Speaking to The Sun just under 2 weeks ago, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made several claims that recent environmental legislation and actions (such as the ultra-low emissions zone in London) have been part of a “relentless attack” on motorists. He also spoke against the 15-minute city concept – saying that he’d ensure drivers aren’t “aggressively restricted”.
As part of this, UK Transport Secretary Mark Harper has set out plans that are intended to stop councils from implementing 15-minute cities by “consulting on ways to prevent schemes which aggressively restrict where people can drive.” However, there have been very few comments from officials providing details on what the alternative concept is.
The UK Government’s attack on the concept raised “deep concerns” about the government’s stance on climate change
–Carlos Moreno, Professor in Urban Planning at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University, Paris
The ‘15-minute city’ is an urban planning design first proposed by Carlos Moreno, a professor in urban planning at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris. He says the model is a policy for living within a 15-minute walk/cycle of six urban functions: residential needs, workplaces, commerce, healthcare, education, and entertainment. This allows cities to be more walkable or cyclable and reduces commute times. He insists that it is not a traffic plan and that he is not “in a war against cars”, but rather that it is the condensing of life to a human scale, instead of the “inhuman bigness” of modernist cities. It is a rhythm that follows “humans, not cars.”
Speaking to Forbes’ Carlton Reid, Moreno said that the UK Government’s attack on the concept raised “deep concerns” about the government’s stance on climate change. Moreno first started developing the model in 2010, but it received heightened attention close to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic when the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, implemented it as part of her “Paris en commun” plan. This involves the conversion of the city into many smaller neighbourhoods that fit inside the 15-minute concept. The plan also involves the installation of cycle paths on every street and bridge, and the transformation of 70% of on-street car-parking space into other uses, like co-working hubs or office space.
The 15-minute city idea will enhance local life and be comprised of people-friendly “complete neighbourhoods”
The success of this in Paris drew interest from international organizations like the World Health Organization, and resulted in several other cities adopting 15-minute-like features in response to the pandemic, such as Barcelona, Melbourne, and Milan. These cities have also seen strong results. For example, Barcelona’s “superblock” approach produced a 31% increase in the number of ground-based commercial businesses within Poblenou – the neighbourhood it was first implemented in. Barcelona’s former mayor, Ada Colau, says that “Superblocks unite urban planning with mobility and limit the presence of private vehicles in order to give back public space to the citizens.” She adds that they are “an answer for the city’s lack of green spaces” and high pollution levels.
The C40 group, a network of mayors from 96 cities worldwide, claims that the 15-minute city idea will enhance local life and be comprised of people-friendly “complete neighbourhoods” which are connected by strong public transport links for longer journeys. They propose that there are four key benefits to the 15-minute city idea. Firstly, they claim it will boost the local economy, with more populated high streets (as seen in Barcelona) and more diverse local work opportunities. Secondly, that it will produce more equitable and inclusive cities, with communities being designed to prioritize easy accessibility to a social environment, and active travel schemes being available “for the most vulnerable users”. Thirdly, they believe it will produce better health and well-being, with active travel being encouraged, car usage dropping, and stronger community ties helping prevent loneliness. Lastly, they state that a 15-minute approach will reduce unnecessary private travel on roads, leading to cleaner air and more environmentally friendly travel options.
Image: Warwick School of Engineering
The Prime Minister and Transport Secretary’s comments come against this concept – claiming that it and similar road guidance (like blanket 20 mph speed limits) are an “attack on the day-to-day lives of most people across the UK who rely on cars to get to work or see their families”. However, some of their claims, such as the Transport Secretary’s statement that local authorities could use the concept to decide “how often you go to the shops” and “who uses the roads and when” have been disputed by fact-checking organizations like Fullfact. Fullfact notes that they’ve seen no evidence of councils (notably, Oxford council) intending to restrict access to shops, although there have been plans to restrict traffic on some roads at set times.
Speaking to Forbes in response to the UK government’s comments, Mr Moreno expressed concerns that “conspiracy theorists fueled by false information” would take comfort from the UK government’s stance.