By Sonny Loughran

The 15-minute city is a relatively dry urban planning concept. For experts drawing up a new town or city block, it conveys the idea that nobody should live more than 15 minutes away from basic amenities like hospitals, shopping centres, and parks. But recently, the 15-minute city concept has captured the attention of new-age conspiracy theorists who see climate policies as the harbinger of totalitarianism.

On the 18th of February, Oxford’s medieval streets were packed with protesters. Around 2,000 people gathered in the city centre, waving placards that warned of coming government tyranny. They were there to protest Oxfordshire Country Council’s plans to introduce a system of “traffic filters” that will supposedly help divert traffic away from six busy roads that run through the city centre.  

Under the plans, Oxford residents will only be allowed to drive on these roads (during peak hours) for 100 days per year, whilst residents of the wider county will be able to apply for a 25-day free access permit. Monitored by ANPR cameras that automatically scan passing licence plates, failure to comply with these new regulations could result in a fine.

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For some of the protesters, this is bad enough. But others see such policies as more than just an extension of council bureaucracy. “The 15-minute WEF ghettoes are not about climate, it’s tyrannical control,” read one sign. “Say NO to the new world order. Say no to 15 mins prison cities.”Such warnings are part of a new conspiracy theory that sees 15-minute cities not as pleasant, walkable communities, but as tightly regulated neighbourhoods. Believers expect residents to eventually become trapped in these Hunger Games-style districts – prevented from leaving by a totalitarian government that seeks only to control its subjects, and curtail their freedom of movement. 

This image takes inspiration from the Chinese Communist Party’s very real repression of the Uyghur population in Xingjang. But in Oxford, the conspiracy is driven partly by the fact that at the same time the county council is unveiling its traffic plans, Oxford City Council, a distinct legislative body, has endorsed the 15-minute cities concept as part of a new city planning document. This proposal, as described by the council, aims to ensure that “every resident has all the essentials (shops, healthcare, parks) within a 15-minute walk of their home.”

But for the more conspiratorial-minded, the council is merely trying to disguise its more nefarious motives. The way they see it, the traffic filters being set up by local government are not intended to improve air-quality or reduce congestion, but to gather data on local residents and, eventually, trap them within their council-designated 15-minute districts. 

But, it’s not just Oxfordshire residents that are worried. Everyone from Katie Hopkins to Jordon Peterson has weighed in on the issue, sharing their belief that 15-minute cities pose a significant danger to the individual freedoms that democratic society holds so dear. Speaking in the House of Commons, for example, Conservative MP for Don Valley, Nick Fletcher, recently referred to 15-minute cities as an “international socialist concept.” And Mark Dolan, a GB News presenter, told viewers that the arrival of “dystopian” 15-minute cities heralded the coming of “a surveillance culture that would make Pyongyang envious.”  

At first glance, this panic can be quite confusing. As envisioned by Carlos Moreno, the Franco-Colombian academic who coined the term, 15-minute cities are a mechanism to increase individual autonomy by reducing barriers to accessing essential services. Generally, these barriers consist of expensive and time-consuming commutes. And so, urban planning that draws on the 15-minute city concept often places a heavy emphasis on improving public transport and creating walkable neighbourhoods in the hope that individuals will no longer have to rely on cars to access essential goods and services. 

This is largely why the idea 15-minute cities have been embraced by environmentalists, who see it as a way to help reduce society’s reliance on cars and the fossil fuels they run on. But the idea that having smaller, easier-to-navigate communities might be good for society is far from a new concept. It is in many ways a revival of the countryside village. And if you happen to live in a neighbourhood built before the 1950s, then there’s a good chance you’re already only a short walk away from a pub, a corner shop, and a school.

In fact, examples of this kind of city planning can be seen all over Europe. Barcelona is famous for its picturesque city blocks, for example, which were engineered as a way to facilitate public transport and give residents easy access to green spaces. And in Paris, most people live only 5-minutes from the kind of conveniences emphasised by the model of the 15-minute city – so if you fancy a pastry or a coffee, you need only take a quick stroll to your local boulangerie 

So where has all this fuss come from? 

The first thing to understand is that, at least the English-speaking world, the conspiracy community has become something of a religion. And like any religion, it is defined by competing sects and narratives that are continuously jostling for position. But each of these ideologies is built from the same foundation, and each is informed by the same fundamental beliefs and tropes. 

The most important of these is the idea that a secret cabal of elites – billionaires, politicians, and media moguls – are seeking to place every human being on the planet under their control via the creation of a single, totalitarian world government. Generally referred to as the New World Order or the Illuminati, this shadowy coalition is believed to be the driving force behind many of history’s most significant events – whether that’s 9/11, the moon landings, or the JFK assassination.

What motivates this diverse group of elites changes depending on who you ask. Some people see them as a quasi-religious cult, hellbent on enforcing their satanic beliefs and rituals on the entire world; others see them as hyper-greedy capitalists, determined to commodify every aspect of the human condition; whilst others still understand them as Malthusian extremists, committed to depopulating the globe so as to ensure access to the resources they and their offspring need to survive.

But whatever their motivations, their methods remain the same: invent a crisis that can serve as a pretext for increasing their own power and control. From this perspective, climate change is just the latest emergency dreamt up by the NWO to scare people into giving up their own freedom.  And in recent years, the conspiracy movement has edged further towards climate denialism as scientists and international organisations call for greater global cooperation in the world of climate policy. 

Neil Sanders, a former conspiracy theorist and co-host of the Some Dare Call It Conspiracy podcast, explains that today’s conspiracy theorists see climate change as a ‘massive hoax being used to punish citizens.’ And that organisations like the UN and the World Economic Forum, a lobbying group that has become a favourite alibi for the Illuminati, are implementing a ‘plan to turn everything into a totalitarian, communist state in the name of climate change.’

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, this belief has crystallised around the idea of so-called “climate lockdowns” – government-mandated shutdowns that will supposedly see states and international institutions restrict people’s autonomy in the name of reducing carbon emissions.

In Oxford, these fears have reached critical mass because, to the initiated, the council’s embrace of the 15-minute city, combined with its plans to rigorously enforce traffic restrictions, seems like a veiled attempt to create the kind of infrastructure they would need to trap people within their neighbourhoods.

This not what is happening. But whilst it can be tempting to write off such beliefs as nonsensical, like most conspiracies, the 15-minute city panic takes its energy from a series of real, justifiable concerns that many ordinary people are today forced to confront. 

The first of these is the ongoing trauma of covid lockdowns. For many people, this was their first encounter with the coercive power of the state – which forced them inside and kept them physically separated from the things and people that they love. Many of these restrictions bordered on the inhumane, forcing people to say goodbye to dying loved ones over a pixelated video call, and preventing them from sharing a tearful hug at a funeral.

Combined with Downing Street lockdown parties, and widespread PPE fraud, there can be little surprise that the average person may have become more sensitive to the potential excesses of government. 

The second factor at play is the ever-present concerns around privacy in the digital age. Many of the Oxfordshire protesters, for example, came waving placards that warned of increased surveillance, and the implementation of data-heavy digital ID’s that they expect the government to introduce as a further mechanism of control. And this is a common thread of the 15-minute city conspiracy. Sandi Adams, an anti-15-minute city campaigner, told Glastonbury Council that ‘The digital ID is coming…the government will have all your data in one place… its big business, massive business… and all of this is being done without our consent.’

The underlying theme here is one of privacy being eroded by an ever-growing public sphere. And the truth is that the digital ID’s feared by online conspiracists in many ways already exist. Social media companies, for example, make billions of dollars every year developing complicated algorithms that harvest people’s data and use that information to capture and sell people’s attention to advertisers. And just last month, Tony Blair and William Hague issued a joint statement calling on the government to implement a new, digital form of ID. 

What exactly this would entail is relatively unclear. But for a long time, the issue has been that unless you read 80 pages of terms of conditions every time you download an app or visit a website, you really have no idea what information you are consenting to share with third parties. And because the pace of innovation invariably outstrips that of regulation, there is little effort to protect the individual from the excesses of data-hungry organisations. 

The 15-minute city conspiracy has also managed to piggyback on the dangers of economic inequality, which has been rising steadily since the 1980s. After years of austerity, financial mismanagement, and wage stagnation, many people have watched their communities degenerate whilst the richest members of society thrive. 

Many people blame billionaires like Elon Musk for their seemingly endless pursuit of capital. But for many others, it is inept politicians who take the blame. Whether it’s the expenses scandal, PPE fraud, or the fact that local government appears incapable of managing local communities without accruing billions of pounds worth of debt, many people have become innately distrustful of the idea that governmental institutions can solve societal problems – or that they even care to.

In this context, many well-intentioned climate policies can appear as though they mean to further entrench inequality, to discriminate against working people and rinse them for all they’re worth. A banker wanting to drive his new BMW to his office in Canary Wharf will not need to worry about a £13 ULEZ charge, for example. And for middle-class office workers, it is easy enough to work from home and avoid these extra fees. But for the plumbers, carpenters, and cleaners who rely on the extra mobility afforded by a car, and who don’t earn enough to make licenses and permits a negligible expense, these are policies with significant cons. They risk further widening economic inequality, and by ignoring these concerns politicians risk creating a kind of financial segregation that only undermines the climate polices that are so desperately needed. 

15-minute cities are not an attempt to create open air prisons across the UK. But this belief stems from a host of very real concerns. And until these are addressed in an open and transparent way, they will continue to fan the flames of more sinister conspiracy theories.

As Neil puts it, “the conspiracy world works on fear, and there’s always a grain of truth that is made to look terrifying.”

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Last Update: April 18, 2023