Is the UK Making It Harder to Get Around Cities and Towns?

The concept of 15-minute cities is becoming a partisan issue

grocery shopping
Grocery shopping, close to home. What's not to like?
Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

There are things that really shouldn’t be controversial, and the idea of being able to get most of your regular needs met within 15 minutes of your home is one of them. Would you rather walk, drive or bike to your local grocery store and be home quickly, or set out for an hour in each direction for provisions? The same is true for other types of shops, as well as medical care, restaurants and more.

Again, you’d think this wouldn’t be controversial. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong because the concept of the 15-minute city has become an unexpected political flashpoint recently. Think one part knee-jerk partisanship, one part conspiracy theories. This, in turn, has led to some politicians taking larger steps against the idea of the 15-minute city, with U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proposing something that would put him at the top of that list.

As Dezeen’s Casja Carlson reports, the prime minister’s administration is taking steps to prevent local governments from implementing 15-minute cities and similar plans. Sunak’s government appears to be doubling down on support for drivers — which led to a recent announcement from the Department of Transport that its new policy had the “aim to stop councils implementing so called ‘15-minute cities’ by consulting on ways to prevent schemes which aggressively restrict where people can drive.”

Writing in the journal Public Square in 2021, Andres Duany and Robert Steuteville described the concept of a 15-minute city as “an ideal geography where most human needs and many desires are located within a travel distance of 15 minutes. While automobiles may be accommodated in the 15-minute city, they cannot determine its scale or urban form.”

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The announcement from Sunak’s government also raises the issue of how, exactly, you deter the concept of the 15-minute city without getting highly specific when it comes to zoning. The government’s announcement alludes to looking into the possibility of “[restricting] the ability of local authorities to generate revenue surpluses from traffic offences and over-zealous traffic enforcement, such as yellow-box junctions.”

All of which sounds like Sunak and his government are going further down the path of using cars as a partisan issue while also looking to gain political capital from opponents of 15-minute cities. Sunak’s push against the design concept in question seems real enough, but its actual effect on walkability across the U.K. is less clear and bears monitoring.

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