. Some have called for Toronto to take a page from London’s book and implement a fee for non-residents and non-local business owners and workers accessing the most congested wards. Currently, there are no plans in place to move forward with this.
If the day does come when it’s a reality, one thing is guaranteed: we’ll definitely hear from passionate voices who'll lash out against it.