Climate of conspiracy: How 15-minute cities became a conspiratorial talking point

By: pallavi sethi&
April 17 2023

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Climate of conspiracy: How 15-minute cities became a conspiratorial talking point

Image credit: Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

At a local council meeting on March 30, 2023, in the small market town of Thetford, Norfolk, U.K., Conservative councilor Lana Hempsall told a packed crowd, "I haven't got anybody from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in my contact list on my phone. I'd never even heard of them." Hempsall’s comment was in response to audience concerns on whether her 20-minute city proposal was a “top-down” order from the WEF.

The urban planning concept of a 15 or 20-minute city is far from a complex conspiracy. 15-minute cities, or polycentric neighborhoods, aim to offer basic services, including healthcare, public transport, and recreational spaces, no more than a quarter-hour walk from home. However, despite this proposed convenience, conspiratorial beliefs about the concept are rife. Supporters of the conspiracy believe that the World Economic Forum – a supposed network of evil elites – will remove people's freedoms and lock them in their homes under the pretext of climate change.

Hempsall admitted she had to Google “a vast majority” of false claims linked to the 20-minute city proposal. This is the second time Thetford councilors had met with residents to assure them the proposal would not impede their liberties. Thetford council member Terry Jermy promised residents that any proposal restricting movement or personal freedoms would be “strongly” voted against. Norfolk is one of many places in the U.K. where outlandish claims about the concept have spread rapidly, making public enemies of those county councilors who dare to endorse the idea.

Climate and community first

The benign origin of the 15-minute city concept was popularized by Carlos Moreno, a French-Colombian professor who has inspired global leaders to create sustainable, people-centric districts. Moreno developed the idea back in 2016, long before making international headlines and inspiring conspiracy theorists the world over. Contrary to false narratives about imprisoning people, Moreno's framework promises to do the opposite: plan cities by centering both climate and communities. Moreno believes our quality of life is "inversely proportional" to the time spent in traffic. Moreno told Logically Facts that he developed the 15-minute city concept so citizens could regain control of their time: "It is not about preventing movement, but giving everyone the choice to move." After all, who likes to be stuck in transit for the majority of their day? 

The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a catalyst for accelerating 15-minute cities. In a new piece of research, Moreno expanded on his original concept, explaining how lockdowns led to a surge in demand for bicycles and parks all over the world. For instance, during various lockdowns, Berlin swiftly added extra bike lanes, and as a result, the use of bicycles increased by 25 percent. The German capital has now made these lanes permanent.

The pandemic also prompted Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo to embrace Moreno's idea of living in proximity to basic needs. She made the 15-minute city the "backbone of her re-election campaign” in 2020. Parisians enthusiastically accepted the idea of an eco-friendly lifestyle, with Hidalgo winning almost 55 percent of the votes in the second round to be re-elected as mayor. 

Moreno's framework went on to impress the C40 cities: a network of 100 mayors from major cities, including London, New York, and Mumbai, all driven to fight climate change. "In April 2020, the C40 contacted me to start intensively examining how we could use the 15-minute concept to develop a new roadmap to recovery," Moreno told The New European. The climate leadership group in partnership with NREP launched a 15-minute city pilot project in September 2022 to create "green and thriving” neighborhoods in at least five cities, as yet undecided. 

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Moreno. A deluge of conspiracy theories has led to the professor receiving widespread harassment and death threats. "I did and still do receive insults… but I don’t let them affect me." According to Moreno, "conspiracy theorists have a habit of attacking individuals because they lack objective arguments and therefore make it personal." On April 4, 2023, the Urban Cycling Institute launched a petition to voice support for Moreno. Following widespread misinformation, the C40 network has also addressed some key concerns - 15-minute cities will not force residents to use local amenities, and they are free to travel longer distances. 

Origins of a complex conspiracy

Although the phrase "climate lockdown" first emerged on social media in September 2020, narratives linking such lockdowns to traffic measures and 15-minute cities only gained momentum in late October 2022. Several climate skeptics on Twitter shared an article from a mainstream newspaper that used inflammatory language to describe the Canterbury Circulation plan. "Now Canterbury. I knew covid lockdowns were a test," said one Twitter user, while many deemed the scheme part of the U.N.'s Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development goals. 

In December 2022, the narrative resurfaced, attracting widespread social media engagement, only this time focused on linking climate lockdowns to Oxford’s traffic filters. 

Twitter mentions: 1 represents a volume spike of “Canterbury lockdowns” in late October; 2 shows a spike in “Oxford lockdowns” in early December. Source: Brandwatch

Logically Facts discovered that misinformation was predominantly driven by users sharing conspiracy websites, often with large numbers of followers. Moreover, fringe bloggers collectively misreported the issue around the same period, causing a ripple effect. By labeling the scheme "15-minute prisons," these blogs peddled fear-mongering rhetoric and depicted Oxford’s traffic filter as a global authoritarian plot. Logically Facts has previously reported on how authoritarian narratives tie into the Great Reset conspiracy; the false belief, primarily drawn from anti-Semitic tropes, that everything – from COVID-19 to the climate – is managed and controlled by the World Economic Forum.

  Twitter Mentions - The blue graph shows a surge in online activity in early December resulting from people sharing conspiracy blogs on Twitter. Source: Brandwatch

The spread of misinformation was not limited to fringe bloggers and social media users, however. Conservative MP Nick Fletcher also fuelled such conspiracies with a speech in the House of Commons on February 9, 2023, subsequently shared on his Twitter. Fletcher described the 15-minute city as an "international socialist concept" that would "take away personal freedoms." The video of the speech, still available on Twitter, has amassed over three million views and 700 retweets. 

Following this, an anti-15-minute city rally, organized under the hashtag “Our Community Our Choice” took place on February 18. Approximately 2,000 demonstrators, including freedom campaigners, anti-vaccine advocates, and conspiracy theorists descended on Broad Street in Oxford. Thousands shared footage from the protest with the hashtag “resist,” receiving over 1,700 mentions on Twitter. After the protest, the online sentiment toward the 15-minute cities narrative remained largely negative, as noted in the graph below. 

The graph depicts negative sentiment toward 15-minute cities following the protest in Oxford. Source: Brandwatch

Climate of conspiracy

15-minute cities and related traffic reduction conspiracies have gained significant attention partly due to the emotional language used to influence anxious people. As Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist researching misinformation at the University of Bristol, said to Logically Facts, fear and loss of control are fertile breeding grounds for conspiracy: "When people feel they lack control over their lives, they become more susceptible to conspiracy theories." 

Lewandowsky discusses this in the context of the pandemic and soaring inflation rates, which have led to a perpetual crisis for many in the country, explaining, "In a fearful scenario, a conspiracy theory, ironically or paradoxically, gives some people a sense of control...and if somebody offers a soundbite that blames, say the government, some jump in." 

Marco Silva, a BBC disinformation journalist who recently reported on internet vigilantes targeting climate change deniers on social media, agrees. Efforts to limit vehicles under schemes like 15-minute cities, Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ), or Low-Traffic Neighborhoods (LTNs) are perceived as a threat to personal liberty and caused by mistrust in legislation. "There is a strand of code common to all of them - a growing distrust of government, experts, and institutions," Silva said to Logically Facts. 

A glocal world – the continued and deepening integration between the global and the local – has enabled conspiratorial climate groups to discover larger audiences. To avoid moderation policies, fringe groups have turned to platforms like Telegram, which has "facilitated and nurtured" harmful narratives. Per Telegram's privacy policy, the messaging app does not "block anybody who peacefully expresses alternative opinions." This means users can choose anonymity and seamlessly broadcast and cross-reference messages in channels that allow up to 200,000 participants. Logically Facts examined numerous Telegram channels, both in the U.K. and elsewhere that were actively coordinating and promoting conspiratorial beliefs about 15-minute cities.

Silva acknowledges that social media fosters misinformation between ideologically homogenous groups across borders. "Conspiratorial groups that previously didn't have significant engagement are using social media to unite, organize, and recruit people with similar beliefs." Logically Facts found multiple Facebook groups with members from the U.K., Canada, Australia, and the U.S. campaigning against 15-minute cities while promoting inaccurate claims and conspiracies. The dismissal isn’t aimed at any one particular country, but instead rejects any such proposal worldwide. Most groups were created between January and February 2023, showing that a conspiracy that began in the U.K. has now found a global audience.

A cognitive bias, known as the false consensus effect, has the potential to further amplify this misinformation. Connecting with those who share the same belief can give the illusion that their views are relatively widespread. Lewandowsky notes that with the help of social media, fringe groups with similar assertions come together and form the impression that they are part of a large group, even if they are a minority. "The more people have that impression, the more they get entrenched in their beliefs." This is evidenced by the rapid spread of conspiracy theories based on small, local initiatives such as 15-minute cities, that can now be found in large Telegram groups and across social media. 

Are climate conspiracies mainstream?

Whether it's cognitive drivers strengthening existing biases, algorithms fostering echo chambers, or outlets profiting from manufactured outrage - there's no single reason why climate conspiracies that once lived on the fringes have become a large part of mainstream media. Compounding this issue are so-called “clout chasers” or political leaders with huge followings fuelling harmful narratives and giving them a sizable reach. For instance, Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor and far-right culture warrior, has tweeted false claims about 15-minute cities to his four million followers and garnered over seven million views in the process.

But does exposure to misinformation translate into belief? Yes and no. According to Professor Lewandowsky, repetition means truth. "The more you repeat the misinformation, the more people will believe it – it's called the illusory truth effect." This also means that countering such misinformation requires making the correction equally repetitive. Telegram channels promoting climate change misinformation share anywhere between five and ten posts a day. Most of these groups have an average of 30,000 members, with some having up to a hundred thousand participants. However, Silva believes that public polls and his conversations with members of society indicate the 15-minute city conspiracy narratives are shared and believed only by a minority, stating that "most people still see such conspiratorial narratives as a distortion of truth." 

We can only hope that Silva’s optimism holds true, and that more people will continue to see the vast benefits and convenience of 15-minute cities, enjoying nature and spending less time in traffic, rather than conspiracizing about them. 

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before