Seemingly innocuous proposals to reduce traffic in Oxford are being framed as a socialist version of the Truman Show, writes David Rudlin
It starts with the phrase ‘mixed use walkable cities’, an innocuous shorthand that we urbanists have been using for years to describe the sort of places that we have been trying to create. Something that no one could possibly object to.
A few years ago the idea was rebranded by Carlos Moreno as the 15-minute city, as I discussed in a previous column written in response to a presentation he made at an AoU/UDG conference. This is the idea that people should be able to do most things they need within a 15 minute walk of their home. In some respects it is just another way of saying ‘mixed use walkable cities’ but with a dash of COVID lockdown and working from home.
In the previous piece I raised a few small quibbles about the 15-minute city, particularly the way it questioned the interconnected nature of cities, undervalued the role of public transport and didn’t really apply to single use suburbs - you can’t just designate a 15-minute neighbourhood in a place where there are precious few facilities within a 15-minute walk.
However, the idea has been wildly successful in catching the imaginations of towns and cities across the world including many parts of the UK – even if Conservative MP Nick Fletcher did tell the House of Commons that they were ‘an international socialist conspiracy’ to deprive people of their freedom.
Local residents will be given passes to drive through the gates up to 100 days a year
It is a small step from here to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), a concept that I have written about much more critically in this column. After doing so I got emails from other objectors to LTNs that made me question whether they were really the sort of people I wanted to be allied with! My objection was that they were potentially the modern-day version of a Radburn layout or a cul-de-sac estate and risked undermining the urban principle of permeability.
LTNs are certainly a more ‘contested sphere’ in that wonderfully understated phrase used by academics. They make people really angry as we saw in a recent edition of Panorama on the BBC. However this has been taken to a whole new level in Oxford by the addition of proposed bus gates.
To be clear, the idea is that certain roads into Oxford will be fitted with number plate recognition cameras to prevent private cars from driving between the city’s suburbs via the city centre. Local residents will be given passes to drive through the gates up to 100 days a year (twice a week) and there are plenty of exceptions. However, most people wanting to drive between different parts of Oxford (each of which is being proposed as a 15 minute neighbourhood) will need to use the ring road.
This is the point when, as Stuart Jeffries writes in Prospect Magazine, ‘one of the world’s cleverest cities’ has become a ‘gridlock of stupid’. ‘This is real’ says Katie Hopkins former Sun columnist and far-right conspiracy theorist on her YouTube Channel, soon ‘you will only be allowed within the 15-minute zone you have been allocated. Number plate recognition will know when you leave and you will only be given permission to do so 100 times a year!’
So I withdraw all my reservations about 15-minute cities
She is not alone. Placards at protests in Oxford proclaim ‘No to the new world order, no to 15-minute prison cities!’ The reference to the new world order relates to an opinion piece entitled The Great Reset published by the World Economic Forum in 2020 that argued that the changes brought about as a result of COVID presented an opportunity to set the world on a new, more sustainable course.
This has been pounced upon by conspiracy theorists to prove that the global elite are set on a plan to make lockdowns permanent and to remove our freedoms. Quite why the WEF, the flagbearer of global neoliberalism, should want to promote an international socialist conspiracy is never quite explained.
Even King Charles has been sucked in after making a speech to the WEF about his Sustainable Markets Initiative. The Prospect piece makes the link between these conspiracy theories and the ‘Disney Feudalism’ of Poundbury. The link is even easier to make at Poundbury’s US equivalent, the new urbanist neighbourhood of Seaside in Florida which was used as the set of the Truman Show, a vision of a 15-minute prison neighbourhood if ever there was one.
So I withdraw all my reservations about 15-minute cities and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, I think they are great and just don’t want the emails from those on the lunatic side of the debate. There are lots of important issues to discuss here and lots of difficult and potentially unpopular decisions that we need to make. For the moment at least, Oxford’s ‘gridlock of stupid’ is making this impossible.
David Rudlin is director of Urban Design at BDP and visiting professor at Manchester School of Architecture.
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