The '15-Minute City' Is a Thing Devoutly to Be Unwished

Archeologists using the latest LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology in the dense jungles of Guatemala recently announced a discovery of a massive and hitherto unknown ancient Mayan city that dates back possibly to 1000 B.C. The discovery upended much of the existing consensus about Mayan civilization. It ought also to help upend enthusiasm for the latest repackaging of an old utopian idea for today: the “15-minute city, now being proposed for the city of Oxford in the U.K., among other places.

15 minute city zones that have been proposed by Oxford City Council as part of the Local Plan 2040 have garnered significant controversy. The plan, which will see traffic filters installed on six roads as part of a £6.5m trial, is set to commence in 2024. Under these new filters, residents will be able to drive freely around their own neighbourhoods but will be fined up to £70 for driving into other neighbourhoods through the filters. The plan’s aim is to create neighbourhoods in Oxford where ‘essential’ facilities are accessible by a walking distance of up to 15 minutes. These facilities were determined by a 2022 civilian consultation of over 5,000 stakeholders.

The City Council has asserted that the plan’s intent is not to coerce residents into staying in one neighbourhood, but to address ‘awful’ congestion in the city centre which it argues is making public transport in Oxford ‘unviable’. The traffic filters will not take the form of physical barricades; instead, new traffic cameras which can read number plates will be installed.

It's a terrible idea, of course, and one that's already receiving serious pushback. Critics rightly point to the fascist implications of this latest "green" lunacy, a new kind of lockdown that, like the old one, is for your own good.

The modern fondness for Rousseauvian primitivism is a throwback to the Swiss-French philosopher's prelapsarian "noble savage" theory and posits a halcyon Golden Age that reasonable people understand never existed. The discovered Mayan area featured extensive urban infrastructure including even large sports stadia. There was one aspect of the story that deserves special notice: the imaging detected 110 miles of raised roadways, which the archeologists are calling “the first freeway system in the world.” The Romans might have something to say about that claim, but the point is that even in the most dense urban areas of antiquity, the desire for mobility radiating outward from the central city manifested itself in the form of large roads, centuries before there would be motorized vehicles to use them.

There is a lesson here for our time, especially for the latest generation of urban “planners,” whose new dreamy schemes for urban utopia never seem to learn from past failures. Above all, citizens desire mobility, including access to the edge of the city and beyond. The purpose of the city is for humans not simply to live together, but to live well. If a city fails at that basic purpose, it will decline and eventually collapse. The Mayan cities of antiquity that disappeared beneath a jungle canopy find their modern analogue in Detroit, which has largely become an asphalt jungle as a result of decades of appalling government.

For decades liberals assailed “white flight” when the middle class fled Detroit and other central cities in large numbers. More recently, liberals turned on a dime and assailed “gentrification” when professional class younger whites moved back to central cities and displaced minority residents and transformed entire neighborhoods. This trend abruptly stopped with Covid and the recent spike in crime in urban areas.

The obliviousness about the reasons why people choose to leave—or return to—urban cores brings us back to the “the 15-minute city.” The concept is simple: cities should be designed and built such that every urban dweller can meet all or nearly all of his or her basic needs within a 15-minute radius on foot. The idea for the 15-minute city is said to have originated less than a decade ago, but the ideal of “walkable” cities has been around for decades. Twenty years ago it went by “the new urbanism.” Ten years before that it was called “smart growth.” Probably the equivalent idea was expressed when the pyramids—the skyscrapers of antiquity—were built in Egypt and Guatemala. All that's new is the label.

When each successive label is scrapped off one finds not a thoughtful appreciation of form and function in urban design, or even a nostalgia for small-town America of a bygone era. Before long you discover a hatred of the automobile, a fixation for mass transit, and disdain for middle class life and especially the large-scale enterprises (think WalMart or Costco) that have improved the material lives of the middle class. The fetish for expanding mass transit, even as ridership on current systems continues to fall everywhere, and removing lanes on existing roadways to make way for barely-used bike lanes while making car traffic worse, are examples of this coercive utopianism at work.

All of these urban visions, under whatever label, invariably involve one thing above all other: more money and power for centralized planners to impose their vision on everyone. It should not surprise us that the enthusiasts for the idea are the very same people who think we should eat bugs, abolish private property, and submit to endless mandatory Covid shots, all to reduce our "carbon footprint."

Plus ça change...

Although the 15-minute boiled eggheads behind this idea like to claim the mantle of Jane Jacobs’s famous analysis of functional neighborhoods in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, they have the matter precisely backwards. Jacobs’s main insight was that ideal neighborhoods were spontaneous, organic things, and not the product of deliberate centralized planning. It was the early version of “urban renewal” that prompted her rebellion against the pretension of the planners.

The simplest way to promote truly walkable neighborhoods is simply to allow them to exist. The kind of mixed-used, variable density development that would make for more walkable neighborhoods is prohibited by most zoning codes and regional general plans today. But few of our enlightened elites propose scrapping or relaxing our stifling planning regulations or even emulating Houston’s very permissive land use regime. Houston remains the last major American city without traditional zoning, and it is no coincidence that it is the easiest major metropolitan area to start a business, is a magnet for striving minorities, has less income inequality than progressive-run cities in the north or west, and offers affordable housing.

In other words, an outline of a truly 15-minute city would take only 5 seconds to achieve. But there’s no fun (or power) in that for our squads of reimagineers.