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15 minutes to madness

The idea of a walkable city seems fairly harmless, but conspiracy
enthusiasts have turned it into a threat to our freedom

The city has a plan to create 15-minute neighbourhoods, and already the conspiracy theorists are up in arms. (Kieran Fong)

By Kieran Fong

‘YOU ARE promoting very dangerous ideology [sic]. Shame on you. it’s a LIE ! Enslavement,” says anonymous tweet in city councillor Andrew Knack’s thread about 15-minute cities.

The concept – an endorsement of walkability in cities – has generated a range of public responses, often negative.

In Brussels, angry mobs threw eggs at firefighters. In England, protestors held signs that read, “First they came for OXFORD. We will speak out.” Judging by the responses, you’d think the world was prepping for the second coming of Stalin.

What are 15-minute cities, and why have they generated such polarizing responses?

“It’s about having the option to have more services and amenities closer to people’s homes,” Knack says.

French-Colombian urbanist Carlos Moreno coined the term “15-minute city” in 2016, referring to planning for his home town of Paris. Lately, the concept has picked up tons of media attention.

Regarding protests in the U.K., Knack says two things have been conflated: traffic control and urban planning.

“They’ve also been talking about congestion and traffic issues that exist within their current place.”

Some governments have implemented congestion pricing – a policy where motorists are charged a user fee for driving in areas with heavy traffic. This is meant to discourage drivers from using busy lanes.

Knack says this is highly unlikely to be implemented in Edmonton.

People are also getting their opinions from bad-faith actors like Jordan Peterson, who has argued that “idiot tyrannical bureaucrats can decide by fiat where you’re ‘allowed’ to drive.”

‘There are people who feel like
the government is the enemy’

For people who believed COVID was a hoax the government used to take control of their lives, it’s not shocking that the same people fear 15-minute cities.

“There are people who feel like the government is the enemy at this point,” Knack says.

However, it’s important not to dismiss these people, he adds. He emphasizes the importance of understanding where people’s fears come from and addressing their concerns.

“It’s not attempting to try to say, ‘You’re completely wrong, and here’s the factual reason why.'”

Knack says those who fear the cost are mistaken, as well. There’s no required funding.

“It’s not necessarily about needing to build new infrastructure. It’s about making sure those existing pieces of infrastructure are being properly maintained. We’re trying to work to ensure that the zoning that we have allows for these opportunities to exist.”

And, although the municipal government can’t force private businesses to build in specific areas, City Hall is rewriting zoning bylaws to maintain the city’s existing limits and encourage higher density.

Knack says the plan will save money, because 15-minute cities encourage people to walk more by removing the necessity of driving to amenities.

The Dutch city of Groningen is an example of a more bicycle- and people-friendly urban space.

Walkability has been an issue in many North American cities, which were designed to accommodate automobiles, compared to European cities, most of which pre-date the invention of the car by several centuries.

In postwar North America, cars and highways were viewed as “free flowing channels of concrete and steel,” as a General Motors promotional film of the 1950s put it.

Roads were supposed to bring freedom; they brought congestion.

Edmonton was much more walkable in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. There was less urban sprawl. Streetcars ran from 1908 until the early ’50s.

Now, the city is a maze of dull, grey roads and near-vacant parking lots with lifeless grass. Potholes look as if meteorites carved them. Much of the traffic seems to consist of Ford F-150s bedecked with Oilers flags.

If you live in the suburbs and want to enjoy an evening downtown without driving, you’re looking at a $25 Uber ride, at least.

In comparison, European cities tend to be much more walkable. 

David Louis, a student at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, says Dutch streets are built around the purpose they’re supposed to fulfil – connecting citizens to their city – and that biking is part of daily life for most people.

Here, roads are used for cars. While visiting a friend in Edmonton, Louis says, he found getting around downtown much more difficult.

Virtually everyone is fit in the Netherlands, Louis says, an opinion backed up by a recent Ipsos survey that found the Dutch get more exercise than anyone else on the planet.

A Stanford University study found that average people in Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia walked fewer than 5,000 steps daily.

That study also found a direct correlation between increased walkability and decreased obesity.

Is it possible to turn Edmonton into a 15-minute city?

You only need to look at the South Side community of Ritchie. Restaurants, ice cream parlours, grocery stores, and bakeries are all accessible within 15 minutes.

Turning Edmonton into a 15-minute city will be a decades-long process, Knack admits. Some areas will achieve this faster than others, but rewriting the zoning bylaws – which haven’t been updated since the 1960s, will ensure it eventually happens.

Knack says he’s glad more people are taking an interest in city planning, and encourages those who distrust the government to read the documents for themselves.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for people to be involved in shaping their city.”

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