How urban planning turned into a climate conspiracy theory

By Scott Waldman | 07/18/2023 07:04 AM EDT

A concept for reducing car traffic in European cities is being described by far-right opponents as a communist-style lockdown on personal freedoms. Republican presidential candidates are using it to attack one another.

FILE - People walk around Oxford University's campus in Oxford, England.

Oxford, England, embraced an urban planning principle that conservatives describe as a nefarious plot to curtain personal freedoms. Caroline Spiezio/AP Photo

A plan for building sustainable cities is being distorted by far-right politicians and groups to resemble a police state policy that infringes on personal freedoms. And it’s creeping into the Republican race for president.

Some conservative opponents of sustainability have focused their attacks on a concept of urban development popularized in Europe called the 15-minute city — the idea that resources like grocery stores, schools and hospitals would be within walking distance of people’s homes to lower the release of carbon dioxide emissions.

Their attempts to redefine the concept have given rise to conspiratorial accusations in far-right media that efforts to reduce car traffic in cities is a form of oppressive government control.


The campaigns of former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have accused each other of supporting housing proposals that resemble 15-minute cities.

The concept — named after the time it takes to reach amenities on foot or by bike — has been embraced by many politicians and city leaders as a way to decrease vehicle pollution and congestion. In 2020, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo used the idea as a pillar in her successful reelection campaign.

Critics of the policy contend that reshaping cities to discourage driving impinges on personal freedom and makes it harder to move around and find parking, particularly for delivery drivers and construction vehicles.

But since late last year, some detractors have wrapped the idea in distortions. In the past month, Fox News has aired segments featuring opponents who said that the concept would result in cities with sectors that people are prohibited from leaving and are closely monitored by the government.

“In this net-zero world which we have signed on to — the United States is fully participating — we have 15-minute cities being experimented on in Europe, where it’s kind of like the old East Germany: If you leave your sector you have to pay a fine and you can only leave up to 95 times a year,” Marc Morano, who operates a climate denial blog, said on Fox News last month, using an imitation German accent.

In May, the campaigns of Trump and DeSantis traded barbs over the concept.

It followed Trump’s pledge in March to build 10 “Freedom Cities” on federal land with single-family homes and flying cars. A DeSantis campaign spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, said that Trump’s plan was “Soviet dystopian” and inspired by the World Economic Forum, which has promoted sustainable cities.

“He already announced his WEF-inspired plan for 15-minute cities on federal lands,” Pushaw tweeted.

The Trump campaign fired back on Twitter:

“This is cuckoo. He put forward a vision for cities with ultra-low regs and no leftist insanity, to serve as centers for reshoring manufacturing. The opposite of globalism. Nothing about President Trump is inspired by the WEF.”

DeSantis has also been accused by Trump supporters of encouraging sustainable development.

In March, after DeSantis signed the Live Local Act into law, which is designed to make homeownership in Florida more affordable to help people live in the communities near their jobs, Laura Loomer — a far-right activist who at the time was being considered for a position with the Trump campaign — described it as a back door to government control.

“Ron DeSantis is trying to create 15 minute cities,” she tweeted.

The Trump and DeSantis campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.

The mention of the World Economic Forum is a nod to another distortion, which contends that the Covid-19 lockdowns imposed in 2020 to stop the spread of the disease will be repeated — to curb fossil fuel consumption. The WEF proposed restarting economic activity during the pandemic with a focus on sustainability. Some opponents described it as a secretive plot by global leaders to control people’s decisions on energy use and other freedoms.

In the last year, far-right politicians and their allies who reject the dangers of global warming have seized on the 15-minute city concept to advance conspiracy theories related to “climate lockdowns” and the “Great Reset,” both of which falsely claim that governments and the World Economic Forum will use emissions reduction policies to restrict personal freedoms and force people to abandon their cars and eat bugs.

But that’s not the case, said Carlos Moreno of the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, the business professor who developed the 15-minute city concept in 2010.

One of its main goals is to reduce the amount of time city residents spend in their cars or on mass transit.

“This model emphasizes the importance of the neighborhood scale, striving to invigorate city life by reevaluating how residents navigate and interact within their local communities,” he wrote in an email. “It aims to effect a significant transformation in mobility, substantially reducing time spent in transit and greenhouse gas emissions in urban areas.”

Like other climate denial claims, the urban planning concept transmogrified in the depths of the internet. Now, it’s not uncommon to hear it mentioned on Fox News and on the GOP primary campaign trail.

In March, at the annual gathering of conservative activists known as CPAC, Christine Anderson — a far-right German politician who is a member of the European Parliament — said that people in 15-minute cities would be assigned QR codes so they can be tracked by the government.

“Now what they’re slamming with is these 15-minute cities,” she said. “Make no mistake, it’s not about your convenience. It’s not that they want you to be able to have all these places you need to get to very close. And it’s not about saving the planet either, by the way. The 15-minute cities will have to have [QR codes] before they can lock you down.”

Infowars, the outlet run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, published and promoted a video of Anderson’s comments.

There is a disinformation economy around climate change, in which falsehoods are pushed by industry groups and right-wing media outlets because it’s popular with certain audiences, said Arunima Krishna, a Boston University communications professor who studies scientific and climate disinformation.

“Any conspiracy theory that has spread climate disinformation is automatically going to get amplified by this powerful economy that has formed around climate change,” Krishna said.

A distortion’s origins

The distortions began less than a year ago, when far-right blogs started writing about a traffic management plan approved by the City Council of Oxford, a small English city that wanted to encourage biking and walking to reduce carbon pollution.

False claims by a blog called Watts Up With That, which is connected to the Heartland Institute, a think tank that tries to undermine climate science, went viral after it said that Oxford’s “climate claims are just an excuse, an attempt to deflect criticism of their authoritarianism.”

Falsehoods were also spreading on social media platforms.

Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and far-right pundit, tweeted to his 4 million followers that the 15-minute plan by “idiot tyrannical bureaucrats” was an extension of the so-called climate lockdowns, a conspiracy theory.

In February, a member of Britain’s Parliament, Nick Fletcher, called for a parliamentary debate on the “international socialist concept of so-called 15-minute cities.”

That same month, an estimated 2,000 people took to the streets of Oxford to protest its vehicle management proposal. Five people were arrested.

Moreno, the originator of the 15-minute city concept, said he has received death threats.

“I worry about the potential for these kinds of conspiracy theories to stall all green policies,” he wrote in his email. “If climate change deniers gain control of the discourse and spin every green policy that proposes beneficial changes as ‘alleged lies,’ how can we hope to adapt our cities and our lifestyles to the future we are facing?”

An opponent of the urban planning concept, Marc Morano, a former adviser to retired Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) who rejects the existence of climate change, has been on Fox News and other far-right outlets to push false claims about 15-minute cities.

“It is getting mentioned more and more because every day we wake up to find more and more restrictions on our lives, from the appliances we use being stripped of water and energy, to limits on cars, to thermostat controls, to flight bans, and now food and agricultural restrictions with climate compliance going after high-yield agriculture and meat eating,” Morano told E&E News.

That type of argument taps into people’s fears about government control, said Krishna, the Boston University professor and climate disinformation expert.

“That 15-minute cities will give government control is a very digestible argument to make particularly in the U.S. because personal liberties are considered very important,” she said.”People that are extremely passionate about these subjects and related disinformation, they sort of have an outsize voice.”