What’s the deal with the 15-minute city and why is the far right protesting it?

Urban planning for people’s needs requires a strong working-class campaign 

By Hector David 

Over the past few months, though anti-vaccine mandate protests have dissipated, some of the leaders and supporters of this movement are finding ways to continue building momentum.

Recently, their attention has turned to the realm of urban development and specifically the concept of the “15-minute city.” This idea refers to cities’ attempts to develop more eco-friendly community designs, with municipal planning strategies which improve community accessibility to necessary amenities like grocery stores, schools and other socially necessary infrastructure. These 15-minute city plans have drawn the ire of some protestors on the political fringes for supposedly perpetuating a scheme that reduces the “freedom” of people to drive their personal vehicles, destroys small businesses and makes it more difficult to get around and experience the city.

One of these protest leaders is Chris Saccocia, also known as Chris Sky, an online personality who supported the anti-vaccine mandate protests. The Canadian Anti Hate Network has described Saccocia as a Holocaust denying racist for comments he has made on social media and elsewhere.

While at speaking at an anti-15-minute city demonstration in Edmonton in early February, Saccocia suggested that the 15-minute city idea is “brought to you by the same people who brought you COVID.” This is a reference to governments and global governance institutions who supported the introduction of temporary “lockdowns” around the world, something he vehemently opposed. Saccocia believes that these urban redevelopment strategies, with their aim of densifying residential areas, will make it easier to introduce more lockdowns in the future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Saccocia’s father is a property developer and owner of Sky Homes Corporation, which specializes in developing spacious, single-family luxury estate homes.

Saccocia and attendees of these protests believe institutions of the ruling elite, like the World Economic Forum (WEF), are to blame for these strategies. They believe that cities which promote the increased use of scooters, bicycles and other modes of transportation, when viewed in conjunction with urban planning strategies aimed at congregating people in small communities, is part of a broader project of isolating people and restricting mobility.

It is true that the WEF, which hosts a conference in Davos every year featuring many world leaders and some of the world’s richest capitalists, does not have the interests of average people at heart. Additionally, 15-minute city urban planning does pose challenges, especially as it relates to constructing affordable and dignified housing. But in adopting a conspiratorial mindset and failing to understand how urban space is produced by and for capitalist class interests, Saccocia and others miss the mark and can only lead followers down a dangerous political path.

Protesting the end of “freedom” and the 15-minute city

Anti-vaccine mandate and anti-15-minute city protests espouse a narrow view of freedom, primarily centered around hyper-individualist pretenses that confuse convenience for liberty. They perceive the government as exerting undue influence onto their private lives – whether it be through admittedly sticky vaccine mandates to grapple with public health concerns, or the more bizarre concerns around 15-minute city designs.

At the same time, though, these protestors promote trivial things, like the freedom of driving forty-five minutes to their favourite Walmart. Of course, in their thinking, this freedom is also associated with fighting back against supposedly tyrannical lockdowns in the future. Nonetheless, even if interpreted charitably, these kinds of protestors are exercising a profoundly repulsive bourgeois and anti-working-class consciousness.

But this does not mean that the 15-minute city is a form of working-class consciousness or philosophy, either. The aims of the 15-minute city, as articulated by the idea’s founder and University of Paris professor Carlos Morena, are to transform urban space in ways that improve the ability for people to universally access basic amenities. Morena distills the idea to this: within a 15-minute bike ride or walk, “people should be able to live the essence of what constitutes the urban experience: to access work, housing, food, health, education, culture and leisure.”

These are aims that are in line with socially progressive urban agendas around the world. But the 15-minute city program is utopian and has been proposed in a period wherein Western working-class power is in a position of historical weakness and where capitalist social relations are hegemonic. To propose such an idea at this point, without consideration for who will benefit from the redesign of urban space – and who will lose out – is dangerous.

The real problem with the 15-minute city is that we are living in a period of austerity and neoliberal capitalism. Under these conditions, the titans of the private sector – and not the leading groups defending and advancing public, working-class interests – shape urban space.

Local governments play an important role in development and planning decisions. Over the past thirty years, with the erosion of the welfare state and commodification of housing, urban planning has become a hub for real estate moguls and deep-pocketed developers to steer urban space in a way that is conducive to generating profits. In Ottawa, the 15-minute city strategy is being introduced to increase the density of residential areas, especially in central locations and areas connected to transit. But under current political economic conditions, there is no plan to build rent-geared-to-income housing or introduce affordable and accessible grocery stores for working people. Instead, given the status quo, these strategies will necessarily uproot poorer tenants in disinvested communities and “revitalize” urban areas according to capital logics.

Additionally, provincial governments enable rent control loopholes and increasingly favour land-use development strategies that enrich landlords. In Ontario, the Ford government has introduced Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs) that enable the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to override the municipal authority to rezone land. Meanwhile, the federal government’s National Housing Strategy has siphoned billions of dollars in public money into the pockets of private, for-profit investors. These are not conditions that are favorable to producing equitable and universally accessible urban space.

The real concern is that for many working-class people living in urban regions today, capitalist planning initiatives like the 15-minute city will serve to gentrify communities and push poorer people into the street.

Finding an effective response

Populist strategies will not save workers in Canada from the growing reaction which espouses grievance politics, a blame-based rhetorical strategy that fuels and funnels negative emotions towards all sorts of social issues for opportunistic gain.

The collection of people demonstrating momentary and evolving resentment towards ruling-class decision-making and planning does require coordinated and sustained pushback, but mimicking their strategies – which rely on individualist social media enterprising to bring in amorphous conglomerations of aggrieved people – is not sufficient to the task of building a truly representative people’s movement. The “false inclusivity” of these movements needs to be met with a firmly class-conscious political force which can correctly identify the root of social crisis as existing within the capitalist mode of production.

The 15-minute city will only serve the interests of the working class if the labour and people’s movements force it. Demands must be made on the federal government to build rent-geared-to-income social housing that is clean, safe and dignified. Provincial governments across the country need to be pressured into closing rent control loopholes and investing in more social housing themselves. As it stands now, local governments are bound to develop cities according to market dictates, and this can only change with organized campaigns and movements that challenge the hegemony of capital.

Targeting urban redevelopment strategies are a potential source of building a strong and cohesive political movement. But to successfully implement a genuine people’s program requires an inclusive class consciousness in our union movements, in peace movements and other community organizations.

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