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Nicholas Boys Smith is the founding director of Create Streets
Would you like to live in a more prosperous place? A neighbourhood where there are more local businesses, where shops do better, where the air is cleaner, where people are healthier, a neighbourhood which people move to, not from? Do you want your children to grow up readily able to go for a walk, to the shops, to friends a street or two away, not sequestrated from friends and family, sheltering timidly at home?
If the answer is yes, then you support the idea of the 15-minute city or (for it goes by many different names), the traditional village, market town, 20-minute neighbourhood, complete community, mixed-use neighbourhood, or a place of walkable gentle density.
If you live in any neighbourhood built before the 1950s (when traffic-modernist followers of Le Corbusier insanely decided that the motorcar was the one and only way to get around our urban streets) then the chances are you already do live in a place with some or many of the characteristics of a 15-minute city and are able (more or less) to walk to the pub, to the corner shop or to a nearby school. If you are richer, then you are more likely to live in such a place. Homes cost more in the UK and the US as the modern demand for such neighbourhoods consistently outstrips the historic supply. Think about what it costs to live in a traditional “London village” like Dulwich or pretty much any village in the south of England not ruined by a fast A-road cutting through its heart.
Over the last 70 years, we’ve been very bad at creating such places and very good at ruining historic ones with fast roads and ugly faceless buildings. Thankfully, the tide has begun to turn. Since the American writer Jane Jacobs wrote her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, planners have slowly become increasingly nervous of and embarrassed by the great harm that they and traffic engineers did to our towns post-war when all city-planning was subsumed to the mission of keeping the traffic flowing as quickly as possible. Over the last generation towns and cities such as London, Amsterdam, Toulouse, Pontevedra and many more have been planting street trees and making it easier to walk, cycle or use public transport. The evidence consistently shows that such places are more popular, perform their roles as centres of productive agglomeration and commerce better, and are healthier, happier and more prosperous.
Cars are great. They give all of us the liberty of a super-rich Victorian aristocrat to move around the nation, the region, or the countryside. But they are a very very bad way for everyone efficiently to get around the town.
That’s not to say that we should not have or use cars. I have a car and will continue doing so. But an urban neighbourhood in which we are all one hundred per cent dependent on cars to meet every one of our daily needs, is grotesquely outrageously inefficient. Car don’t actually move many people, very rapidly become congested, and take up lots of space when parked.
As the marvellous conservative blogger Ed West has written:
“For all their positive transformative power in our lives, cars cause a huge negative externalities, and these get more pronounced as our population grows … Whenever you drive in an urban area, the lives of everyone else around you become slightly worse; it’s not just pollution, which has drastically improved, nor the problem of noise, but also the space you use, the fear you’re creating for pedestrians, and the huge amount of land cities must allocate for parking. Cars are hugely effective at destroying street life and civic community.”
Streets with more traffic or faster cars are reliably and consistently associated in academic research with poorer air, fewer neighbourhood friendships, less walking, more constrained children, lower residential land values. That’s why rich people tend to avoid them. They are the very opposite of the idea and belief in the importance of home. They turn our neighbourhoods from a place into no place, from somewhere into anywhere.
However, something is going on, because over the last few weeks, a series of right of centre politicians and commentators have decided that 15-minute cities are “socialist”; “deeply illiberal”, “French” and “dystopian”; and an imposition by “tyrannical bureaucrats” by “fiat” of what you can and cannot do. Successful political movements deliver what people like and want.
The best examples of new English developments that have been designed specifically as a 15-minute town are the urban extensions of Poundbury in Dorset and Nansledan in Cornwall by His Majesty the King when he was Prince of Wales. Two critical differences between these neighbourhoods and most new housing estates are the high number of local shops, businesses, and commercial spaces that are provided, and the ease with which you can walk about. Right-angled junctions and wide pavements make it nearly impossible to drive quickly: there have barely been any accidents over twenty years. It is a place for people, in which cars are welcome as guests, not the dominate species.
The problem, of course, is that evolving existing towns and city streets to be better, more valuable, and more popular places in which more people can efficiently move about can create losers as well as winners. And, as public choice theory and rational ignorance, would suggest, a small number of losers (or perceived losers) can make a lot more noise than a larger number of winners. Conservatives have also tended to be more pro-car. For many, they represent ideas of freedom and self-reliance, even when they are actually destroying more liberty than they create. Restricting the movement of cars rubs against this.
I can understand why those on the right can get nervous about some of the language and practice of low traffic neighbourhoods and traffic filtering schemes. Highfalutin claims of the public good have in the past and will in the future be masks for foolish policy, poorly imposed. Removing or constraining an existing right to drive down a given street will certainly inconvenience some and may (though less frequently) be a problem for specific shops particularly reliant on car driven trade.
My advice to Conservative councillors would be twofold.
Firstly, find gradualist “win-win” processes for improving places with the consent, even with the active leadership, of local neighbourhoods. This can be done. Plant street trees. Create continuous (so-called Copenhagen) crossings. Experiment with pedestrianising or part-pedestrianising streets on a given Sunday or bank holiday. Very often, local shop takings will rise. Or look at the facts and the data in your local town already. I was in an historic English market town a few days ago and, by some distance, the most prosperous street without any empty shops was the one with the most street trees and the tightest most speed-constraining carriage way. Cars were present but they were guests.
Secondly, worry about the buildings. Too many new so-called walkable, mixed-use, 15-minute developments are foul, anaemic places, overwhelmed by acres of ugly, bird-killing glass and impersonal faceless architecture which only a mother could love. They are soulless and heartless.
The places we most want to be in are beautiful. Fortunately, recent changes to the planning system make it much easier for councillors to require new buildings to be popular with local residents.
15-minutes cities are not a socialist plot. They are a repackaging of a timeless, even a Scrutonian, ideal: of the need for home and for neighbourhood as we make our brief passage through the world. It is not ground that any wise political movement should cede to their opposition.