There are two very different ways of looking at the “15-minute city” idea.
For some, it’s a sustainable, convenient, progressive urban planning concept.
For others, it’s a conspiracy by “tyrannical bureaucrats” to take our lives, our cars and freedom.
What is the truth? Perhaps China’s history can shed some light on this. First, the “15-minute city” idea is super simple – its the idea of building cities in such a way that most daily necessities and services are located within only a 15-minute walk or bike ride from any given home. This would make it easy for people to walk from their home to the grocery store, gym, restaurant, park, doctor’s office, work, or school in 15 minutes or less, ergo the name.
The concept was developed by Parisian professor and urbanist, Carlos Moreno, in 2016, but he was not the first. Communist China invented a similar concept long ago, but it was known by another name – “Controlled Urbanization.”
Controlled Urbanization or “CU” is a socialist method of urban planning much like the 15 minute city. The idea is not market driven, but instead is implemented by a top-down approach, with concepts super-imposed by a central agency for reasons that are not necessarily economical.
In 1949, the Communist Party of China created national development projects and implemented policies according to objects that were not economical, but ideological. CU has its ideological roots in Marxism. The idea was to create both convenience and efficiency for the common worker. The primary flaw with CU is that the policies were not developed out of what people wanted, but out of ideology.
Controlled Urbanization is a more accurate term than 15-minute cities. 15-minute cities are great if they are demanded by the market, but when socialists believe they know better than the consumer, then control measures are imposed to force the people to adapt.
China’s CU was derived from the foundational teachings of Marxism, where capitalism should be replaced by Communism. In Communist China, the means of production and planning were collectively dictated by a central committee and communities were organized by careful plans. The careful plans were put together by ideologists with a focus to satisfy the demand of the people without over or under-supply and this was accomplished by equal distribution of access to work, stores, goods, and service in each community.
In the 15-minute cities, the goal is also ideological. The ideology is the environment. The Communists believed that the world was being destroyed by the market economy and the people needed to rise up and take control away from the greedy capitalists, whereas environmentalists believe that the world is being destroyed by climate change and the people need to rise up and take control away from the greedy capitalists. Different reasons are given, but there is still the same desire for centralized control.
In 1950s China, not as many people supported CU as was thought. The reason given was not because independent thinkers have different opinions, but because the people had been brainwashed by capitalists. In order to make people understand the need for things like CU, they were sent to camps to be re-educated the correct way. When they still did not adapt to China’s CU, the Communist Party implemented an ID law that required every person in China to identify who they are, what job they are supposed to have and most importantly – what location they are supposed to live.
Traveling between communities was not allowed. Individuals were most productive when they stayed in their CU area – or maybe today we would call it their “15 minute city.”
Those advocating for 15 minute city call opposition to it mere “conspiracy theories.” They find it laughable that people would insinuate that individuals would be restricted to travel outside of their area.
It is important however to remember that the innocent citizens in China did not ever expect that they would not be able to travel outside of their zones. The idea was sold to them by explaining how well it would work and when it didn’t work as well as promised, it was blamed on those that didn’t abide by the plan. Greater restrictions were imposed on the people with hopes that it would make the plan work.
China does not provide the only example that we have. The same CU, coupled with tight travel restrictions, can be seen in all of the different Communist countries. North Korea is one of the best examples. Individuals cannot freely travel between communities without approval from the government.
Advocates for the “15-Minute City” will often gaslight their opponents, pointing out the absurdity of locking down and dividing entire cities like New York or London into 15-Minute City parcels. Admittedly, the idea would have been laughable in 2019. After the pandemic, the idea of governments locking up and restricting the travel of entire populations is no longer as absurd.
“Yes, but that was different,” you say? “Those were extreme circumstances where millions of people could have died.” If that is the stance, then perhaps it would be good to ask if those advocating 15-Minute Cities for the purpose of sustainability believe that Climate Change is less or more dangerous than Covid-19.