I live in a fifteen-minute city if I limit my walk to the library, the bookstore, a small grocery store, local restaurants, and lots of banks. It’s a lovely walk on a graveled, wooded trail. But it’s miles from the rest of the actual city where we have to drive for gas, Costco, larger grocery stores, a few beleaguered malls, medical and personal services. Maybe this is the case for you too?

Well, then what is a 15-minute city? The term was coined in 2016 by Carlos Moreno, a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. It was his way of rethinking urban planning. Using industrialized and motorized fossil fuel systems as his focus, Moreno’s vision was that in the “new” city, no one would be more than a short walk from home for essential services like doctors, shops, groceries, even their employment. Here are his proposed advantages:

  • The limited need for cars when a bike or walking will get you where you want to go.
  • A mixed-use neighborhood with offices, schools, shops, and parks close by.
  • A sense of community and a healthier environment without all of the cars.
  • More time for recreation, fitness, and family when you’re not commuting.

The World Economic Forum is on fire with his idea and came up with a cartoon of what one could look like.

The idea has taken hold in many cities and governments around the globe. Here in the US, by analyzing phone location data for 40 million Americans, MIT found that the median resident makes only 14% of their consumption trips within a 15-minute walking radius. *

As early as 2009, Portland, Oregon set a goal of having 90% of its residents live in neighborhoods where non-work needs were easily walkable or bikeable by 2030. Los Angeles’s Livable Communities Initiative wants to bring this model to a region where currently more than 84% of residents are commuters.

The problem for America, however, is at least three-fold: First, given the way the US developed, single-use neighborhoods (suburbs), building on more affordable land, and escaping crowded cities became the norm. This requires long drives between towns, as well as to centrally located services; Second, the car largely reigns supreme, in part due to the lack of transport outside major cities; and Third, even enthusiasts agree that the model could increase segregation, shutting out residents of low-income neighborhoods and farm communities.

In Europe, Paris has been putting some of Moreno’s ideas into practice: opening schoolyards to the public on weekends, banning cars on streets near schools, and building on an existing network of bike lanes and cycling routes.

Lately, however, the 15-minute city idea has become a concern, even a cause for debate and demonstrations. Questions began to arise after the 2020 lockdowns during the pandemic. And it’s not just from people now affectionately known as “conspiracy theorists” who see these cities as more of a way to control populations than to avoid urban sprawl, filled with cars.

Those who are leery of governmental regulations after the lockdowns and mandates point to a possible wider plot to control people and force them to stay in their homes. It’s easy to forget, in fact we’re encouraged to do so, how devastating some of the policies during the pandemic were. And how willingly we went along with the demands. So, slapping “conspiracy theorists” on any person or group who has questions and concerns seems a bit unfair. For many people, “the new world order” is population control to the extreme. Love or hate the idea, or somewhere in between, the 15-minute city has become yet another log on the discord fire.

The citizens of Oxford, UK, have had a very strong reaction to Moreno’s ideas. Several overlapping cautions have created a blow back in this famed city. Much of the anger is the result of the measures the city invoked to deal with traffic problems on certain through-roads. The residents were offered permits for a specific number of car trips on these roads, as well as a separate proposal to create local amenities and community centers as part of a 15-minute plan. Other UK cities including London, Bath and Thetford have joined in the protests.

Taking a more academic look at Moreno’s ideas, Steven Malanga, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, lists some of the more generic problems with the WEF’s model above:

  • They require a lot of micromanaging by the government, just when trust is very low.
  • What do you do if your 15-minute city is missing all of the retail services you need or want? What process is used to decide what vendors and service providers and employers are allowed in?
  • Providing economic opportunity, social mobility, and access to work and more affordable services would be a formidable challenge.
  • The city could become just one more place of division especially as it relates to the middle class and the poor. It’s hard to picture the richest 5% of the US (who treat NYC as their very own 15-minute city) leaving to live in one.
  • Who buys the land for the city? What other purpose could that land have served, like small farming?

I have a few questions and concerns of my own about the 15-minute city. You may have others or see the 15-minute city the best thing since sliced bread.

  • I find the World Economic Forum’s promotion, run by Klaus Schwab extremely suspect. Especially given his association with the World Health Organizations largest funder, Bill Gates. Klaus is famous for saying (as a good thing) we’ll all be renters in the future. Gates thinks eating crickets will solve a possible food shortage (another disputed issue) and likes to tinker with vaccines, mosquitoes, our sun, farting cows, while buying up gobs of farmland.
  • Who decides what retail stores (especially food and clothing) are in your city? What schools, churches, etc.?
  • Clearly, electric cars are the only ones allowed if there are no gas stations. Not everyone is wild about them, can afford them, or believe that like solar farms and windmills, they actually answer our energy needs. Given the new information about CO2, the rush to this form of city dwelling may be unnecessary, even ill-advised when taken to the WEF extreme.
  • The elderly and those with mobility issues – how do they get around? Is the city on a flat, even plain so that walking and biking is possible if toting groceries, kids, and pets.

It seems very homogenous to me, even slightly boring; if everything is proscribed, and possibly dictated by a government whose policies you disagree with, what are an individual’s options?

Just when it seems to me that we’re living in the Twilight Zone of AI, ChatGPT, and on the edge of nuclear war, I’ll leave you with a quote from Charlotte Bronte. Since I’m re-reading Jane Eyre she’s on my mind.

* I hesitated to use this MIT study given what I would call a major privacy concern for American citizens, but cellphone/online privacy appears to be a thing of the past.


Photo Credits: Couple walking – jurien-huggins, Oxford demonstration – benjamin elliott.