After years of tireless advocacy to popularize greener and more accessible neighborhoods — where the necessities of daily life can be reached within a short walk or bike ride — champions of the 15-minute city are suddenly the target of far-right conspiracies. The theory is getting its 15 minutes of fame — not as people-centered urban spaces but rather as dystopian, quarter-hour prisons, with opponents saying that they will threaten personal freedom.
Yet, with societies increasingly fractured and fragmented, the concept could be the solution to bridging our divides. By creating more open, integrated, and healthy neighborhoods, it is possible to restore the in-person connections that are an antidote to polarization.
The concept of a 15-minute city emerged in the 1990s as an alternative to the single-use zoning paradigm that had dominated urban planning during the postwar era. It is the ultimate mixed-use development where residences, schools, shops, and parks stand side by side and are accessible within minutes by foot or bicycle. The intention is not just to reduce dependence on polluting vehicles and eliminate the need for long commutes but to also reduce food deserts and promote healthier and more sustainable lifestyles.
Fifteen-minute cities have legitimate flaws, including reinforcing spatial segregation if not properly planned. Getting them right means focusing on equity. That means planning and incentivizing opportunities for integrated and mixed-income neighborhoods. As our research with Harvard professor Ed Glaeser shows, low-income people rely on the ability to travel beyond their own neighborhoods, toward employment and opportunity in other parts of the city.
Still, the idea of 15-minute cities received an unexpected boost from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many mayors and city councils took advantage of the lockdowns to reimagine city spaces, including by re-greening neighborhoods and reducing spaces devoted to roads. So-called complete neighborhoods started springing up in new developments from Paris to Portland, Ore., to Melbourne, weaving each part of the city together into a walkable, livable whole.
But earlier this year, what many considered a pandemic success story was caught up in the whirlpool of political polarization and digital conspiracy. A well-intentioned effort to decongest the city streets of Oxford, England, was met with fierce public resistance and online outrage because of proposed restrictions on automobile use. While the wild criticisms are part of the wider culture wars underway in North America and Western Europe, they also pose an existential risk to the redesign of resilient cities and climate action more broadly. After all, cities are major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. Many suffer from sizable carbon footprints, worsening heat island effects, and an over-reliance on cars. Yet the backlash could sway some political leaders from investing in green solutions both in existing and planned neighborhoods.
What about the 15-minute city made it so susceptible to this vociferous attack from the far right? First, resistance is linked to a general anxiety, in the aftermath of COVID-19, of the encroaching state. When the conspiracy theorists call the 15-minute city a “climate lockdown,” they are appealing to the anti-lockdown sentiment that swept the world almost as fast as the virus did, calling for unfettered personal liberties and railing against lockdowns, masks, and vaccines. As the pandemic recedes, they have trained their suspicion on the climate crisis and any changes it might entail — from emissions monitoring and micro-mobility to paper straws and gas stoves.
The backlash is also a symptom of the persistent anti-urban bias that pervades swathes of North America and Western Europe. Calls for curbing the use of cars, and the emphasis that reliance on fossil fuels and highways is unsustainable, are infuriating to rural dwellers and suburbanites who already resent the power they perceive is disproportionately concentrated in cities.
Yet it is worth pointing out that the vast majority of these critiques are wrong and even dangerous. They derive from legitimate grievances but have been cultivated and disseminated by willful misinterpretations and purposeful deceptions. It is true that a series of autonomous enclaves would not add up to a real city, but that is not what the 15-minute city aspires to. We could even rename it the 15-minute “baseline” to emphasize that such enclaves only aim to capture the essentials, creating the flexibility, and thereby more freedom, to save our long commutes for the trips that count: to the football stadium, the new restaurant, or the family members across town. In short, the original idea is that people should have the “freedom” to access most of what they need on a daily basis within 15 minutes. Conspiracy theories, conversely, falsely claim that people will be “coerced” to live within that area. Change one word and the whole meaning flips.
It is unlikely that rebranding or polemics will ever be enough to convince the detractors. After all, the culture war comes for everything, from gas stoves to M&Ms; mayors, urban planners, and city enthusiasts simply don’t have the tools to win. This is precisely why we need the 15-minute city, to facilitate the meaningful and sustained in-person connections that the Internet cannot. Physical space is endowed with an inevitability of encounter; people whom you might find disagreeable cannot be filtered away. Our research at MIT reveals that when we fail to interact in person, we lose the “weak ties” to casual acquaintances who can pull us out of our echo chambers.
To rescue the 15-minute city from its critics, it is important to show, not tell. With low-cost, light-touch interventions — such as pedestrianizing streets with yellow paint — we can show people what our ideas look like in practice and attract organic public participation and support. It’s also worth making it fun. Climate crisis sustainability austerity talk doesn’t work, street festivals and playgrounds do.
Instead of a battleground, the 15-minute city can become a common ground — for a society that has far too few.
Carlo Ratti is professor of urban technologies at MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where he directs the Senseable City Lab and a cofounder of Carlo Ratti Associati. Robert Muggah is a cofounder and principal of the SecDev Group and a cofounder of the Igarapé Institute. He is an adviser to the Global Risks Report.