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Fact check: Are 15-minute cities a plan to create lockdowns?

Nadine Mena Michollek | Rachel Baig
April 10, 2023

It's an urban planning concept aimed at reducing emissions and travel distances. But some fear it will limit movement, lead to lockdowns or increase surveillance. DW looks at the details.

Cyclists on a bridge in Copenhagen
The Danish capital Copenhagen prioritizes the use of bikes, there are even bridges dedicated for cyclistsImage: Jörg Carstensen/picture alliance

For many, it may sound like a good idea: reducing everyday journeys to a quarter of an hour on foot, by bike or by public transport, with the goal of helping citizens to better meet basic needs. 

This is what the 15-minute city concept sets out to achieve. 

"We need to make cities for walking, for having more medical services, educational activities, for the needs of our daily tasks, to make cities livable," says Carlos Moreno, a professor at Paris's Sorbonne University who has been credited with developing the concept.  

Locked up in neighborhoods? 

So far, several cities worldwide have discussed or in some cases implemented this concept or very similar ones, including Paris, Barcelona and Shanghai.

But the 15-minute city concept is increasingly becoming the focus of mis- and disinformation on a global scale. 

Let's check some of the claims. 

Claim: "The population lives locked up in neighborhoods and the goal is that they do not commute in order to reduce emissions," according to a claim by Spanish far-right TV channel  'El' Toro TV'(claim can be seen around minute 50 in the video).

DW fact check: False

The 15-minute concept is less about designing plans for each single neighborhood and more about making basic needs accessible within 15 minutes, author and urban mobility advocate Chris Bruntlett told DW.  

He wrote a book about the Dutch cycling culture and its challenges called 'Building the Cycling City.' 

Utrecht as a 15-minute city 

The Dutch city of Utrecht has already implemented the 15-minute concept. Research based on data from 2019 to 2021showed that almost 100% of the population in Utrecht can reach nine basic needs — such as food, health care, education and sports — within 15 minutes by bike.  

Aerial view of Utrecht
The Dutch city of Utrecht has implemented the 15-minute city concept Image: H. Blossey/blickwinkel/picture alliance

Additionally, urbanist Carlos Moreno told DW that the 15-minute concept "is a humanistic concept for fighting against current segregations, to fight against certifications and gentrification." 

"We want to promote a polycentric city, a multi-center city and a more climate resilient city with public spaces for humans and not for cars." 

Claim: "Residents are gonna need a permit to leave their district from 2024," is a claim made in this  viral Tik Tok video about Oxfordshire, in the United Kingdom. Katie Hopkins, a columnist and far-right political commentator, is even calling the driving restrictions climate lockdowns.

DW fact check: False. 

Screenshot claim on Tiktok about 15-minute city in Oxford
There has been mis- and disinformation about urban development plans in the British city of Oxford

First of all, the users mixed-up two concepts: the new traffic filter plan for the city of Oxford, with a trial phase beginning in 2024, and  Oxford's 15-minute city planas part of the wider strategy Oxford Local Plan 2040.  

Regarding the traffic filter plan, it was passed in November 2022 by Oxfordshire County Council in order to set up traffic filters on six roads in the city of Oxford.

The plan is meant to reduce traffic by restricting the use of private cars in these areas during peak hours. Walking, cycling, using the bus, taxis and other means of transportation are exempt.

Residents may apply for a permit to drive through the filters for up to 100 days per year. However, authorities made clear that people will still be able to reach every part of the city by car at any time, but they might have to use alternative routes. 

The scheme will be monitored by cameras but there will be no physical checking points. This is not related to the 15-minute city plan for the city of Oxford. 

Because of the mis- and disinformation on the 15-minute city plans for Oxford, authorities received numerous messages from worried residents. Therefore, local authorities published a statementanswering the most frequent rumors and questions on this topic. 

Claim: "15-minute cities in China — each neighborhood zone is separated by a fence, with an entrance gate being guarded. If you want to get in or out of your zone, you need permission, and a FACE SCAN," is a claim made by a TikTok user(archived version of the original post that was deleted here).  

DW fact check: Partly unproven, partly false. 

The video suggests — as other social media posts do — that the 15-minute city concept has already been implemented in a strict way in Chinese cities.

This video purports to show that neighborhoods are separated by fences and citizens can only leave them via facial recognition because of the 15-minute concept.

But is this really the case?

In short, we came to the conclusion that the claims mixed up three things: COVID restrictions, Chinese government surveillance and the 15-minute concept.   

Shitao Li, from DW's Chinese department, says facial recognition systems, gated communities and mass surveillance are common in China. But these do not necessarily have anything to do with the 15-minute concept. "There are many things you can criticize about the Chinese state, but the 15-minute city does not seem to be one of them yet." 

But let's take a deeper look at the TikTok video.   

Screenshot of Twitter claim saying, Chinese 15-minute include fences and gated communities
This video shows the barbed wired fence. The user claims Chinese 15-minute cities are "urban incarceration"

The video is a compilation of different scenes. The first scene shows a barbed-wire fence dividing a street. Certain hints lead to the assumption that these are COVID protection measures in the city of Shenzhen.  

The sign on the building reads "Sha He Apartment." We were not able to identify the specific building, but there is a district in Shenzhen called "Sha he" and also a "Sha He Apartment" building, so the signs indicate that the video was likely shot in Shenzhen. 

The woman in the video speaks in a southern Chinese accent, which could also indicate that the video refers to Shenzhen, since the city is in southern China.

Moreover, other social media users reposted this video saying these are COVID protection measures in that cityDuring coronavirus outbreak peaks, multiple reports  from China documented very strict protection measures imposed by the government as part of a zero-Covid strategy.

15-minute community life circles

Regarding the 15-minute city model, Shenzhen authorities do plan to implement ideas from this urban planning concept. Shenzhen local government announced it had set up so-called "15-minute domestic service circles." But we could find no hints that fences or gates are part of the implementation.  

In general, fencing off neighborhoods rather contradicts the 15-minute concept, as people have to circle them.

Liu Daizong, the director of the China Sustainable Cities Program at the World Resources Institute, says gated land breaks up the urban landscape and complicates planning initiatives. 

Meanwhile, Eva Heinen, professor at the University of Dortmund in Germany, as well as the model's designer, Carlos Moreno, both told DW that they don't know of any 15-minute city concepts that plan to fence off neighborhoods or use facial recognition systems.  

Also, cities like Utrecht, Paris, or Barcelona that are about to or have already implemented the concept don't use these restrictions. 

Let's have a look at the second sequence of the video.  

We see a person walking through a gate using facial recognition to enter an open outdoor area. Then, the person approaches another gate in order to leave the compound again using facial recognition. The claim is that the sequence shows a measure related to the 15-minute concept. 

But in fact, it shows the entrance of the Yuzhong campus of the Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province in Northwest China. The campus can be found via geolocation. In the video, we recognized the sign of a karaoke bar. That karaoke bar is located next to the university. Also, in the original upload, the student describes excitedly how the security system on their college campus works via facial recognition.  

So this scene doesn't show the implementation of the 15-minute concept in a Chinese city.

Javier Perez De La Cruz, Ines Eisele, Shitao Li, Thomas Sparrow, Kathrin Wesolowski and Silja Thoms contributed to this report.

Edited by: Uta Steinwehr, Thomas Sparrow 

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