Campaigns of Carla Francome for better cycle routes in Haringey, north London, where she moved to a few years ago in search of a community – “an area where I could make friends who would go to the park with me on Saturdays,” she says. “And where there are cafes nearby, and everything within walking distance.”
Her activism, including support for traffic restrictions, has occasionally drawn dirty looks from fellow residents. But nothing compares to the flood of vitriol she received Twitter since, on February 12, she placed a wire on the benefits of 15-minute neighborhoods – a concept in urban planning that suggests that services should be distributed across cities and that no one should be more than 15 minutes from parks, shops and schools.
“That’s not freedom, that’s socialist prison,” said one reply to her thread, from an account with the username @pauldup80977540. Another account, @BusinessLioness, whose feed is peppered with anti-vaccine messages and retweets from far-right commentators, sent Francome an image of the Warsaw Ghetto with the message: “There were already 15-minute cities in Poland during the Nazi occupation … In 1941, the Nazis introduced the death penalty for going out.”
The aggression of the messages has shaken Francome. “How can I put ourselves in danger by someone just saying we’d like to walk to the local pub?” she says.
Francome had inadvertently gotten into the middle of an evolving conspiracy theory, which has bundled innocent ideas into urban development, from traffic calming and air pollution measures to bike lanes, into a kind of meta-narrative – a meeting place for anti-lockdown activists, anti-vaxxers, QAnon adepts, anti-Semites, climate deniers and the extreme right. With the help of right-wing figures in the US and UK, including the author Jordan Peterson, the 15-minute city concept has become entangled in a much larger universe of conspiracies surrounding the idea of a “Great Reset” that will lock people down . in their homes by climate-obsessed autocracies.
“There’s no reason that an urban planning initiative should … have anything to do with the idea that Bill Gates wants you to eat bugs, but this idea of the Great Reset is the meta-conspiracy that all these people are actively participating in,” says Ernie Piper, analyst at Logical, a fact-checking and disinformation analysis company. “It’s kind of like an alternate reality game where everyone can contribute their own interpretation of events.”
The 15-minute city conspiracy theory has become ingrained in the UK’s political fringes, referenced in interviews on GB News, a free-to-air TV channel that has periodically promoted conspiracy theories. On February 9, Nick Fletcher, a member of parliament from the ruling Conservative Party, referred to the conspiracy while asking a question about 15-minute cities in the House of Commons, calling it an “international socialist concept” that would “protect our personal freedom.”
Fletcher’s question was met with laughter in the House of Commons.
The conspiracy is completely baseless. WIRED spoke to Areeq Chowdhury, a Labor Party councilor for Canning Town, in the East London borough of Newham, who has incorporated some 15-minute neighborhood ideas into his own planning. Chowdhury’s day job is as a data and digital technology researcher, and he recently led a campaign against police use of facial recognition cameras in his town. The 15-minute neighborhood has absolutely nothing to do with surveillance or control, he says. “It’s just about creating a sense of community and promoting active travel,” says Areeq. “I think people often overestimate the competence of authorities to do this kind of thing [conspiracies].”