This post was first published on our sister blog, The Stirrer. It’s not often that we cross post between the two blogs but we feel that the issues covered in this post are relevant to the audience we have here on Grassroots Alternatives. As we get our heads around how our urban areas can grow and develop in a sustainable way without constraining people’s freedom, we’ll be putting up more posts with our thoughts.
Dave – the editor
A while ago I put up this post: 15 minute cities / neighbourhoods – a good or a bad idea? – 23.3.22. My broad conclusion was that there were a number of positives to be gained from re-configuring existing neighbourhoods to be more convenient and designing new developments to reduce reliance on cars. Having had the time to think about what I wrote, I feel that it’s worth briefly returning to the issue to make a few clarifications, to expand on a few points and to pose some questions for future discussion.
Fears about what a ’15 minute neighbourhood’ could mean
There are fears about the concept of 15 minute neighbourhoods being used as a mechanism to restrict people’s movements as part of the agenda of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). I first became aware of these fears through my involvement with some of the anti-lockdown currents and from following a number of anti-lockdown/anti-4IR accounts on social media. It would be all too easy and also intellectually dishonest to dismiss these concerns about restricting movement as nothing more than a so called conspiracy theory.
Now we have an albeit temporary respite from the Covid crisis and the related restrictions, and can take a few steps back to look at what’s been done to us over the last couple of years, it’s clear that the crisis has been leveraged to accelerate trends towards the 4IR. The 4IR if unchallenged, would profoundly change our lives for the worse as we get forced into a techno-fascist dystopia where we have no privacy, with every aspect of our lives being monitored and controlled. In the name of ‘sustainability’ our movements would be restricted, ‘for the sake of the planet’ of course. So when anti-lockdown/anti-4IR people get exercised about the concept of the 15 minute neighbourhood, I have a degree of sympathy with their fears.
The title of this piece is ‘connectivity vs convenience’. My definition of connectivity is having a choice of reliable transport options that enable people to travel with ease from one neighbourhood to another, from their neighbourhoods to work and back, into their nearest town or city centre for leisure and culture and finally, from one town or city to another.
My definition of convenience is admittedly based on my experience of urban and suburban areas as a non driver! We’ve been through the home hunting experience in Bristol and some of the surrounding towns where our criteria for finding a place to live were: ease of access by foot to needs based shopping, close to reliable public transport links and ideally within walking distance of a decent park. That’s actually not a lot to ask for but when we rigorously applied those criteria, the number of suitable areas to live shrank pretty rapidly! On that basis alone, we have a fair bit of time for the concept of 15 minute neighbourhoods albeit we’re well aware of how that could be used and abused for the purposes of social control if it’s imposed from the top down.
How the concept is being forced
As much as a considered discussion on how we reach a balance between connectivity on the one hand and neighbourhoods that are convenient on the other is desirable, circumstances are moving in a way that’s forcing the issue. With petrol and diesel prices going up and looking like they’ll stay up plus intermittent shortages that are caused by a range of factors from tanker driver shortages through to the likes of Stop Oil blocking fuel distribution facilities, the assumption of ease of access by vehicle continuing into the future is one that’s now in doubt. Presumably, that’s the aim of the Stop Oil protests.
Whether their strategy and tactics to get people thinking about why suburban development that assumes car ownership is not future proofed are the right ones, is questionable to say the least. Bear in mind that the impact of the Stop Oil protests is coming in on top of fuel price rises which mean people are not just having to cut back on leisure travel, they’re also having to make decisions about essential journeys that have to be made such as for shopping, work, etc. Pissing off swathes of the public is probably not the best way to start the discussion that’s needed about how to future proof our communities by gradually reducing reliance on the car.
Convenience and connectivity
When I talk about convenient neighbourhoods, I’m not advocating that every one of them has to have literally everything people need for a decent life within a radius of a 15 minute walk. While that’s achievable to a greater degree in inner suburban areas, in the kind of overspill towns we’ve spent most of our lives in, we know that’s not possible as things currently stand. What I am advocating is having the basics close to hand so that if you want to go out and get the morning paper and the milk, it doesn’t involve a three mile or more round trip in the car! It means easy access to needs based shopping, health centres, education facilities, pocket parks and the like. It means not having to jump in the car to meet every need of life but being able to walk to where a fair few of them can be met. It means neighbourhoods having centres with a bit of focus and life as opposed to vast tracts of nothing but housing. It means bringing many outer suburban and overspill town neighbourhoods back to the kind of life where there is a genuine sense of community.
Obviously for things like culture, people will travel beyond their neighbourhoods. If you live somewhere like Keynsham which is between Bristol and Bath, for gigs, concerts, the theatre and the like, you will be travelling to either one or the other of these two cities. What’s needed to facilitate that in a sustainable way is more frequent trains and better bus links. The same applies when it comes to travelling to and from work. Sure, the laptop classes were able to work from home during the lockdowns but the rest of us had to travel to our workplaces. Such is the nature of modern day employment that we often have no choice but to travel miles to work in a warehouse in the arse end of nowhere. If you’re working anti-social hours, there will definitely be no public transport available to get you to and from work so there’s no option but to drive. That’s why there has to be a balance between convenient neighbourhoods where basic needs can be met and connectivity via a range of options where you can travel.
Cars run on petrol which is a finite resource. As for electric cars, let’s just say that the jury is out on them and will be for some time to come. There are issues with them, not least the question of where will all of the metals and minerals needed for the batteries and electronics come from. Once you start looking into the exploitation and environmental damage incurred in mining and processing many of these metals and minerals, electric cars don’t look like they’re the sustainable or ethical solution some people make them out to be. That means we need to start future proofing our cities, towns, suburbs and villages sooner rather than later. 15 minute neighbourhoods allied to fast and effective mass transit will have to be part of the solution.
Going off at a slight tangent, one component of that future proofing is shortening food supply chains. Rather than rehash the arguments we’ve made elsewhere on the need to shorten these chains and localise food production, we’ll present you with a number of posts dealing with that which we’ve published here on this blog:
As we were saying… – 5.2.22
Seed banks – gaining control… – 3.2.22
If people are calmly presented with the facts and options about the future of energy and fuel supply, how that will affect transport and how that will influence the way their communities change, develop and grow, they’ll conclude that a rethink is needed. What they won’t do is respond in any positive way to doom mongering and finger wagging from those who delight in telling other people how to live their lives, inevitably in a more limited way. Quite rightly, they will definitely not respond in a positive way to any top down attempts to impose the implementation of 15 minute neighbourhoods. Obviously, we’re in a situation with rising fuel prices and intermittent shortages where the need to have that discussion is becoming abundantly clear – the issue is being forced. When an issue is forced in this way, it lays the way open for rushed and bad decisions and gives the wrong type of people too much opportunity to start lecturing us mere plebs.
Needless to say, the decisions that need to be made by all of us won’t be made this side of a major social and economic transformation – in short, a revolution! Part of the process of bringing about that radical change will be developing a vision of how we can build a free and open society in a world of finite resources, many of which have already been squandered. There’s a lot to think about, discuss, plan and implement to get to that point. A positive outcome to that can only come about if people step back from tribalism, group think and posturing.