The city idea that's triggering conspiracy theorists
A seemingly mundane planning concept has become a flashpoint for misinformation and outrage
Morning – here’s what we’ve spied in the capital on Sunday, February 19, 2023:
😤 “15-minute cities will cost us our personal freedom,” Conservative MP Nick Fletcher recently claimed in Parliament, prompting another flurry of interest in an urban planning concept that’s riling conspiracy theorists in London and beyond. As pointed out by two columnists this week, Fletcher is the latest critic of an seemingly mundane principle for urban development that has ended up a flashpoint for misinformation and outrage.
Basically, ‘the 15-minute city’ is the idea that cities should be designed so that all residents have everything they need within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from where they live. Shops, work, entertainment, education and healthcare – all should be easily reachable by foot or pedal. That will then cut down unnecessary car journeys and promote healthier lifestyles, so the theory goes.
It’s the conceptual thread that ties together a lot of measures becoming more common in London, especially since the pandemic, like low-traffic neighbourhoods and pedestrianised high streets. Some suggest London is already a bit of 15-minute city, given the multitude of ‘town centres’ across the capital’s boroughs. But a new 15-minute city plan for Oxford has turbocharged conspiracy theories around the concept.
Oxfordshire county council is planning to split the city into six districts. Residents will be allowed to use their cars as much as they like within their own district, and will then receive free permits to drive to other districts on 100 days a year. If they exceed this limit, they’ll be fined, possibly up to £70 a day.
The backlash has been fierce. “A surveillance culture that would make Pyongyang envious,” one GB News presenter said of the plans. “The idea that neighborhoods should be walkable is lovely,” tweeted Jordan Peterson, "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”. Meanwhile a TikTok claiming people will be effectively locked down and need permission to leave their zones has gone viral.
London is also being dragged into the mess — plans for ‘20 minute neighbourhoods’ in Ealing were met with false claims residents won’t be able to drive out of the area on some days of the year. It’s a shame, because the toxic debate is crowding out genuine concerns about whether the concept will lead to further social segregation, and create enclaves of the rich and prosperous.
Who knew urban planning could be such fun?
🏘️ Speaking of — this week two big London building projects drew the attention of housing secretary Michael Gove, who has the power to block them. The first is the MSG Sphere, a dome-shaped concert venue planned for Stratford with roughly the same capacity as the O2 in Greenwich. It features a huge LED screen spread across its interior that would be used for light displays during concerts but also adverts during the day. With locals up in arms, Gove has reportedly indicated he is considering calling in the planning decision. The second is plans for a Chinese “super embassy” on the former site of the Royal Mint, near Whitehall. The local council rejected the 700,000 square foot compound in December, but Gove is now facing pressure to block any attempt by China to appeal, amid growing tension between Westminster and Beijing.
🚗 London is one step closer to having self-driving cars, after a three-year trial in Woolwich wrapped up with no crashes. Cars fitted with roof cameras, radar, and GPS equipment have racked up 1,600 miles without getting in an accident as they navigated a test circuit from the Woolwich ferry to Plumstead bus garage. Nissan has tempered expectations though, saying it will still be some time before autonomous vehicles will actually go on sale.
🧗 The highest court in the land has again stepped in to stop urban explorers climbing up London’s skyline. This time the high court has issued a ban on scaling cranes on a construction site overlooking Wembley Stadium, amid evidence some were hoping to use the cranes to reach the middle of the stadium’s iconic arch. Judges are increasingly taking action against free climbers in the city — in 2021 a high court judge banned them entering a construction site expected to feature the tallest cranes in central London. That’s not dissuading everybody — recently a couple staying on the 40th floor of The Shard spotted a man waving and climbing past their bedroom window.
💨 The campaign to stop the expansion of ULEZ racheted up a notch this week, with the launching of a legal challenge by five councils. Bexley, Bromley, Harrow, Hillingdon and Surrey councils are seeking a judicial review to scrutinise the legality of how the decision was made. Meanwhile the UK’s biggest union Unite has described the expansion as “anti-worker” and has called for a delay.
💰 Finally — the ‘leaning tower of Rotherhithe’ is going up for auction. The strange white house teeters right over the Thames, and is the last remaining property in an old row of houses that got destroyed in the Blitz.
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