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The '15-minute city' could limit global warming — if it can counter misinformation

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Over the past week, NPR listeners have learned about all kinds of inspiring and innovative ways to address the climate crisis, from cargo ships running on wind power to cut down on emissions to women in the Himalayan foothills that are learning how to revive spring water. To keep Climate Solutions Week rolling, I'm joined by Julia Simon, NPR's Climate Solutions reporter. Welcome to the program.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So I hear that you've got a story about a specific climate solution that's been spreading through cities around the world. Where do we start?

SIMON: We start in the neighborhood where I used to live - in Paris.

So I am on my old Parisian street, a little cobblestone passage with vines covering the buildings.

And I tried an experiment with my stopwatch and see where I can go by foot in 15 minutes.

Let's go. (Speaking French).

In one minute, I made it to (speaking French), a preschool. I made it to a bookstore in three minutes, pharmacy in four minutes, the bakery in a little more than five minutes.

OK, I just had to get a baguette while I'm here. You kidding me? Another park?

All in a 15-minute walk. Ayesha, what I experienced is a blueprint for a global climate solution called the 15-minute city.

RASCOE: So what does that mean?

SIMON: It's a city where you can get the key things in your life in a 15-minute walk, bike ride or transit ride from your home. On the banks of the Seine in Paris, I met the person behind the idea.

(Speaking Spanish).

CARLOS MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

SIMON: (Speaking Spanish).

Carlos Moreno is Franco-Colombian. He's an urbanist. My old, dense neighborhood was built more than a century ago, but Moreno's been helping the mayor of Paris foster these neighborhoods across the city. They're converting old military buildings, old parking structures into buildings with a mix of apartments, offices, businesses. They're building parks, hundreds of miles of protected bike lanes.

RASCOE: And so is this a climate solution because it reduces cars?

SIMON: Yes. Cars are nearly 10% of global energy-related carbon dioxide pollution. Moreno started in Paris, but this idea of ecological 15-minute cities is spreading across the world.

JUSTIN BIBB: I saw a news article about this big phenomenon being created in Paris around the 15-minute city.

SIMON: This is Justin Bibb, who is now the mayor of Cleveland.

BIBB: I read up on it. I'm like, oh, the dots are connecting for me now.

SIMON: He thought of when he studied abroad in London and would walk to class and walk to restaurants.

BIBB: I thought about my childhood. I lived in a 15-minute city neighborhood at the time.

SIMON: He thought, I want more of this for Cleveland. When he came into office last year, he got to work on it.

RASCOE: So how is he putting this into place?

SIMON: Bibb's office immediately found there are lots of technical 15-minute cities in Cleveland, but the walk isn't so easy. There may be buses, but they don't run so frequently. So it's in the early stages of working on infrastructure, more public transit, sidewalks, bike lanes. But, Ayesha, there are some key obstacles for 15-minute cities, and the first one is conspiracy theories. To explain, we start in West Oxfordshire in the U.K. with County Councillor Duncan Enright. He's been trying to make what are essentially bus lanes, and last year he was at this community meeting with some people he doesn't recognize.

DUNCAN ENRIGHT: And at a certain point in the meeting, one of them stood up and said, what about 15-minute cities? And to be honest, first I'd ever heard of that phrase.

SIMON: It got agitated. Enright went over.

ENRIGHT: And they were explaining all about this theory about 15-minute cities by which they meant you would only be able to travel 15 minutes from your home.

RASCOE: So what is this conspiracy theory exactly?

SIMON: Basically, the false accusation is that a cabal of global elites will use 15-minute cities to limit people's movement and trap them in open-air prisons. Here's Enright.

ENRIGHT: And I explained to them that my job is to make travel easier so people can go wherever they like to find opportunity, jobs, education, not to stop people going more than 15 minutes.

RASCOE: So how did we get from bus lanes to this false idea about open-air prisons?

SIMON: Misinformation around climate change used to focus on denying global warming. Now attacks focus on climate solutions, often the idea that climate change is this pretext for stripping people's civil liberties. Here's podcaster Joe Rogan last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE JOE ROGAN EXPERIENCE")

JOE ROGAN: You'll essentially be contained unless you get permission to leave, which is...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Really? How are they going to put us in there?

ROGAN: Yeah, that's the idea they're starting to roll out in Europe.

SIMON: Last week, the secretary of state for transport in the U.K. used some of the language of 15-minute city conspiracies. It's getting mainstream.

RASCOE: So how do these conspiracy theories hinder the 15-minute cities?

SIMON: Enright and his colleagues started getting death threats. Carlos Moreno got death threats too. Moreno says other researchers and scientists he know have faced attacks, which makes them reluctant to publish about their work on climate solutions.

RASCOE: So are there obstacles that are specific to the U.S.?

SIMON: Yes, zoning to build only single-family homes. Here's Jonathan Levine, professor of urban planning at University of Michigan.

JONATHAN LEVINE: Would I say that it's a problem? It's enormous. The single-family zone absolutely dominates residential land in all of our metropolitan areas.

SIMON: Levine says single-family zoning traces back to policies of segregation. It reduces density because you can't fit as many people onto a lot with a house compared to an apartment. And all this zoning precludes establishing retail businesses, which make 15-minute cities possible.

RASCOE: All right. So what's the last big obstacle that you found for 15-minute cities?

SIMON: Public schools. When urban U.S. couples have kids, they often leave cities for suburbs, which they think have better schools. They kind of opt out of more sustainable urban living.

RASCOE: So, Julia, you have spent a lot of time thinking about 15-minute cities. How hopeful are you that the U.S. and other countries can actually achieve this?

SIMON: It can feel like 15-minute cities are just inevitable in a place like Europe because Europeans have never been as car crazy as Americans. And Levine says, no, Europeans loved cars after World War II. The difference is they decided to move away from cars.

LEVINE: The result that many Americans find desirable - wow, isn't it wonderful? We go to Europe, we can walk, we can take the bus - is a policy choice. It's not preordained.

SIMON: Seoul, Bogota, cities around the world have made policies to promote public transit and walking. We saw in the pandemic, cities can transform away from cars quickly. But Moreno says how fast comes down to communities and political will.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Julia Simon. Julia, thank you so much for your reporting.

SIMON: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.