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People wait to cross the intersection of Whyte Ave and Gateway Blvd in Edmonton, Alta. on Jan. 15, 2022. A plan to create 15-minute cities, with amenities in walking distance for residents, in new developments in Edmonton has become a subject of controversy and conspiracy theories.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

On a recent Friday afternoon, senior city planner Sean Bohle introduced himself to a crowd of protesters, ready to answer questions about Edmonton’s zoning bylaws. “Two months ago,” he joked, “I couldn’t pay people to talk to me about this stuff.”

Now he was standing on a corner of Whyte Avenue, explaining why municipal aspirations to create a more walkable city were not, in fact, a Hunger-Games-style government plot to trap people in their neighbourhoods.

The city just wants more people to be able to walk to their local grocery store, he said, as protesters circled him, hurling questions. Wasn’t the government really just trying to restrict private car ownership? No, Mr. Bohle answered, but building more bike lanes might mean fewer parking spaces. Why didn’t the plan specifically promise never to barricade people into districts? “We didn’t consider that,” he said, straight-faced. “There are infinite things the plan will not do. We’re not going to neuter your chinchilla, for example.”

At one point, the protest’s organizer, 19-year-old Alexa Posa, produced a Bible. At her request, Mr. Bohle placed his hand on the cover, and swore that he would “vehemently oppose” any attempts to limit movement around the city.

“Oh boy,” he said, when asked about that moment, a couple days later in an interview. “It was a ridiculous thing to do. But the alternative seemed to be to tell people that I didn’t stand by the statements I made.”

The Whyte Avenue protest stemmed from a spreading conspiracy theory that the local government had secret plans to illegally restrict how people move around the city.

The theory, which distorts a popular urban-planning concept called the “15-minute city,” appears to have started out in Oxford, England, late last year. A few weeks ago, it travelled on social media’s misinformation bandwagon to Alberta, feasting on bread crumbs in a 180-page municipal development plan that was published in 2021, and which most Edmontonians will never bother to crack open.

That document included the concept of “15-minute districts,” where planners would prioritize bringing more amenities such as coffee shops and doctor’s offices within walking or cycling distance of the residents living there.

The idea of creating walkable cities goes back decades. But the catchy brand name was formally conceived in 2016 by a Paris urbanist named Carlos Moreno at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University. His goal was to increase convenience, reduce pollution and shorten commutes, while also making cities better places for people who can’t afford a car in the first place. “This is my common good concept,” Prof. Moreno said, on a Zoom call from Paris, his ears burning from online insults. “Today, I am the public enemy. This is totally crazy.”

For years, the main debate around 15-minute cities was how to actually achieve them, especially in already built-up suburbs. Or whether gentrification would make it impossible for employees at the new grocery store to still afford housing in the same neighbourhood. “An unattainable utopia” – that was the criticism Prof. Moreno most often heard.

But then, in 2021, the World Economic Forum – an assembly of wealthy elites that’s become an easy target of conspiracy theorists – began posting about the concept on its website. And somehow 15-minute cities became conflated with a newly announced initiative in Oxford to limit private cars on certain streets, and use congestion tolls to reduce traffic jams that were holding up city buses and ambulances.

Congestion pricing also isn’t a new idea – it’s been used for years now in London, Singapore and Stockholm, with success. But a false rumour started that Oxford also had plans to set up citizen checkpoints at neighbourhood boundaries. The conspiracy theory grew in cities such as Paris, that has formally adopted the 15-minute city concept. Prof. Moreno’s vision of an accessible, climate-friendly city was now a sinister scheme to imprison the populace. One internet post he read foreshadowed electric fences.

A few scaremongering tweets and viral TikTok videos later, and, suddenly, in Edmonton, city officials such as Mr. Bohle were being flooded with angry e-mails and panicky phone calls about neighbourhood lockdowns.

One option would be to ignore this kind of talk and hope it fades away. It’s frustrating work to shake a person free of fake news once they believe it, and confronting conspiracy can get nasty fast.

But engaging in calm and nonconfrontational conversation, as Mr. Bohle chose to do, can help stop the spread of viral misinformation, according to experts.

“It’s important to give another option, and show them why it’s worth it to change perspectives,” says Luisa Heizmann, a psychologist at the German organization, Zebra, which works to reduce the spread of conspiracy theories and radicalization by counselling families and individuals. “If people get really isolated, and fall farther down the rabbit hole,” says Ms. Heizmann, “it’s more difficult to come out again.”

Ms. Posa, for one, was impressed that Mr. Bohle, who came with a colleague from his department, even showed up to her protest. “It was a hard thing to do,” she said.

This week, Edmonton city Councillor Andrew Knack, who campaigned on the 15-minute-city idea, has also been engaging on social media. (A Twitter example: What happens when you leave your “district?” Mr. Knack: “The same thing that happens if you leave your area now – nothing.”) He’s received a rather colourful call from a guy in Oklahoma, venting about plans in Edmonton. He spent half an hour on the phone with a local woman trying to understand and ease her genuine fear that municipal officials were quietly plotting to lock down the city. (The still-painful memory of pandemic restrictions looms large in this conspiracy.)

The results are mixed, Mr. Knack admits. Some thank him, others go away angry. “Talking it through,” he says, “at least makes a person feel that somebody listened to them.”

While it’s easy to dismiss a few extreme tweets, the rise of conspiracy theories erodes trust in the social contract. “I worry what happens to the idea that we can collectively build a better city,” says David Gordon, a professor of urban and regional planning at Queen’s University.

On that Friday afternoon on Whyte Avenue, Mr. Bohle says his goal was to offer some “boring planning facts” and keep the collective conversation going. As he left, people told him they weren’t entirely persuaded, Ms. Posa included; the idea of a 15-minute city still sounded suspicious. But they said so, while shaking his hand, and thanking him for coming.

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