Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist to The Globe and Mail.
Nothing better illustrates how disillusioned, distrustful and broken a sizable section of the population has grown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic than the current controversy over “15-minute cities” that is now festering in Edmonton.
The latest spasm of postpandemic paranoia has emerged from a benign city-planning phrase coined by an urbanist in 2016. The idea is to encourage healthier communities and reduce congestion and our reliance on carbon-emitting cars by zoning neighbourhoods to ensure that everyone has access to necessary amenities within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. This might include creating more commercial zones within neighbourhoods, building bike lanes or simply widening sidewalks.
It sounds lovely, but some cities have adopted a more punitive approach to walkable areas and carbon reduction. In Oxford, England – which has become an epicentre for this controversy – urban planners have sectioned the city into “low-traffic neighbourhoods” by setting up bollards and planters to restrict vehicle access. The city is also experimenting with traffic-filtering cameras that would limit drivers from using its main roads, and fining motorists who want to cross certain streets in its core.
Of course, these are classic city-planning measures, aimed at restricting the flow of cars, not people; they’re not even part of Oxford’s 15-minute city plans. But all the changes, arriving around the same time, have proven controversial enough to be rolled into one big bogeyman by angry protesters who have burned bollards and taken to the streets in opposition. In the Before Times, we would classify this sort of thing as stock-standard anger over municipal traffic measures common to just about every city for decades: physical restrictions, tolls, speed bumps, anti-bike lane rhetoric and zoning fights have been the subject of many a municipal pissing match.
But now, lockdowns, mandates, school shutdowns and other pandemic restrictions have broken some folks, utterly destroying trust in institutions and authority. For them, these fights over planters and bike lanes have become an existential battle against the shadowy forces of human control.
The outrage in Oxford has become content fodder for right-wing pundits across the globe who have been happy to trade in fear-mongering, claiming that the changes are all part of the 15-minute city concept, which they say is the beginning of a dystopian police state that aims to lock people into tiny neighbourhood districts. Former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, for instance, has branded a similar traffic measure in Canterbury a “climate lockdown.”
As the 15-minute city idea has taken hold around the world, so too has the attendant opposition – often veering into outright conspiracy. In some cases, it has tethered itself to the false theories around governments out to control the populace as part of a secret World Economic Forum mission to implement Agenda 21.
Inevitably, the theorizing made its way to Canada when the conservative online publication The Western Standard noted in January that Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi had advocated for 15-minute cities in last year’s municipal election. It was then assumed that Alberta’s capital would be the vanguard for punitively walkable, Hunger Games-style “districts.”
Before long, we had our own protests, led and attended by known conspiracy theorists. One short video clip from this protest was particularly striking: In it, a rather infamous theorist by the name of Chris Sky berated an Edmonton city planner.
“What’s the point of a district?” he asks. The planner answers: This is just another word for neighbourhood. Edmonton has around 400 of them, and has since time immemorial. Movement wasn’t restricted between neighbourhoods during COVID-19.
“You said we were never confined to our neighbourhoods but they certainly tried under COVID,” Mr. Sky responds. “And let’s just pretend for a second that we go along with the 15-minute-city plan and now we have these wonderful districts. How much easier would it be for them to literally lock us down into a little tiny 1.5-square-kilometres?”
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so it pains me to acknowledge when such a figure raises an interesting point. I don’t believe that the purpose of the 15-minute city is to do anything other than create more vibrant and walkable communities – a laudable goal. But if another pandemic did hit, would I have faith in our governments not to, say, erect physical barriers to limit movement and demand vaccination papers at neighbourhood checkpoints? Do I think it possible that well-meaning councillors would cite climate change in enacting punishment on people with cars?
Five years ago, I would have said that was crazy. But after watching bylaw officers wrap playgrounds in police tape, restaurants demand digital health records and the Quebec government institute two provincewide curfews to prevent people from leaving their homes, a lot of these conspiracies seem just a touch more plausible now. My trust in governments to make sound decisions, maintain perspective and prioritize individual rights isn’t what it once was, and I fear there is no obvious way to restore faith in the idea that the media isn’t trying to mislead anyone.
Maybe I’m a little broken, too.
Editor’s note: (Feb. 23, 2023): A previous version of this article incorrectly described Oxford's programs. In the city’s low-traffic neighbourhoods, drivers are not restricted from travelling outside their home districts; separately, cameras and fines – and not bollards and planters – are being used to filter traffic through main roads. These efforts are not part of Oxford's plan to become a 15-minute city by 2040.