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Fifteen minutes of your time

The idea of “15-minute cities” got a bit of an airing in New Zealand media earlier this year.

In a nutshell, the concept is an urban design principle that’s about building more compact, walkable communities where people are less reliant on cars.

The aim is to ensure that everything you need to lead your life is within a quarter-of-an-hour walking or cycling radius, including school, work, play, shopping, medical services, entertainment et cetera.

For those who live in congestion-clogged cities where the daily commute can suck up hours of your day – take Auckland [please!] – this concept making the transition from technocratic wild-blue-yondering to reality would, for the most part, surely be a very welcome development indeed. And there’d be obvious upsides for smaller centres, too.

Overseas, the idea is being embraced – in theory, anyway.

Across the ditch, for example, Melbourne is running a pilot programme of the concept, while in the UK, the Oxfordshire County Council also has a 15-minute neighbourhood proposal on the go.

Just how achievable such a vision is here in New Zealand anytime soon is somewhat debatable, though, if one considers the infrastructure deficit we’re already grappling with, and our ballooning budget deficit and overall debt.

The extremely attractive concept designs used to tout 15-minute cities – more often than not featuring happy throngs promenading down wide and leafy pedestrian-only boulevards – don’t appear like something that can be actualised on the cheap, and one can’t help but think there’d be a good chance that any attempts to do so would quickly devolve into a pretty unpleasant environment.

But with good planning and appropriate levels of funding, it does seem there’d be boffo benefits, including increased health and fitness, and less pollution.

There are, however, those who aren’t sold on the idea – which seems to have been largely the prompt for the coverage it received back in February and March, when it was reported that ‘conspiracy theorists’ had been alarmed by Hamilton adopting the aim of being a 20-minute city.

The main source of suspicion [which isn’t unique to NZ] seems to be that this approach to urban design is really laying the groundwork for a climate change version of the covid-19 lockdowns.

Given the climate is routinely being described as an emergency that encompasses health, the reasoning goes, why wouldn’t authorities seek to exert similar forms of control to meet this latest crisis, like limiting people’s ability to move beyond that 15-minute radius?

While unlikely, it’s not the most outlandish idea related to the climate crisis – that prize surely goes to a Bill Gates-backed trial by California startup Kodama Systems that reportedly involves cutting down and burying trees as a way of sequestering carbon dioxide.

And it does seem inevitable that individuals will eventually be encouraged to limit their emissions-producing activities – such as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s city-wide emissions reduction scheme, which charges anyone driving in the citywide ultra-low emission zone a £12.50 daily fee if their vehicle doesn’t meet minimum emissions standards.

As with all subjects, the sooner full and frank discussions are had about any such upcoming asks, the less likely people will be to assume the ‘conspiracists’ are just ahead of the curve.

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