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'Stuff Your 15-Minute Cities!'

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(Alexander Spatari/Getty Images)
(Alexander Spatari/Getty Images)

What do livable and walkable urban environments have to do with "the real life Hunger Games"? And why are people in Oxford, England and elsewhere coming out in droves to protest seemingly innocuous traffic restrictions?

On this episode of Endless Thread, co-hosts Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson explore one of the strangest conspiracy theories circulating today: the 15-minute city.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Ben Brock Johnson: Amory, have you ever seen The Hunger Games?

Amory Sivertson: Yeah, the first one at least.

Ben: I volunteer as tribute!

Amory: I volunteer…Yes. Yep. I saw that.

Ben: When I say “the real life Hunger Games”, what comes to mind for you?

Amory: Wall Street? The grocery store on Sunday before a storm or something?

Ben: Oh, that’s good. Yeah. I think about when we're in a long drive in the car with my wife, and she starts getting snippy with me, you know? Because she's getting hangry.

Amory: Yeah. Or is it because you're being annoying?

Ben: Oh, it's both. It's 100% both.

Amory: All right. I stand with Sarah.

Ben: Oh, it's - don't get me wrong. So until recently, I feel like “the real life Hunger Games” didn't really mean much to me. But about a month ago, I started to see this kind of uptick in posts on Reddit. And also on YouTube and also on Twitter, with people saying that the globalists, the elites, the bad guys had a new plan for making us all lick their boots. It was going to be a real life Hunger Games situation. And I'm not talking about the grocery store on Sunday, Amory.

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Amory: Okay.

Ben: And what was weird is there were all these protests popping up, in the U.K. There was also one in Canada that I saw. These protests were against the bad guys. And they were full of people that, you know, in some ways kind of had a familiar vibe to me. You know, the trucker protests, QAnon, people protesting against vaccines, it had that kind of vibe, if that makes sense. And unfortunately, one of the people who really inspired me to talk to you about this, who was tweeting a lot about this issue, these real life Hunger Games, is this guy who we have interviewed before.

Amory: Whoa.

Ben: Mike Stock. You remember Mike Stock?

Amory: Oh, of course. The songwriter behind “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down.” Yep.

Ben: We had a lovely conversation with Mike about Rickrolling.

Amory: Songwriting.

Ben: And the origin of Rickrolling. And he's turned out to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, unfortunately, Amory. Or at least he loves to retweet them.

Amory: Okay.

Ben: Near as I can tell. And he just retweets people talking about the real life Hunger Games, which is apparently a reference to the fact that in that fictional story, everyone's separated, right, into these, like walled off districts that are poverty stricken and controlled by an all powerful, wealthy capital city. And like many things, conspiracy theory–related Amory, it doesn't really match up with the actual thing being protested. What is being protested is something called the 15 minute city.

Amory: Hmm. This is one of those things that I have seen referenced on Twitter, but I have not done any reading into to actually know what people are talking about.

Ben: You should protest it.

Amory: I already hate it. Okay, what do I already hate?

Ben: So the 15-minute city is really, more than anything else, it's an idea. But it's also an idea that urban planners, environmentalists and, of course, elitist globalist evildoers are apparently championing to divide us into a bunch of different districts, Hunger Games style. I want to show you a YouTube influencer video.

Amory: Okay.

Ben: Take a look.

[Youtube clip]

@coinbureauclips: In practice, 15-minute cities mean setting up cameras everywhere to keep track of where everyone is driving to ensure that they do not leave their designated district too frequently. In the case of Oxford, these boundaries will be enforced through traffic filters that will automatically issue fines to violating vehicles. The pilot is tentatively scheduled for the start of 2024 and it will see the city of Oxford divided into six districts. Those living in a particular area will be allowed to drive into other districts up to 100 times a year. After that, fines get issued. And reducing pollution and car use is supposedly the purpose of the pilot. 

Ben: For now, I want you to pay attention who to who this guy is. So this guy, I don't know his name, but he has a very active YouTube channel. The YouTube channel is called @coinbureauclips.

Amory: Yeah, what does that mean?

Ben: It is, the bio of this channel is “the coin bureau understands just how important well-researched cryptocurrency content is”.

Amory: Okay.

Ben: Not super relevant to the discussion at hand, but I think, you know, what this guy does is, he's got a British accent. He's sort of very, you know, high quality in his presentation. He's like, he sounds like he knows what he's talking about, right? This is like, to me, a very good example of how misinformation gets spread, in my mind. And what this video does I think that is a little dicey is it represents the 15 minute city idea as something that is primarily around restricting movement of people, mass surveillance and sort of curtailing your rights of movement. And they're talking about implementing the 15 minute city idea and actually a bunch of cities around the world. Oxford, England. Paris, France. Even your old neck of the woods, Amory, Cleveland, Ohio.

Amory: Oh, hey-o.

Ben: So now I want you to watch another video. And I would say this person in my mind is more the type of person that I think we are seeing at the 15-minute city protests. The person who's being activated by what I would describe as misinformation.

[Youtube clip]

@SMITHY'S KONTIKI: Can somebody tell me about a 15-minute city? If I'm going to work, I'm working all the hours God sends. To pay for my motorhome, and to enjoy the freedom they offer is going to Scotland and parking at the roadside and staying on camps and wherever. If you bring out these 15 minute cities in all these low emission zones everywhere, what is the point? I want to be in my motorhome. Is that so bad? Stuff your 15-minute cities. I've got my camper. That's all I need. And that's all I want. And when you stop me from doing that, I'll stop everything else. Cheers. 

Ben: What do you think about this guy? How does this guy strike you?

Amory: Just a very practical working guy who's like, look, I want to go to work. I want to make my money. I want to, you know, live my life and enjoy my life and be able to do all that freely and with ease and without restriction. And to that I’m like, the part of me that’s like 'yeah man, you do you', I feel for him.

Ben: Yeah, I think both of these men, in different ways, come off as reasonable. Right?

Amory: Yes.

Ben: The first guy is explaining this thing in a very clear way. The second guy is saying ‘look man', and he’s pretty blue collar seeming. In the video he’s wearing essentially like a security guard uniform. And what he’s saying sounds reasonable.

Amory: Yep, for sure.

Ben: But I think the story, as it always is, is much more nuanced and complicated than I think these two people represent, and that this sort of debate that we've been seeing pop up online represents. You know, as all of these people are pissed off about the supposed Hunger Games style districting of 15-minute cities, and like, actually walling them off, in fact, as these things tend to do, this stuff is getting conflated with all the other conspiracy theorizing. Again, about sort of the people in control trying to control us further.

Amory: Yeah, it is true. Like I'm here, like ‘yeah, stuff you 15-minute city!’ when I still don't know what it is. Or I only have one explanation of it from the guy in the first video saying, ‘look, we're going to be spread into districts. You're not going to be able to go into these other districts’.  And you're hinting at the fact that that understanding is not, that's not fully formed.

Ben: Well, let's go back a little further and see where the 15-minute city really started. And we're going to do that in a minute.

[Sponsor Break]

Ben: Okay, Amory, I want you to go back with me to a difficult time. 2020.

Amory: Hmm.

Ben: People are not traveling around the world very much.

Amory: Nature was healing.

Ben: Nature was healing, which is a part of this. People are staying home and they're thinking. They're thinking a lot about what are we all doing here? What is life? What is the meaning of life? What is society? Why have we created all these systems? Hey, it's actually not so bad staying home. Like, Oh my God, I discovered this place that was really close by that I didn't even know existed because, like, I just, like, get in my car and go to work. You remember those times?

Amory: Oh, yeah, man.

Ben: So at least for our current purposes, the 15-minute city concept really starts with a Franco Colombian urbanist, which is a phrase I just enjoy saying out loud, named Carlos Moreno. And here he is doing a TED Talk describing the 15-minute city.

[TED Talk clip]

Carlos Moreno: I call it the 15-minute city. And in a nutshell, the idea is that cities should be designed, or redesigned, so that within the distance of a 15-minute walk or bike ride, people should be able to live the essence of what constitutes the urban experience. To access work, housing, food, health, education, culture and leisure. 

Ben: How does that strike you, Amory?

Amory: Beautiful man. Beautiful. It's like why live in a city if you can't get to your grocery store and your job and everything you want within 15 minutes?

Ben: Yeah. I mean, here again is a third man, and I will admit, they are all men, a third man here who sounds, in a vacuum, very reasonable.

Amory: Yeah. And he's not saying you can't leave your 15 minute radius. I mean, maybe that's later in the video, but he has not said that yet.

Ben: No.

Amory: No.

Ben: And this idea is an idea that sort of had this kind of like resurgence, I would say, during 2020, because there were all these conversations, especially among urban planners and people who lived in cities trying to rethink how we do a lot of things because a lot of things were shown to sort of be broken. Or at least they were sort of getting reevaluated. And really, this idea in the way that is being considered to be implemented is to actually take back a huge portion of real estate that exists in cities fundamentally for cars. Right?

Amory: Mm hmm.

Ben: Like, that is a huge piece of this. And admittedly a huge piece of it that people are reacting very strongly to. But one of the things that's really, I think, broken about cities today is that you spend a ton of time in your car, or people can spend a ton of time in their cars. And they have to traverse these areas that are not really friendly to pedestrians to get where they need to go. The doctor, the grocery store, you know, the veterinarian, the school that they go to, they all have to get in their cars. And in a very dense urban environment, it's just not a good move. That's why buses exist. That's why, you know, subways exist, etc. But even still, a lot of our built environments in cities are really for you know, they have this huge piece of real estate that is dedicated only to car traffic. And that's not good for the environment. It's not good for our ability to exist in neighborhoods and traverse neighborhoods. It's a problem in the way that cities have evolved and developed over time, at least according to people like Carlos Moreno. What do you think about that?

Amory: 100%. I mean, I am not really interested in running for public office, but I often tell myself like, 'oh, I could never serve because people would just hate me', because I would enact things like a perimeter around a city in which you would not be able to drive. You would have to drive to a train station and then go into the city that way. And I do think there are things that we have to change if we actually want to have a planet still in 20, 30, 50 years from now. So I think that sounds great. And I'm sure, I can already anticipate the tension around mandating something like this, like the idea that, or maybe the misunderstanding that these are going to be districts that you are not allowed to leave. I can totally appreciate the anxiety that would come from that.

Ben: Yeah. And I think this is what, this is where, this is the rub, right? Like, we get to this place where people are actually talking about redesigning some city space. Like, slowly but surely, city governments are actually finding that as they take back some of this real estate from cars and give it back to pedestrians, it really revitalizes and remakes neighborhoods in ways that are actually really positive for the people who live there. It does actually mean a significant reduction in carbon emissions, in part because it does disincentivize people from getting in their car to make a short trip from one place to another. It forces cars to be like in some ways like a last resort for a person. And that's good for us in terms of our physical health. It's good for us in terms of our environmental well-being. And it's actually good for a lot of neighborhoods.

Amory: Where does the truth lie, from what you can tell, between the idea of just redesigning things to make services like -  the vet is a perfect example because that's somewhere that I have to drive - so like to make services like that accessible, what is the actual truth in terms of redesigning versus actually restricting people from leaving their perimeter? Are any cities, like is Oxford in England actually saying you will not be able to leave your district to go to the vet?

Ben: No. And this is where things get sort of, you know, complicated in terms of the way that we talk about this stuff. Really what's happening is, in Oxford, as the first video suggested, what is happening is they do talk about installing cameras. But first of all, CCTV is ubiquitous in the UK and they're really much more efficient in terms of the way that you do tolls, the way that you give people traffic violations, all of these things, right? But really, it's not telling you you can't leave your neighborhood. The suggestion here is that people would get charged a nominal fee if they went over the limit. It's not saying you can't leave. It's just saying at a certain point you've got to pay. You've got to pony up.

Amory: Yeah. And the thinking from a design standpoint, an urban design standpoint, is just like, 'Hey, let's make this more convenient for people so that they don't have to leave a 15 minute radius if they don't want to. Like if we don't have a grocery store within 15 minutes of this neighborhood, we got to fix that. If we don't have a post office or a vet's office, we got to fix that'. Yeah, that makes good sense. And I am, maybe an unpopular opinion, but I'm generally in favor of taxing all of our vices and using that money to make the world a better place. So at this point, gasoline is absolutely a vice and an addiction and we are reliant upon it and need to to fix that.

Ben: I'm going to give you one more sort of little piece of history here for the 15-minute city to consider. One of the most incredible city experiences I've had as a traveler is a brief stint, of I think three weeks, that I spent stuck with very little money while traveling in Europe in the city of Barcelona, Spain. And I stayed in this hostel that was on this road in Barcelona called La Rambla, or Las Ramblas. Have you ever been to Barcelona? Do you know anything about Las Ramblas?

Amory: I have, and I imagine that I've been on that road, but I don't remember it because I was a dumb 18 year old just seeing too much of the world too quickly.

Ben: So was I.

Amory: Okay, well, refresh my memory.

Ben: My hostel just happened to be there, so I spent a lot of time there. This street is essentially, you know, largely taken over by pedestrians. It's an area that is like really pedestrian heavy and traffic light. And it's just this incredible example of what an urban environment can be when it's taken over by pedestrians. It's just full of vibrance. There are street performers. There are, you know, people selling all different kinds of things. There are just like groups of people hanging out and talking. There's all this like serendipitous interaction that happens. It's just this, it's really hard to describe if you haven't experienced this sort of thing, but it's just this kind of beautiful space that is given over to the people that cities are supposed to be for, right? They're not for cars. They're for us. Right? And I was surprised to learn that really the 15-minute city in a lot of ways comes from, specifically, a manifesto that was published in Barcelona in April of 2020. And it proposed these radical changes in the way that cities exist in the wake of COVID 19. It was signed by 160 academics, 300 architects.

And this is actually from a Vox explainer video from six years ago. So like way before 15-minute cities were like a real discussion and way before. You know, people were freaked out that we are all going to have to get stuck in our districts and fight each other for survival.

[Vox clip]

...In the main superblock at the city center, pedestrian space increased from 45% of the total surface area, to 74%. And with so much less traffic, noise levels dropped, from 66.5 decibels, to 61 decibels. Most impressive of all, there was a 42% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions. And a 38% reduction in particle pollution in the area...

Ben: So while some people think of this as radical, and while it is fundamentally an idea that calls for redesigning the way people share space in urban environments and that often means reducing car traffic, it’s proven to be really positive for city populations.

Amory: Yeah. Hear, hear to that! And also, I would just make the point that I think maybe a source of tension is that, I know at least in Boston, I can picture neighborhoods of Boston, where people who do live within 15 minutes of, by walking or bike, of everything that they might need, that's some really expensive real estate currently. And so it really is going to take so much redesign to make this affordable and feasible for everyday people. I think there's some additional tension built in there, just that it's a privilege. If you do live in this kind of environment, that's like a privileged existence and we need to to bring that existence to more people through some redesign and rethinking.

Ben: Hear, hear to redesign and rethinking! And I volunteer as tribute.

Amory: I do, too. I'm going to start thinking about some ways in which I can enforce the no car perimeter on myself a little bit more. I'll let you know how it goes.

Ben: All right. We'll talk to you next week. Bye.

Amory: Bye bye.

Headshot of Ben Brock Johnson

Ben Brock Johnson Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.

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Headshot of Amory Sivertson

Amory Sivertson Host and Senior Producer, Podcasts
Amory Sivertson is a senior producer for podcasts and the co-host of Endless Thread.

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