Central Cambridge serves as a case study for how great a 15-minute city can beRuying Yang for Varsity

It was about this time last year that I first encountered the 15-minute city (FMC) concept. It was the classic tale of Easter term: laptop open on desk, essay plan empty, student on bed scrolling TikTok. A stupid dance. Swipe. A #wesandersonaesthetic clip. Swipe. A strangely familiar voice telling me my civil liberties were soon to be infringed upon. Swipe… hang on? Was that Katie Hopkins? I swipe back… it was. “Very soon, you will only have 15 minutes of freedom here in the UK,” Katie claims. Well, that doesn’t sound good.

I don’t really think about the 15-minute city again until reading of its success in Paris almost a year later. I research how it is faring on our side of the Channel. Unsurprisingly, given my first exposure to the concept, Oxford City Council (once the FMC centre of the UK) has dropped the term altogether. There is, then, an astounding discordance among the responses to FMCs… between Paris, Oxford, and Katie Hopkins, something isn’t adding up.

“it is unsurprising that attempts to foster community through urban planning have taken off”

Let me get those of you who have never heard of the 15-minute city until now up to speed. Generally, the concept seeks to restructure urban spaces such that most residents live a walkable distance (15 minutes) from all daily services (education, healthcare, shopping, work etc…). FMCs, in this sense, aim to reduce the number of serial commuters, ease pressure on roads, and facilitate a more sustainable, communal way of living.

Their implementation in Paris dates back to 2020. Amidst lockdowns, where social distancing and self-isolating became cornerstones of our way of life, it is unsurprising that attempts to foster community through urban planning have taken off. Today, the Wikipedia page for FMCs details plan after plan to transform urban spaces across all populated continents, with the exception of Africa. But under Europe, specifically the UK, there is a footnote of resistance in the form of protests, conspiracy theories, and official governmental communications.

I do not imagine it will come as a surprise to many to learn that fact-checking Hopkins’ comments on FMCs does not reflect too well on the media personality. In her TikTok, she claims traffic filters implemented in Oxford would lead to residents being “locked in” to their 15-minute area. Though the FMC concept doesn’t actually concern itself with driving, it is true that Oxford City Council has been trialing these filters alongside their (now rebranded) FMC plans with the intention of reducing congestion and improving public transport facilities. That said, the council website stresses that nowhere will be inaccessible, only that different routes for private cars might be required. Underneath Hopkins’ effort to portray herself as the whistleblower of some authoritarian plot then, she is merely someone who doesn’t quite seem to understand what a ring road is.

“The freedom of the driver, then, is to communal living as bathrooms are to trans rights: non-issues that have been weaponised for political gain”

The comments of one failed Apprentice candidate shouldn’t necessitate such an effort to avoid controversy on Oxford City Council’s part. After all, local government in this country revels in a little theatricality (Jackie Weaver famously has “no authority” in Handforth Parish Council Meetings). To track how an attempt to redesign our cities to facilitate a more communal way of living could possibly cause such a stir, we must go right to the heart of Westminster itself.

In September 2023, capitalising on anti-ULEZ sentiment, the Conservative government formally named the 15-minute city as an adversary it wished to stop in its tracks. Cementing the erroneous association between the freedom of the driver and the urban planning concept, they declared their intention to tackle “over-zealous” local councils from “aggressively restrict[ing] where people can drive”. The following month at the party conference, Transport Secretary Mark Harper went further, beyond the Party’s use of opportunistic half-truths, espousing lies that councils wanted to “decide how often you go to the shops”. Another culture war had entered the mainstream; by the time Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the Commons, disseminated information debunking such myths, it was too late.


Mountain View

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Here in Central Cambridge, we have an accidental FMC of our own. One would hardly need to leave the area between Murray Edwards, Parker’s Piece, the Botanic Garden, and Sidgwick Site if they so chose. Importantly, though, that is not the same thing as not being able to. Central Cambridge also succeeds as a low-traffic neighbourhood entirely separately to the issue of FMCs. Driving is near impossible (as my mum discovered when she got a ticket for passing through the bus gate outside Darwin), but for the most part that doesn’t matter, especially not when a stroll down King’s Parade reveals a lively and vibrant pedestrianised city which a bike (or Voi e-scooter) can navigate through if time is of the essence.

The freedom of the driver, then, is to communal living as bathrooms are to trans rights: non-issues that have been weaponised for political gain. I won’t insult you by suggesting why it might be especially important to be cognisant of that this week, but I will argue that FMCs (with the proper consultation of residents, of course) should be embraced for the more inclusive and lively spaces they promise to be. We have been watching most high streets die a slow and painful death since before we can remember. It will be a great shame if misinformation obstructs what might be their best hope of revival.