Bizarre backlash greets 15-minute-city proposal

IT has often been said that good ideas are hard to find.

What isn’t difficult these days, however, is locating darker corners of the internet in which conspiracy-minded dispensers of misinformation are working overtime to turn any idea they seize upon — good, bad or indifferent — into the central premise of yet another soon-to-be-widely-spread theory that casts any progressive plan or proposed development as part of a sinister plot by government or “the deep state” to control people’s lives by stripping away freedoms and rights.

Such has been the experience of late for some Edmonton city councillors and planners who have touted a shift in urban-development philosophy that favours walkable neighbourhoods offering residents convenient access to everyday goods and services.

Under the banner of Edmonton as a “15-minute city,” the plan proposes to make the Alberta capital a city in which employment, entertainment, recreation and retail amenities would all be available within a quarter-hour’s walk or bike ride from anyone’s front door.

It’s a common-sense idea, particularly at a time when many urban dwellers are looking for ways to live in a more sustainable and time-efficient manner. But it’s hardly a groundbreaking notion; the idea of creating walkable neighbourhoods and incorporating a “town square” ethos in city planning has been bandied about for at least a couple of decades.

In its most recent comprehensive city plan, released in 2020, Edmonton (pop. 1.1 million) seeks to prepare itself for a population of two million, with 50 per cent of new housing being infill development and 50 per cent of residents’ trips being made by public transit or active transportation.

In that pursuit, the 15-minute-city concept and the notion of “a community of communities” are core elements of the plan. The plan does not, however, include any reference to restrictions on how and where residents move about the city, as several online conspiracy theorists have attempted to suggest.

One went as far as to distribute a colour-coded city map with the attached claim that residents would not be allowed to drive their vehicles into other zones. “You’re going to have to apply for a … permit to leave your zone,” claimed another misinformed commentator.

As is typical with such online nonsense, the claim was untrue and the map did not even depict the city whose wildly imagined restrictions it was attempting to outline (the map was, instead, of Canterbury, England, which had released its own 15-minute-city plan several years earlier).

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi sought to downplay the online backlash, stating the majority of Edmontonians “are a very smart and sophisticated people who will not believe this conspiracy theory being promoted online.”

But here’s the thing: there clearly exists a not-insignificant minority of Edmontonians — and Winnipeggers, and Canadians in general, and residents of every other constituency in which internet access is readily available — who are drawn into such cyber-spread silliness and, having unwittingly plunged down a wormhole of misinformation, become convinced that what they have found in the course of “doing their own research” is true.

Sometimes, the outcome of the dissemination and embrace of online misinformation is as benign as a loopy claim about a city-planning concept. Other times, it’s as sinister as an armed insurrection that seeks to block the peaceful transfer of power after a democratic election in a major world power.

These are not issues that can, or should, be blithely waved away. It would be a very good idea to recognize they are symptoms of a much larger, and growing, ill that must be confronted if civil societies hope to remain intact.