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Painting of a City Scene by Anton Brzezinski (Photo by Forrest J. Ackerman Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Painting of a City Scene by Anton Brzezinski (Photo by Forrest J. Ackerman Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

SocietyJanuary 18, 2024

Fear of a 15 minute city 

Painting of a City Scene by Anton Brzezinski (Photo by Forrest J. Ackerman Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Painting of a City Scene by Anton Brzezinski (Photo by Forrest J. Ackerman Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Conspiracists’ opposition to urban planning can seem bizarre, but it’s consistent with an ethos that embraces climate change denial and distrust of supranational organisations, writes Byron Clark.

“We’ll do a translation for goal 11,” begins Gill Booth, a Teviot Valley Community Board member and recurring guest on the Reality Check Radio (RCR) show Greenwashed. She’s discussing one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and number 11 is the goal of making “cities and human settlements safe, resilient, sustainable”. Its intention is to ensure cities have ecologically sustainable public transport options and are resilient to disasters, while being equipped to manage the increased urbanisation that will see two thirds of the world’s population living in urban areas by 2050.

“The translation for that one,” says Booth, “is ‘create protracted rural spaces forcing people into cities, mega cities with 24/7 surveillance in all public spaces, and ban single family homes with garages’. So you know there’s a lot more behind this than what’s being let on.”

The show’s host, Jaspreet Boparai, has an anecdote to add: “So we’ve had high density housing now being pretty much par for the course across the country. Builders no longer need to provide either a parking space or a garage. I drive to Queenstown maybe once a quarter for some event or the other… and the sort of pocket handkerchief lots that are mushrooming around the airport and the shopping centre there, I look at them and I think, ‘what a blight you are on this beautiful landscape’.”

Boparai, a dairy farmer, was elected to the Southland District Council in 2022 with the backing of Voices for Freedom (VFF), the organisation initially formed to oppose vaccine mandates in 2020. VFF is also behind Reality Check Radio (RCR), which represents a widening in scope for the organisation from Covid conspiracy theories to a much broader conspiracist narrative. Boparai’s show Greenwashed is a forum for guests who are sceptical of climate change and measures to mitigate or adapt to a warming world.

Chantelle Baker, Rodney Hide, Paul Brennan and Peter Williams are among the names headlining Reality Check Radio (Image: Tina Tiller)

Reality Check Radio also represents a shift in strategy for New Zealand’s conspiracist fringe. VFF was started by former Advance New Zealand candidates after the party failed to win any seats in the 2020 election. Appealing directly to voters hadn’t yielded much support; they’d tried for too much, too soon. For candidates to enter parliament on a platform of conspiracy theories, a sizable chunk of the electorate would need to be already on board with those theories.

A more subtle approach was needed.

“RCR exists to change the culture, which flows into politics,” reads a posted by the radio station on its Telegram channel. “Every time you share our posts on social media, tell your friends to listen live, or engage in robust discussion about controversial issues, you are helping shape the culture.” This approach is known as the Breitbart doctrine, named after US right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart and the pioneering website he founded, Breitbart News. Media scholars have suggested the term “cultural partisans” for the media outlets that follow this doctrine. They may not necessarily be aligned to a political party, but their content is designed to advance a particular ideological agenda.

Greenwashed frequently provides a platform for scientists who dissent from the consensus on anthropogenic climate change, dedicating episodes to claims that carbon and methane emissions are not as harmful as we’ve been led to believe, or that they’re perhaps even beneficial. If climate change is not a threat to our way of life, it follows that mitigation and adaptation strategies advocated by governments, NGOs, and supranational organisations such as the UN must actually be part of an agenda for something else.

One of the show’s frequent targets are sustainable cities – a term for cities that prioritise reducing environmental impacts – and the organisations that promote them. “I often think democracy is being outsourced,” Boparai said recently, “one consultant, one NGO, one unelected and unaccountable consultant at a time. It comes down from the United Nations”.

Scepticism of the United Nations has been a mainstay of conspiracy theorist thinking for almost as long as the organisation has existed. The John Birch Society, a hard-right US group founded in 1958, believed that the UN was part of a plot to institute global communist tyranny. Even when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the “communist threat” receded, this belief persisted. Following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the UN launched Agenda 21, a set of sustainable development goals (later superseded by Agenda 2030) that have become one of Greenwashed’s biggest obsessions.

For the ‘Birchers’, Agenda 21 was seen as a new phase of the plan for global communism. In 2011, a John Birch Society organiser told a meeting that the UN agenda was in fact to depopulate rural areas and push people into high-density urban housing and mass transit – as opposed to the suburban homes and private cars that constituted the American way of life – all in the name of a “communitarian” ethos. Communitarianism, according to a pamphlet entitled ‘Agenda 21 and You’ that was distributed at the meeting, is “not too dissimilar from communism”, being an ideology in which “the individual is subservient to needs of the ‘greater good’ of society”.

The UN’s Agenda 21 is a particular obsession of US right-wing commentator Glen Beck, as seen on the cover of a magazine that grew out of his Blaze Media company (left, 2012), and in the first of his bestselling Agenda 21 series of novels (right, also 2012)

On the episode of Greenwashed dedicated to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Boparai cited a 2019 report noting that the Rotorua Lakes District Council has signed up to the United Nations’ global compact cities programme. She introduced it as an a-ha moment: “You know that ‘conspiracy theory’ that I’m now seeing in black and white, in official New Zealand government documents?”

The report, published on a website associated with School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington, is not an official government document. There is also no evidence of conspiracy here, unless one takes as a given that a city pursuing sustainable development is on the road towards “communitarian” despotism.

According to this worldview, NGOs – especially those that advocate for a collective good over individual rights – are not an integral part of democratic society, but rather an impediment to true democracy. On the Greenwashed episode, guest Gill Booth talked about attending a meeting (it’s unclear whether she meant a council/community board meeting or one hosted by an NGO) where only six others were there and “they were all on exactly the same page as the people running the meeting”.

Such an “echo chamber” represents an opportunity for opponents to the sustainable cities movement, she said. “It’s not until people actually start getting really really active in the community and going to these meetings and holding a few feet the fire… that they get panicked,” Booth said. “So it’s up to us to get involved.”

A protest against ’15 minute cities’ and low-traffic neighbourhoods in Leeds, England on April 29, 2023. (Photo: Martin Pope/Getty Images

This scenario played out in Hamilton several months prior to the Greenwashed episode in question. In June 2023, the Hamilton Citizens and Ratepayers Association held a public meeting on the ’20 minute city’, a concept that advocates for essential amenities to be within a 20 minute walk or bike ride from residents’ homes (it’s also often described as the ’15 minute city’ but the idea is the same). That night, hundreds of conspiracy theorists hijacked the meeting and attempted a citizen’s arrest of city councillors. Deputy mayor Angela O’Leary described it as the most disorderly event she had encountered in her 16 years in local politics.

Among the crowd were Kelvyn Alp and Samantha Edwards from Counterspin Media, a disinformation platform with more extreme politics than Reality Check Radio. Edwards took to the stage herself after O’Leary and councillor Mark Donovan were booed off just 10 minutes in. According to the Waikato Times, Edwards “only briefly mentioned 20-minute cities before seguing to ‘seismic generating ships’ off the coast, ‘weaponry in street lights’ and claims the government was attempting to legalise sex with children”.

Ryan Hamilton, then a city councillor and today the MP for Hamilton East, told the crowd he sympathised with the group’s concerns that 20 minute cities would exacerbate traffic, taking the opportunity to remind them he was the only councillor to come out against the council’s vaccine mandates. He encouraged the protesters to attend and speak at council meetings. (Hamilton later expressed regret for attending the shambolic event.)

Protesters from the parliament occupation, February 2022 (Photo: Birgit Krippner/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Both Counterspin Media and Voices for Freedom played large roles in the anti-vaccine movement that led to the occupation of parliament grounds in 2022. That occupation was facilitated via a new mass communications infrastructure built by so the so-called “freedom movement”. Online video platforms and interlinked groups on Telegram and other social media sites spread disinformation about the Covid-19 virus and coordinated the convoy to parliament. Now that disinformation network is increasingly pivoting from Covid conspiracy to climate conspiracy. People are being told 15 minute cities are a scheme to introduce further lockdowns which will be justified as a safety measure like the public health response during Covid. In fact, the conspiracists say, they’ll be something much more insidious.

In 2023 the UK government ended a range of policies supporting walking and cycling. A number of policy papers, made public as part of a legal challenge by the Transport Action Network (TAN), appear to indicate that the policy shift was driven at least in part by the opposition to 15 minute cities. “These shocking revelations show [PM] Rishi Sunak was more concerned with crazy conspiracy theories than helping people travel safely and cheaply,” TAN director Chris Todd told The Guardian. Carlos Moreno, the Paris-based urbanist behind the 15 minute city idea, had previously written to Sunak warning that he and his family had received death threats resulting from misinformation about the concept.

New Zealand’s new government has also ended support for a number of council projects that would have encouraged alternatives to driving. There’s nothing to suggest the government’s transport policy is being directly influenced by Reality Check Radio, Counterspin Media and their ilk, but that isn’t how cultural partisans operate. The method is to work to change the culture, and then see those changes flow downstream to politics.

Another example is the recent changes to the relationship and sexuality education guidelines, which NZEI Te Riu Roa president Mark Potter described as being influenced by “very conspiracy-based thinking”. Indeed, when RCR host Maree Buscke was joined by New Conservative Party leader Helen Houghton to discuss the changes, the pair were exuberant about the government implementing a core New Conservative Party policy (for the record, New Conservative received 0.14% of the vote in 2023).

With trust in news media declining, and new online platforms like RCR unbound by the kind of standards that traditional media abide by, the cultural partisans appear to be on the rise. Whether the subject is urban planning or school curriculum, disinformation will likely continue to influence our politics. Who knows what its next target will be.

Byron Clark is the author of Fear: New Zealand’s hostile underworld of extremists. This article was made possible thanks to a grant from the Bruce Jesson Foundation

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