Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’, honey, if it ain’t free – Janis Joplin
A growing backlash against 15- minute cities highlights how confused many who rail against big government truly are. Apparently, they want to restrict property rights so people require 3,000 pounds of metal to do daily affairs.
A segment of the far right is panicking about “15-minute cities”. Conservative British MP Nick Fletcher, ‘philosopher’ Jordan Peterson and former NHL star Theo Fleury have all slammed the urban planning slogan recently. Last Friday in Edmonton a few dozen rallied against 15-minute cities while Fletcher told the UK parliament it’s an “international socialist concept” that will “cost our personal freedom.”
An idea that has recently gained traction among urban planners, the aim of a 15-minute city is to offer people access to most of what they need – from work to food, education to leisure – a reasonable walk or bike ride from where they live. The phrase was coined by Carlos Moreno seven years ago, but 15-minute cities have been the norm for most of urban history.
A century ago, massive social engineering, including regulations impinging on private property rights, redrew the landscape and effectively criminalized 15-minute cities in many places.
To facilitate automobility and corporate real estate ventures zoning regulations were implemented prescribing detailed controls on living quarters and various uses for different parts of the city. It’s a Sprawl World After All describes the effect of these regulations. “Zoning laws make it illegal to build anything but sprawl in America. Although it may seem hard to believe, since World War II it has been against the law to build community-oriented small towns complete with main streets, nearby homes, and schools within walking distance.”
The private car ushered in zoning regulations, which radically changed legal thinking about property rights. From 1916 to 1936 the number of US cities following zoning rules rose from none to over 1,300. In 1926 the US Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision, ruling 6 to 3 in favor of a Cleveland suburb’s ordinance dividing itself into areas for single-family homes and commercial spaces. The lead judgment legalizing zoning admitted the historically determinant nature of the decision. “Even half a century ago [zoning regulations], probably would have been rejected as arbitrary and oppressive [violations of property rights]. Such regulations are sustained, under the complex conditions of our day, for reasons analogous to those which justify traffic regulations, which, before the advent of automobiles and rapid transit street railways, would have been condemned as fatally arbitrary and unreasonable.”
The Supreme Court’s decision is peppered with other references to the auto age. This shift in interpretation of property rights was designed “to reduce … congestion, … expedite local transportation … and the enforcement of traffic … regulations.” The Supreme Court even discussed “cheaper pavement”. “The construction and repair of streets may be rendered easier and less expensive, by confining the greater part of the heavy traffic to the streets where business is carried on.”
To make way for cars most cities and towns were restructured. Financed by car companies, influential French architect and city planner, Le Corbusier, captured the sentiment of the automobilists at the time: “WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE! The city of today is dying because it is not constructed geometrically, the needs of traffic also demanded total demolition: ‘Statistics show us that business is conducted in the centre. This means that wide avenues must be driven through the centre of our towns. Therefore the existing centres must come down. To save itself, every great city must rebuild its centre.”
At the behest of the emerging auto industrial complex, governments spent heavily knocking down neighbourhoods and laying roadway.
The automobile demanded other forms of social engineering. Traffic lights are now taken for granted, but pedestrians don’t need them and cyclists would do fine with a lot fewer lights. Enforcing traffic laws has become an important part of policing.
Licensing drivers and vehicles also spurred the modern administrative state. As a pedestrian and cyclist, I don’t register my shoes or bikes and didn’t pass a test to show I can walk or cycle. But for many, one of the main ways they interact with government is through regulating and licensing cars.
In Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America Cotten Seiler argues that one of the reasons for the car’s rise to dominance is that driving formed “the right kind of American subjects.” Car travel legitimated “the power structures of managed, administered, modern liberalism” (or state capitalism) all the while preserving “the symbolic figures of Republican political culture.” Driving can engender “sensations of agency, self-determination, entitlement, privacy, sovereignty, transgression and speed.” But this is made possible by massive government intervention to sustain the auto industrial complex (car, oil, rubber, big box and other firms).
Some “libertarians” have absorbed this logic to the point where they believe offering people access to most of what they need close to where they live is an attack on freedom. To paraphrase Janis Joplin, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’, honey, if I don’t need 3000 pounds of metal to get it.”
Yves Engler is co-author of Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay