Our director, Nicholas Boys Smith’s defence of fifteen minute cities was recently published in Conservative Home. The text was edited down for reasons of space. Here is the full text.
Would you like to live in a more prosperous place? A neighbourhood where there are more local businesses, where shops do better, where the air is cleaner, where people are healthier, a neighbourhood which people move to not from? Do you want your children to grow up readily able to go for a walk, to the shops, to friends a street or two away, not sequestrated from friends and family, sheltering timidly at home?
If the answer is yes, then you support the idea of the 15-minute city or (for it goes by many different names), the traditional village, market town, 20-minute neighbourhood, complete community, mixed-use neighbourhood or a place of walkable gentle density.
If you live in any neighbourhood built before the 1950s (when traffic-modernist followers of Le Corbusier insanely decided that the motorcar was the one and only way to get around our urban streets) then the chances are you already do live in a place with some or many of the characteristics of a 15-minute city and are able (more or less) to walk to the pub, to the corner shop or to a nearby school. If you are richer, then you are more likely to live in such a place. Their homes cost more in the UK and the US as the modern demand for such neighbourhoods consistently outstrip the historic supply. (One of the criticisms made by the socialist left of 15-minute cities is that their improvements will be monopolised by the already prosperous). Think about what it costs to live in traditional “London village” like Dulwich or pretty much any village in the south of England not ruined by a fast A-road cutting through its heart.
Over the last 70 years, we’ve been very bad at creating such places and very good at ruining historic ones with fast roads and ugly faceless buildings. Thankfully, the tide has begun to turn. Since the American writer Jane Jacobs wrote her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, planners have slowly become increasingly nervous of and embarrassed by the great harm that they and traffic engineers did to our towns post-war when all city-planning was subsumed to the mission of keeping the traffic flowing as quickly as possible. Over the last generation towns and cities such as London, (primarily under one Boris Johnson of whom you may have heard), Amsterdam, Toulouse, Pontevedra and many more have been planting street trees and making it easier to walk, cycle or use public transport. The evidence consistently shows that such places are more popular, perform their roles as centres of productive agglomeration and commerce better and are healthier, happier and more prosperous. It also makes it easier commercially to create more homes (something the UK desperately needs) at gentle densities.
Cars are great. They give all of us the liberty of a super-rich Victorian aristocrat to move around the nation, the region or the countryside. But they are very, very bad ways for everyone efficiently to get around the town.
That’s not to say that we should not have or use cars. I have a car and will continue doing so. But an urban neighbourhood in which we are all one hundred per cent dependent on cars to meet every one of our daily needs, is grotesquely, outrageously inefficient. Car don’t actually move many people, very rapidly become congested and take up lots of space being parked. In towns cars don’t maximise personal freedom (above all for children) but constrain it. As the marvellous conservative blogger Ed West has written,
“for all their positive transformative power in our lives, cause a huge negative externalities, and these get more pronounced as our population grows … Whenever you drive in an urban area, the lives of everyone else around you become slightly worse; it’s not just pollution, which has drastically improved, nor the problem of noise, but also the space you use, the fear you’re creating pedestrians, then cycling nature of jams and huge amount of land cities must allocate for parking. Cars are hugely effective at destroying street life and civic community.”
He is right. To cite just a few studies: Streets with more traffic or faster cars are reliably and consistently associated in academic research with poorer air, fewer neighbourhood friendships, less walking, more constrained children, lower residential land values. That’s why rich people tend to avoid them. They are the very opposite of the idea and belief in the importance of home. They turn our neighbourhoods from a place into no place, from somewhere into anywhere. (I could go on but there are books and books and books and books to read on this if you want more.)
In short, the aim of the 15-minute city or traditional neighbourhood is to re-balance places in favour of people, local prosperity and the weight with which we tread upon the planet. Our personal carbon footprint collapses if we can walk to fulfil many of our daily needs. It should appeal, I think, to both the data-rational and the romantically Scrutonian wings of the Conservative party.
However, something is going on because over the last few weeks, a series of right of centre politicians and commentators have decided that 15-minute cities are “socialist”; “deeply illiberal”, “French” and “dystopian”; and an imposition by “tyrannical bureaucrats” by “fiat” of what you can and cannot do. (Though the response from some hysterically to shout of ‘culture wars’ has, been just as bad). Successful political movements deliver what people like and want. Given the overwhelming evidence of the greater stated and pricing-revealed popularity of traditional neighbourhoods (a.k.a. 15-minute cities), to put it politely, I’m not sure this is a very wise path for the right to take. Helping make peoples’ lives better not worse tends to be quite a good political strategy. Ask Margaret Thatcher.
The best examples of new English developments that have been designed specifically as a 15-minute town are the urban extensions of Poundbury in Dorset and Nansledan in Cornwall by His Majesty the King when he was Prince of Wales. Two critical differences between these neighbourhoods and most new housing estates are the high number of local shop, businesses and commercial spaces that are provided and the ease with which you can walk about. Right-angled junctions and wide pavements make it nearly impossible to drive quickly: there have barely been any accidents over twenty years. It is a place for people, in which cars are welcome as guests not the dominant species. In doing so, the King was merely returning to the pattern of walkable development before the creation of modern top-down planning as practiced by the great estates or in 1930s Metroland.
It is harder to retrofit existing places. Even when traditionally designed centuries ago, what used to be public space in which horse, cart ,bicycle, man, woman or child could freely pass is now dominated by one favoured mode of movement (the car) despite its negative side effects for everyone else and for the very town’s liberty and prosperity.
The problem, of course, is that evolving these existing towns and city streets to be better, more valuable and more popular places in which more people can efficiently move about can create losers as well as winners. And, as public choice theory and rational ignorance, would suggest, a small number of losers (or perceived losers) can make a lot more noise than a larger number of winners. Conservatives have also tended to be more pro-car. For many they represent ideas of freedom and self-reliance, even when they are actually destroying more liberty than they create. Restricting the movement of cars rubs against this.
I can understand why those on the right can get nervous about some of the language and practice of low traffic neighbourhoods and traffic filtering schemes (not actually integral to the concept of 15-minute cities but associated but their critics). Highfalutin claims of the public good have in the past and will in the future be masks for foolish policy, poorly imposed. Removing or constraining an existing right to drive down a given street will certainly inconvenience some and may (though less frequently) be a problem for specific shops particularly reliant on car driven trade (even if the wider evidence suggests this will be quite rare). You can hardly blame inconvenienced drivers and worried shopkeepers for kicking up a fuss. And, as Edmund Burke once observed, in the field of politics angry grasshoppers make far more sound than the contented cattle, chewing the cud.
My advice to Conservative councillors would be twofold.
Firstly, find gradualist “win-win” processes for improving places with the consent, even with the active leadership, of local neighbourhoods. This can be done. Plant street trees. Create continuous (so-called Copenhagen) crossings. Experiment with pedestrianising or part-pedestrianising streets on a given Sunday or bank holiday. Very often, local shop takings will rise. Or look at the facts and the data in your local town already. I was in an historic English market town a few days ago and, by some distance, the most prosperous street without any empty shops was the one with the most street trees and the tightest most speed-constraining carriage way. Cars were present but they were guests.
Secondly, worry about the buildings. Too many new so-called walkable, mixed-use, 15-minute developments are foul, anaemic places, overwhelmed by acres of ugly, bird-killing glass and impersonal faceless architecture which only a mother could love. They are soulless and heartless. Too many proponents of 15-minute cities ignore the importance of beauty in our streets & squares, although the evidence is very clear that this matters too. (Though, not the main proponent of the 15-minute city concept, the humane urbanist Carlos Moreno whose framework makes very clear the need for enjoyable places).
Don’t make this mistake. The places we most want be in are beautiful. Fortunately, recent changes to the planning system make it much easier for councillors to require new buildings to be popular with local residents.
15-minutes cities are not a socialist plot. They are no more, and yet no less, than a repackaging of a timeless, even a Scrutonian, ideal: of the need for home and for neighbourhood as we make our brief passage through the world. It is not ground that any wise political movement should cede to their opposition.
Nicholas Boys Smith is founding director of Create Streets