Living Cities: 15-minute city hysteria — Rome’s battle with bad parking — Can streets be healthy?
A conversation on what makes a livable city.
By AITOR HERNÁNDEZ-MORALES
with GIOVANNA COI
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Happy Thursday, city-lovers, and welcome back to Living Cities.
Health experts agree that one of the easiest ways for city residents to live longer, healthier lives is to become more active.
That’s what schemes like the 15-minute city — which aims to get rid of long commutes by placing essential services just a short walk or bike trip from your home — are supposed to help achieve.
But although the concept has been embraced by a number of EU cities, most notably Paris, it’s now facing intense backlash in other places — including the U.K., where it’s become an unexpectedly heated part of the culture wars.
We dig into the drama after the jump.
A FLAT-EARTHER’S VIEW OF URBANISM: The idea that cities should boost the quality of services within walking distance of where you live probably sounds fairly uncontroversial. Not so in Oxford, where a group of residents insist local authorities are involved in a “dystopian” plot to lock people into their neighborhoods, police their movements with facial recognition technology and ultimately create a “Stalinist-style, closed city.”
Say what? That’s not actually what’s happening. Oxford has approved a 20-year urban development plan that embraces the 15-minute city concept, and a separate Oxfordshire County Council circulation plan aims to reduce through-traffic within the city. The plan would divide the city into discreet zones that can’t be crossed by car; rather, motorists would be redirected onto a ring road.
Birth of a conspiracy theory: Oxford residents are crying foul, saying the plans will mean they can’t move about freely. The conspiracy theories — which reflect broader pushback against green measures that are perceived as an attack on personal freedoms —have been amplified by right-wing public figures and getting remarkable traction. The organizers behind a protest that drew thousands to Oxford last month say they plan to stage similar events in Bath, Bristol, Canterbury and Edinburgh.
Opponents of the 15-minute city plan in Oxford appear to have confused it with a separate circulation plan designed to reduce through-traffic within the city | Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
New culture war: Franco-Colombian academic Carlos Moreno, the 15-minute city’s chief architect, said opponents have misunderstood the scheme’s goals: Rather than lock people into neighborhoods, the idea is to give them greater control over their movements by eliminating onerous commutes. But he also conceded that approval from bodies like the World Economic Forum and the United Nations — as well as from progressive mayors in Paris and Milan and elsewhere — almost guaranteed that the scheme would be attacked by anti-globalist, extreme-right pundits and politicians.
Conservative take: Ben Brittain, a Conservative Party member and policy adviser, told me his party is missing an opportunity by not embracing the 15-minute city concept, arguing that living locally embodies traditional family values. “To me, that is a clear, conservative policy,” he said. “Conservatives have a role to play here, in making sure that it’s implemented correctly.”
Read my full report on the controversy here.
LOCAL CLIMATE SOLUTIONS: A new report by the U.K. parliament’s all-party group on a green new deal calls on the government to work with local authorities to roll out innovative, community-based climate and energy solutions in a bid to reach the country’s 2050 net-zero target. Among other measures, the MPs call for an end to tax allowances for fossil fuel vehicles, investment in localized, low-carbon food production, and the expansion of community renewables generation schemes to turn “every home into its own power station.”
SEE YOU IN COURT: Russian, Belarusian and pro-Tibet activists are suing Lisbon for sharing their personal data with repressive regimes. For years, Lisbon had relayed the names, identification numbers, home addresses and telephone numbers of dissidents who notified the city of plans to stage protests with the governments against which they were mobilizing. With this suit, Russian activist Pavel Elizarov, Belarusian dissident Katsiaryna Drozhzh and Portugal’s Alexandra Correia, who heads the country’s Tibet Support Group, are seeking €120,000 in personal damages as compensation for the risks to which they were unknowingly exposed by local authorities.
HISTORIC HANDOVER: Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) on Thursday began talks with the Christian Democrats (CDU) to form a coalition government in Berlin, signaling a likely end to the current left-wing coalition. If the talks are successful, the CDU’s Kai Wegner is expected to become the next mayor of Berlin, with current SPD mayor Franziska Giffey staying on leading one of the city-state’s ministries. That shift would put an end to over two decades of SPD rule in Berlin.
COMING FOR A CAR NEAR YOU: Members of the environmental group Tyre Extinguishers on Monday deflated the tires of hundreds SUVs in cities across France, Italy, Germany and the U.K. to mark one year since its founding. The group claims to have deflated the tires of over 10,000 gas-guzzlers in 17 countries over the past year. In a statement, the group’s cheekily-named spokesperson, Mercedes Driver, said the guerrilla campaign will continue “until these polluting vehicles are history.” The group also launched its first strikes in Belgium on Wednesday, letting the air out of the tires of over 60 SUVs in Brussels. That definitely won’t inflame tensions in the capital …
BARCELONA’S WAR ON AMAZON: Barcelona has had it with e-commerce. A new municipal scheme aims to impose a yearly tax on transport companies that occupy public spaces while delivering packages — a step that would likely make online shopping more expensive — and use the revenue to support local brick-and-mortar stores. My colleague Pieter has the details here.
PARKING ENEMY NUMBER ONE: For years Rome has raked in cash by fining bad drivers for parking infractions. But since the pandemic, police have issued far fewer fines, leading to a €31 million drop in expected revenue for municipal coffers in 2022. In response, Rome’s police commander this week ordered traffic officers to ramp up patrols and ruthlessly target anyone who double-parks, leaves their Fiat on pedestrian crossings or the sidewalk, or neglects to feed the meter. But police unions are reportedly rolling their eyes at the order, arguing they lack the officers to carry it out.
Brussels wants to replace the Villo! bike sharing scheme by 2026 | Laurie Dieffembacq/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images
YOU BETTER SHOP AROUND: The Brussels region is looking for a system to replace its current Villo! bike sharing scheme before its concession expires in 2026. Research agency TLM has been commissioned to carry out a study of current schemes in five European cities — the results, expected next year, will help the regional authority in charge of mobility make its call for tenders. The authority is also accepting proposals for secure on-street bicycle parking infrastructure; the deadline for submissions in March 15.
JOBS FOR CITY NERDS: Eurocities, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions and United Cities and Local Governments are teaming up to create a single employment platform for people working in public authorities, universities and research centers to find jobs in regional and city networks. The platform, expected to launch later this spring, will enable the networks’ HR teams to coordinate and also make it easier for current employees to make professional changes within their organizations.
Speaking of which: Energy Cities is looking for a communications strategist to help them spread the good word on the energy transition at the local level; they’re also seeking out a junior project manager to work on their EU Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities projects. Apply here.
TAKIN’ IT TO THE STREETS: Streets are often perceived as concrete-heavy spaces full of exhaust-spewing cars — not the healthiest environment for the people who use them. Healthy Streets is looking at ways to change that, and has developed an urban planning approach focused on public health with 10 key indicators. “If our streets are welcoming, people will use them to go out and lead more active lifestyles, to interact with others, to engage with nature,” said Lucy Saunders, the public health specialist, urbanist and transport planner behind the approach. “Getting that right makes a huge difference to the health of the whole community, but to older adults, children and disabled people in particular.”
Those pesky metal boxes again: Since most streets are already built, the key challenge is not how to design new ones but how to make existing structures healthier. The most effective way to do that is to reduce the presence of cars, said Saunders. “Motor vehicles are linked to all the negative externalities that have the biggest impact on people’s health,” she explained. “Road danger, air and noise pollution, severance from physical activity … It’s all connected to the dominance of motorized traffic.”
Healthy streets indicators diagram | Courtesy of Lucy Saunders/healthystreets.com
Better use of public space: By reducing the presence of cars — whether they’re moving or parked — streets are not only freed of exhaust and the rumble of motors, but also become places where people can safely socialize and be active. The benefits are even greater when you add trees and green spaces, as well as play spaces for both children and adults. “More active lifestyles have big, long-term impacts on life expectancy, but the great thing is that better managed, better-designed streets also benefit the right now,” Saunders said. “Among other things, that greater physical activity has instantaneous mental health benefits.”
Step by step: Under Mayor Sadiq Kahn, London is using the Healthy Streets approach to design its transport strategy and spatial plan. At a hyperlocal level, the borough of Southwark is using its indicators to create three low-traffic neighborhoods and promote walking and cycling. “The complete rewiring of how we design and manage streets takes a lot of effort by a lot of people over quite a long time,” said Saunders. “But more and more cites, and even suburban and rural areas, are looking at how to apply it, and those are promising steps on the long road we have ahead.”
Beyond Britain: The Healthy Streets approach brings together a lot of common sense urban planning practices that many cities are already implementing. Milan’s commitment to plant 3 million trees by 2030, for example, reflects the indicator arguing in favor of making streets more liveable by making them shadier, while Amsterdam’s drive to eliminate 11,000 parking spots from its streets by 2025 embodies the principle of reclaiming public space and making it safer and less polluted.
STATS & THE CITY
In this week’s feature we took a look at the bizarre suspicions some people have developed regarding the 15-minute city concept.
Tell us about your favorite cities-related conspiracy theory | iStock
What’s the craziest cities-related conspiracy theory you’ve heard? Tell me all about it here.
— Bloomberg digs into the ongoing, post-pandemic death of central business districts; ICYMI, my colleagues and I had a long-read predicting the death of the city back in 2020.
— Urbanist Ganesh Babu has an excellent thread on how much the Netherlands spends to keep dry, and how that price tag is expected to increase as sea levels rise.
— In a deep dive into the death-by-tourism of Lisbon’s central Baixa neighborhood, A Mensagem tracks how five hotels have sprung up in the lots formerly occupied by 20 local shops.
MANY THANKS TO: Pieter Haeck, Louise Guillot, my editors Esther King and Stephan Faris and producer Giulia Poloni.
POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab is a collaborative journalism project seeking solutions to challenges faced by modern societies in an age of rapid change. Over the coming months we will host a conversation on how to make cities more livable and sustainable.