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  1. The Staggers
13 February 2023

How have 15-minute cities become a conspiracy theory?

No one wants to take away your car or put you in permanent lockdown.

By Jonn Elledge

I suppose we always knew that a Tory MP, probably one from the unusually messy 2019 intake, would eventually start spewing conspiracy theories in the House of Commons. What I didn’t see coming, though, was that the conspiracy theory in question would be quite so boring as this. 

Last week, on Thursday 9 February, Nick Fletcher MP demanded a “debate on the international socialist concept of so-called 15-minute cities and 20-minute neighbourhoods”. “Ultra-low emissions zones in their present form do untold economic damage to any city,” Fletcher continued. “The second step after these zones will take away personal freedoms as well… That cannot be right.”

Many MPs understandably, and in a fashion that free thinkers like Fletcher are no doubt familiar with, laughed at this. And little wonder: I edited an urbanism website for six years; I’ve also co-written a book about conspiracy theories (Conspiracy, with Tom Phillips, available from all good bookshops even as I type). And so I can say, with confidence, that the member for Don Valley is talking out of his exhaust pipe.

[See also: What is romantic friendship?]

The theory behind 15-minute cities would, in a sane world, not be even remotely controversial: the notion that it’d be pretty cool if everything you needed in the average day (shops, school, place of work, cute little cafés and so on) was within a 15-minute walk or cycle of your home. If we could design our cities around this concept, we’d have less need for cars, and so both us and our environment would be healthier. Brilliant. How we make this happen is not immediately clear – the post-pandemic decline in commuting will help, but most of our cities are still, fundamentally, organised around drivers – but the point is that it’s a theory, an ideal, not something anyone is being forced to adhere to.

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However, that is not how Fletcher, and those who inspired him, understand the term. Trying to understand or explain where a conspiracy theory actually originated is always difficult, like trying to nail jelly to some other, wobblier jelly. But one thing that gets conspiracy theorists excited, in a *gasp* new-world-order kind of way, is the presence of international organisations like the ones that make up the international urbanism community that has been promoting 15-minute cities: UN-Habitat, the World Economic Forum, the C40 Global Cities Climate Network, and so on. (The latter – here’s a free tip for conspiracy theorists – used to sponsor my podcast.) What’s more, 15-minute cities sound a bit like low-traffic neighbourhoods (which are real and controversial and have been imposed on at least some people who don’t want them), and the pandemic lockdowns (which were also real, but had absolutely nothing to do with urban planning).

Mix all that together. Throw in the sort of resentment that, bafflingly, seems to accompany car culture everywhere; pass the results through the internet – which, among its other qualities, is also the best machine for generating and A/B testing viral conspiracy theories there has ever been – and this is what you get: a bunch of angry, frightened people who wrongly believe that an international conspiracy is going to take their car from them, and ban them from leaving their neighbourhood to visit their mum. In recent weeks, Carlos Moreno, the urban theorist who first coined the term, has received a whole load of racist abuse for his trouble, and the guy who used to present Coast has aired this nonsense on GB News. Perhaps it was inevitable that, eventually, an MP would bring it up in the Commons, too, even while everyone giggled.

But not quite everyone: one person who wasn’t laughing was the Leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt, who instead replied, “I think it is right that people raise concerns.” We all might want to remember this, next time she runs for leadership.

Read more:

We are all conspiracy theorists now

New Statesman Podcast: are conspiracy theories getting worse? With Jonn Elledge

Andrew Bridgen isn’t the only conspiracy theorist when it comes to the NHS

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