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The small English city at the centre of the global 15-minute-city storm

Oxford has become a battleground between urban planners and Right-wing conspiracy theorists

Ed Cunningham
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Ed Cunningham

Ah, the 15-minute city. If you’d heard of them a year ago, it’s likely you were simply an urban-planning enthusiast keenly researching one of the biggest trends in local government policy. But now the concept is back in the spotlight – and for pretty confusing reasons. 

But don’t worry – we’re here to give you the lowdown. Here’s why 15-minute cities are causing such a storm online at the moment (and why the small English city of Oxford has become the unlikely battleground for urban planners and Right-wing conspiracy theorists).

What are 15-minute cities?

The concept behind a 15-minute city is pretty simple, really. It’s the idea that a town or city can be designed so that pretty much all the stuff you need in your daily life is no more than 15 minutes’ walk or cycle away.

In other words, all your work, shopping, education, healthcare and leisure needs would be near where you live. The idea is to dramatically increase accessibility, as well as reduce traffic and car usage – essential to creating more environmentally-friendly societies. The idea of ’20-minute neighbourhoods’ is a variation of the same idea.

And the idea has been around for years. One example of a place that has seriously entertained the idea of a 15-minute city is Paris, whose mayor Anne Hidalgo has led a huge campaign in recent years to build more public parks and cycle lanes.

Will there be 15-minute cities in the UK?

Local governments in Oxford, Bristol, Canterbury and Sheffield have all put forward plans to introduce elements of a 15-minute city. As yet, none have been implemented – though some ideas linked to the policy, from more cycle lanes to more public spaces, have been pursued.

Why is there a conspiracy theory around 15-minute cities?

Some (mostly Right-wing) commentators on social media have claimed that 15-minute cities are designed to confine people to within a certain distance of their homes, and that the policy is a plot to attack personal freedoms. These claims are completely false and, tbh, a bit ridiculous.

A 15-minute city has nothing remotely to do with personal freedoms. The idea is to have all your needs for everyday life conveniently located within a certain distance from each other. Nothing about a 15-minute city stops you from leaving your community or neighbourhood.

Why are 15-minute cities so controversial?

The concept is ruffling more than a few feathers. One of the reasons is because the implementation of 15-minute cities would mean more restrictions for motorists – for example, by introducing more Ultra Low Emission Zones or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. Some people argue that these negatively impact local businesses and threaten the freedom of car users. 

Meanwhile, some conspiracy theorists claim that 15-minute cities would come with a greater surveillance culture, and that they would restrict people from moving between neighbourhoods. There’s little evidence to show that this would be the case. 

What does Oxford have to do with all this?

In Oxford the situation is a little bit muddled, largely because conspiracy theorists appear to be confused by (or to have deliberately confused) two different local government policies: the city council’s 15-minute-city plans and recent changes to traffic systems.

In its Local Plan 2040, Oxford City Council proposed installing 15-minute neighbourhoods throughout the city over the next 20 years. These plans don’t include restricting people to their local areas, but instead focus on improving infrastructure and increasing mobility within neighbourhoods.

However, Oxfordshire County Council also recently announced traffic-reducing measures throughout the city. From 2024, drivers in Oxford will be encouraged to travel around the city by using the ring road or using public transport, rather than by just driving through it. In a very similar system to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, the council will hand out fines to those using city-centre roads at certain times. The new policy doesn’t stop you from travelling anywhere, but it does limit where and when you can use a car.

Conspiracy theorists then decided to link these two otherwise unrelated schemes. They claim that Oxford residents will be tracked and fined for driving outside of their local areas. However, there isn’t any evidence (at all) that this will be the case. 

Given the huge amount of investment in infrastructure needed to make them a reality, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms to levelled at 15-minute cities. But personal freedom doesn’t really come into it. At the end of the day, a 15-minute city will be one that’s built for humans rather than cars. And that, we’re sure you’ll agree, can only be a good thing – for both us and the planet.

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