Responding to the 15-minute cities fallout with smarter comms  

15-minute city protests in Oxford. Crowds are marching with placards and police are present

Growing hostility towards ‘15-minute cities’ is one of 2023’s more startling turn of events.

If you’re reading this, chances are you know something about it. Framed in the context of making places more connected, active, healthy and less reliant on cars, it’s easy to see why it’s caught on amongst policy-makers.

But have supporters missed a step in taking people with them? And have they clearly explained what 15-minute cities are, or aren’t?

Either way, those promoting a seemingly uncontroversial urban planning concept face a backlash. 

15-minute city furore

Protests are mobilising in places promoting 15-minute cities. These vox pops from a recent anti-15-minute city march in Oxford highlight concerns raised about them.

Right-leaning media like GB News are also running comments against them, claiming they are illiberal and hurt the communities they are supposed to help. Thanks @WillSandyDesign for sharing this recent clip. 

This in turn fuels online hostility. We’ve used our social listening tool to monitor online references to 15-minute cities over the last month. We picked up thousands of mentions, with more than 40% of them negative.

Politicians are sensitive to this as battle lines harden. Red Wall Conservative MP Nick Fletcher last month used Parliamentary privilege to claim 15-minute cities are part of a socialist effort to curtail people’s freedoms.

What strikes me about these comments is that very few of them explain how 15-minute cities would curtail freedoms or hurt business. What, after all, is so illiberal about designing places so that they provide things people need?

That said, none of that matters if the strategy is to stoke fear and discredit a concept.

But it poses questions for those who support 15-minute cities and are understandably keen to push back against this scaremongering. How has this idea become a source of such hostility? And what can we do about it?

How to respond

For what it’s worth, here are some thoughts on how to respond to this fallout. 

#1 Engage clearly

There are positive aspects to 15-minute cities, but these don’t always come through clearly enough.

Too often, the process is shrouded in jargon – using terms like ‘cells’ and ‘zones’. There are better ways to build an engaging picture, by explaining the aim to make places connected, healthy, vibrant, inclusive and walkable. Places to work. Places to live. Places to be.

This specific and distinctive narrative speaks to people in terms they can understand in a way that talking about ‘cells’ never could. If we can do that, we shouldn’t need to use terms like 15-minute city either.   

#2 Context matters, but trust is the true goal

Putting this into context, we can see from our online research that the noise around this topic is not widespread.

Our social listening picked up about 2,000 mentions in a month. This isn’t a huge number, particularly when you see the sound and fury of online exchanges. But it helps to recognise that not everyone is saying this. Many people say they want the things that 15-minute cities provide.

We also know from our research that our industry has a trust problem. This is an issue that all the CGIs and warm words in the world won’t fix. Listen again to the vox pops and you’ll hear this come through. People are saying: we’ve heard it before.

As I’ve argued before, you can’t deliver anything without trust. This is about more than simply ‘selling the positives’. It starts with listening, building relationships with stakeholders and giving supporters the confidence to stand at your side.  

It’s also important to publicly acknowledge the limits of any vision, to avoid claims of greenwash or spinning a line. And, as the brickbats fly, be prepared to challenge bogus claims consistently and clearly.   

#3 Take a step back

Before we engage in online spats and shout ‘conspiracy’, please let’s just take a breath.

We’ve just gone through a global pandemic, which upended ‘normal’ life. Although we are no longer locked down, we still must get to grips with changes to how we live, work and travel.

Opposition to 15-minute cities has become conflated with other issues, like Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and the transition to Net Zero.

Yes, there are bad actors in this debate who whip up fear. But there are others who feel this is being done to them without their involvement. The debate needs to reach, reassure and hear those people.

Above all, I hope we can resist the urge to get into a shouting match. Surely, we’ve had enough of that over the last few years.

Clear, connected, human

Openness, clarity and a willingness to listen should be front and centre on any plans to improve places. And, if you’re working on a project, ditching references to 15-minute cities may not be a bad place to start. 

We’re up for the challenge of reframing the narrative and would love to hear how you’re responding to this in your area.

This piece originally appeared in our first Distinctive Dispatch Substack newsletter. Sign up for more news and insights to come direct to your inbox.

Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash.

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