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The Domestication of City Dwellers
Because It’s People’s Freedom of Movement That’s the Problem
“A fifteen minute city is one where everything we need is close to home, where communities are safe and inclusive, where the air is clean….A fifteen minute city is one where everyone has a place.”
Fifteen minute cities are intended to reduce sprawl and traffic, facilitate social interactions with your neighbors, and give you your time back1. If it took fifteen minutes or less to get to all the places that you need and want to go, imagine how much more possibility there could be in life.
You might well wonder how such remarkable results will be achieved. The answer is: through restricting automobile travel between neighborhoods, fining people who break the new travel restrictions, and keeping a tech-eye wide open, with surveillance cameras everywhere.
Don’t worry, though. In one imagining of the near future,3 all residents will be able to apply for permits to drive between areas, up to one hundred days per year.4 That’s almost two days a week! Surely you don’t need to drive outside of your sphere more than two days a week?5
What is so all-fired fantastic about the stuff outside of those arbitrary boundaries, anyway? Why do you want to go? What exactly are you planning to do when you leave your cell?
Apparently, say the promoters of fifteen minute cities, we need to promote access over mobility. In their world, the definitions are these: “Mobility is how far you can go in a given amount of time. Accessibility is how much you can get to in that time.” The same post further argues that “Mobility - speed - is merely a means to an end. The purpose of mobility is to get somewhere, to points B, C, D, and E, wherever they may be. It’s the “getting somewhere” — the access to services and jobs — that matters.”
This is not just confusing, it’s a bait-and-switch. Speed is not the same thing as mobility. Being able to “get somewhere” is mobility. Mobility means freedom to move. This freedom has been undermined for the last three years, in many countries, under the guise of protecting public health.
Fifteen-minute cities would further restrict your freedom to move. Your ability to get anywhere will be restricted under the pretense of making it easier and faster to get everywhere that you really need or want to go.
Maybe the “somewhere” that you want to get to is a nice grocery store that sells the stuff you want to eat. Wouldn’t it be lovely if all city-dwellers had a nice market within easy walking distance? Yes, it would.
Maybe, though, that “somewhere” that you want to go is a new kind of need, one that you can’t predict now but will soon have accepted as necessary—think cell phone or computer stores in 1990, an era before almost anyone had cell phones or personal computers.
Or consider that you haven’t yet imagined all of the things that you might want to do, even though other people are doing them already. Maybe you want to try martial arts, or ceramics, or roller derby. But dojos are not interchangeable with one another, and neither are art studios, nor roller rinks. They’re not commodities in the same way that a dry cleaner is (and even dry cleaners aren’t fully exchangeable). Sorry though: if you’re lucky enough to have a dojo or studio or rink within fifteen minutes of your home, that’s the one you should be using. And if there’s none there, well, you can always apply to go outside your zone a couple of times a week!
And maybe, that “somewhere” that you want to get to is a park hundreds of acres large. Lest you think I’m in fantasyland here, three such parks exist in Portland, Oregon, alone. “Park” isn’t a homogenous entity, though, so having a single trailhead which is everybody’s point of access doesn’t cut it. That’s the Disney version of a park. It’s pre-digested, safe and uniform. Some of us want to go to a version of nature that hasn’t already been edited down for our convenience and ease.
And maybe, that “somewhere” that you want to get to is unknown even to you. Maybe you want to discover someplace new, get a new view on the world, see things from a new perspective. Maybe you want to hit the road, and see what happens.
And maybe, while you’re someplace new, you meet someone outside your little electronically gated sphere. Someone with whom you want to spend more time. Someone with whom you want to spend allthe time. It’s fine though: I’m sure that two days a week will be sufficient for you new lovers. Maybe state-imposed curfews will make it more interesting—a common enemy can add to the excitement!
I remember when “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” was a well-worn liberal mantra, and applied a bit too broadly. It’s patently silly at one level: very often you are precisely trying to get somewhere, and this is when living in a place where “access” has been prioritized will serve you well: Would you prefer to spend less than fifteen minutes to get to your grocery store, your dentist, and your child’s school, or do you like a long commute through desolate sprawl? Few people prefer the slog through desolate sprawl. Highly concentrated urban centers have an appeal, particularly if your priorities are human activities and human-centered services, and if you are content with the current scope of your life.
But what if you aren’t an entirely human-focused being? What if your horizon is further out? What if you are pleased with your life, but are also hoping to discover something that you don’t yet know? What if you don’t choose to be domesticated?
To those who would plan our lives for us: You will not domesticate me on your terms. You will not cage me with all the things that you think I should need and want, and tell me how glorious it is, how easy I have it, how lucky I should feel.
It doesn’t feel glorious or lucky. Quite the opposite. It does sound easy, though.6
Easy isn’t the answer. It is not the goal of the human condition. Many things bring meaning to a life. Ease is not one of them. Ease can pave the way to having the time and space to do the things that do bring meaning: creating, discovering, and exploring; solving and healing; spending time with family and good friends. But ease is not a goal unto itself.
I began by quoting an upbeat video on the C40 Cities channel:
A 15 minute city is one where everyone has a place.
The more I learn about them though, the more I think this is a more complete description:
A 15 minute city is one where everyone has a place, the authorities know where it is, and they make sure that you stay there.
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Your time is your own, or it should be. It is not the purview of the state to “give” it back to you.
Oxfordshire, England, is swiftly moving towards installing traffic filters which do just this. Note that this is technically not a “15 minute city” plan, although even Oxfordshire County Council's cabinet member for travel and development strategy, who is helping to implement the filters, conflates the two. One of the features of Oxfordshire’s traffic filters is that “Residential properties within the permit area [will be] eligible for 100 day passes per vehicle per year (up to a maximum of three vehicles per household and one vehicle per person).” Furthermore, for the six month trial period, “private hire vehicles” and taxis are exempt from the traffic filters (as are some other classes of vehicles), meaning that the rich don’t need to be much bothered by these new restrictions.
Not only can rich people hire cars to circumvent these rules, anyone can also go out to the perimeter road and come back in a different way—a longer trip for individuals, and more polluting for everyone. So technically, I guess, there are no restrictions on travel?
Of course this issue has pushed now familiar and Orwellianly-named “fact-checking” into high gear, with articles published that harrumph about how outrageous criticisms are (“wholly incorrect”, “misinformation”), while not-so-subtly allowing that actually, most of the criticisms are accurate. For instance, while “it was said residents would have to ask the council for permission to travel from one area of the city to another which, again, is not true.” It is true, the same article admits, that “If a vehicle passes through the filter at certain times of the day, the camera will read the number plate and (if you do not have an exemption or a residents’ permit) you will receive a fine in the post.” Also, a residents’ permit does not give you free range across the traffic filters, so that part of the “fact-checking” is simply a lie. Here's another “fact-checking” article that says “Claims that it will restrict people's movements are part of conspiracy theories.” I do wonder how the substantial fines that Oxfordshire is about to implement for not obeying traffic restrictions are “part of conspiracy theories.” Seems to me that the fact-checking organizations are the ones engaging in conspiracy.