I have an apartment on the Upper West Side of New York. It is a very densely populated region – according to census data, the area within a mile of my house has about 24,000 inhabitants per kmtwo. This dense (and, to be honest, wealthy) population supports a huge variety of businesses: restaurants, grocery stores, hardware stores, specialty stores of all kinds. Most of what you might want to do or buy is within walking distance.
In fact, then, I live in what some Europeans –most notably Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris– call the “15-minute city”. It’s an interesting, if somewhat misleading, name for a concept that urban planners have long championed: walkable cities that take advantage of the possibilities of density.
But modern politics being what it is, it is unfortunately also a concept that has been caught up in the culture wars and become the subject of crazy conspiracy theories. And, as always, the people who scream the loudest about “freedom” are actually the ones who want to practice coercion, preventing other Americans from living in ways they disapprove of.
Before getting into politics, a few words about what it’s like to live in a 15-minute city, and New York in general.
What people who haven’t experienced a real urban lifestyle often don’t understand is how easy life is. Running tasks is a snap; as you walk to most places, you don’t have to worry about traffic jams or parking spaces.
You might think the price for this convenience is constant noise and crowds of strangers. But while the main north-south thoroughfares – in my case, Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus – are quite noisy and have a lot of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, the side streets are much quieter than you might think.
And the crime? There is a widespread perception that New York is a dangerous place. In his address on Saturday (4) at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Donald Trump said that “murders are occurring in numbers like no one has ever seen in Manhattan.” However, the reality is that New York is one of the safest places in the United States. No doubt New Yorkers themselves have been extremely upset by the rising crime rate during the pandemic, but that rise may be slowing down, with murders in particular falling to their lowest level since 2019.
And statistically proven safety is also the lived experience in many areas of the city where New Yorkers don’t act as if they are afraid of crime. A few nights ago, I came home from an event at 12:30 am; there were people milling about, and no sense of threat.
Am I proselytizing? Well, yes. Most Americans — even those who have visited New York but seen little beyond the crowds in Times Square — have a distorted notion of what urban life can be like. But very few promoters of the 15-minute city would advocate making this lifestyle mandatory for the general population. It’s more a matter of enabling people to live that way if they want to.
That’s where culture wars and conspiracy theories come in.
I have already noted that there is an unwritten rule in American politics that it is normal for politicians to belittle big cities and their residents in a way that would be considered unforgivable if they did the same in rural areas. Trump’s false claims about the crime were not all that unusual. There seems to be a widespread sense that only people who live a car-centric lifestyle, or a truck-centric lifestyle, are true Americans.
This, in turn, fuels the conspiracy theory. Making walkable cities possible requires loosening and tightening restrictions on urban development: localities would have to allow more construction of multi-family housing and multi-story buildings, while restricting car traffic in certain areas.
Remarkably, the right manages to see both looser and tighter regulation as leftist conspiracies.
The big budget document currently popular with House Republicans takes its time supporting local multi-family housing bans, claiming the bans help preserve our “beautiful suburbs.” (These days, even tax documents sound like Trump speeches.)
As for the traffic restrictions, at least some people on the right have managed to convince themselves that they are a conspiracy to lock people in their neighborhoods, not being allowed to leave. Slightly less wacky commentators, like pop philosopher Jordan Peterson, call the traffic restrictions a “tyrannical bureaucrats” plan to dictate where you can drive a car.
In fact, there are many places where everyone agrees that driving should not be allowed – for example, on cultivated land – because it would impose costs on other people. The costs you impose on others by driving in an urban area and thereby worsening congestion are just as real, but somehow putting limits on urban traffic is tyranny.
But of course none of this is a rational discussion.
I don’t know how many Americans would choose the walkable city lifestyle if it were widely available, but certainly many more than do today. Unfortunately, urban planning – for cities are always planned, in one way or another – is yet another victim of the politics of complaining and paranoia.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves.
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