Artillery Row

The complacence of environmentalist urbanism

Increase access, yes, but don’t restrict movement

May 2020. I wandered around the University Parks in Oxford in a daze, intoxicated by the beauty of the place. After two months confined to a dormitory town eight miles away, it had finally felt possible to venture into the city with my friends, my work and hobbies, my life. I didn’t see anyone that day, of course, nor for many months after. Nowhere was open, and I wasn’t allowed into my office for another year. Still, for an hour or so in that lush green space, I caught a glimpse of a life that had been and a life that might be once again. I had come home.

Oxford is a polarised city, and many of its suburbs are far from affluent

The road back to normality after the lockdowns was agonisingly long, with countless false turns, but mercifully most of the drastic changes to life as we know it that were threatened during that time (#newnormal) never came to fruition. Yet one troubling idea seems to have emerged out of that horrible period and taken grip, at least amongst local councillors. It is the notion of the fifteen-minute city.

This is the theory that everything we need should be within a fifteen-minute walk or cycle ride: work, shopping, education, healthcare and leisure. According to a recent ITV report, Oxford has committed to being a fifteen-minute city by 2040. The idea is sold to us in utopian terms. An Oxford councillor recently tweeted a photograph of a bakery, with the slogan: “A #15minuteCity means a #bakery #walking distance away. Who wouldn’t want that so you can have fresh bread at a weekend?”

Presumably no one. It is disingenuous to sell the concept in these terms, however, because it is not only about providing excellent local facilities. It is about normalising the mindset that we should rarely stray further than our local area, and forcing the point by restricting people’s ability to travel. Experiences of such a drastic scenario would vary sharply according to personal circumstance, just as they did in lockdown, when the person with a large house and garden and family members nearby had a vastly better time than the cramped flat-dweller who didn’t see anyone for 18 months.

Let me explain. The councillor who tweeted about the bakery represents Summertown, an attractive suburb where the average house price according to Rightmove is £991,732 (average semi £1,218,857, average detached £1,607,335). The fortunate residents of Summertown have on their doorstep a patisserie, an M&S, a delicatessen selling Daylesford Organic products, countless restaurants including one in The Good Food Guide, a branch of Gail’s, a library and a Daunt’s Books. The idyllic University Parks are a short walk away; you can get to an independent cinema if you break into a jog. Yes, you could live a nice life indeed walking or cycling no further than fifteen minutes from here.

Life is not like this for most locals. Oxford is a polarised city, and many of its suburbs are far from affluent. A large proportion of the people who work in the city, contributing to the local economy, are commuters — not necessarily because they choose to be, but because of eye-watering housing costs. They live in surrounding towns and villages, where they may have little sense of local community and few facilities. Is it seriously being suggested that these poor unfortunates should remain within their fifteen-minute zone, unable to shop, visit theatres and galleries, or take part in activities that only happen in large conurbations?

It does not solve the problem of heavy traffic — it simply relocates it

Oxford has already set about limiting people’s access to and within the city by car. A trial low-traffic network (LTN) has closed the small residential streets of East Oxford, creating in the process a permanent logjam on St Clements, one of only a handful of major thoroughfares into the centre. This has resulted in ambulances doing U-turns and bus services having to be rerouted or cut. All traffic is funnelled onto the Plain, a notoriously dangerous roundabout where there have been countless accidents and the recent death of a cyclist. Long-standing local restaurants and bars in the vicinity have closed. Bus gates threatened for next year will make it impossible to drive across the centre of the city, forcing drivers to take extended, polluting diversions around the ring road. None of this seems green, safe or desirable. It does not solve the problem of Oxford’s admittedly heavy traffic — it simply relocates it.

The council appears determined to press on regardless, seemingly oblivious to the fact that commuters have to get to work, nonchalant that visitors upon whom Oxford depends are giving up and opting for cities that make them feel more welcome. Meanwhile, new-build estates are being flung up on the edge of every market town and sizable village in Oxfordshire, with no facilities and limited or non-existent public transport, making residents ever more car-dependent. None of this adds up.

There has been a lot of controversy about LTNs in Oxford, and those in favour are quick to brand opponents as right-wing petrol heads. I would argue, as a non-driving bus user of no particular political allegiance, that this should not be a partisan issue. It is problematic for everyone. It is time for a clear-headed, grown-up conversation about why the fifteen-minute city experiment (even in its very early stages) is not working, at least in this local context.

It is essential to strive for a greener future, but the way to achieve it surely has to be with more carrots and fewer sticks. Creating a public transport system that is so efficient and appealing that it tempts people out of their cars has to be better than introducing punitive schemes that will simply move traffic elsewhere.

Modern communications have fundamentally improved all our lives. The ability to travel beyond our immediate locality has allowed people to become better educated, to access better work opportunities, to meet people from different backgrounds, to experience different cultures and to broaden their horizons. Give every city, town, estate and village better facilities, by all means: in many cases they are desperately needed. Bizarre attempts to forcibly remove our fundamental freedoms of movement and association — to return us to the sort of highly restricted lives our ancestors experienced — must be resisted at all costs.

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