Edmonton and Toronto’s bid to become “15-minute cities” is facing pushback from fringe groups—putting them alongside Oxford, England, in a battle against climate denial, COVID-19 misinformation, and hard-right extremism.
McMansion developer Christopher Saccoccia, aka Chris Sky, an anti-mask, anti-lockdown COVID denialist now running for Toronto mayor, has been trying to persuade vulnerable Canadians that attempts to make cities more livable and sustainable are part of a larger conspiracy by a global “elite” to limit personal freedom. This comes three months after climate-denying conspiracy theorists tried to undermine Oxford’s push towards becoming a more walkable city, and a year after Saccoccia helped instigate the seditious “Freedom Convoy” occupation in Ottawa.
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Days before announcing his candidacy in Toronto’s mayoral byelection, Saccoccia showed up on a street corner in Edmonton where senior city planner Sean Bohle was trying to explain to a group of protesters “why municipal aspirations to create a more walkable city were not, in fact, a Hunger-Games-style government plot to trap people in their neighbourhoods,” as the Globe and Mail puts it.
Edmonton District Planning’s 15-minute city proposal is simple: they want residents to be able to meet most of their daily needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from where they live. That means closer grocers, hair dressers, schools, clinics, parks, and so on. Saccoccia distorts this urban planning concept, contending in a TikTok video where he is seen hectoring Bohle that “they” could easily “lock us down into a little, tiny 1.5 square kilometres.”
Conspiracy theorists similarly conflated pandemic language like “lockdown” to disparage traffic and congestion solutions proposed in Oxfordshire in early December. Six traffic filters were approved by the county council to deter people from driving through central areas, reported the Guardian.
A group called Not Our Future materialized via a leaflet-in-letterbox campaign, warning residents they were about to be used as “guinea pigs” in the United Kingdom’s inaugural “climate lockdown.” The group circulated disinformation that the traffic scheme involved physical barriers to movement, a claim that Conservative MP Nick Fletcher has been actively promulgating as evidence of an “international socialist” plot to rob Britons of their freedom. Conservative MP and recent party leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt has suggested Fletcher’s claims deserve a hearing, reports Road.cc.
The Oxfordshire Council began to receive death threats about the scheme, leading them to say in a statement that the traffic filters are not physical barriers and will not lead to physical road closures. “They are simply traffic cameras that can read number plates. If a vehicle passes through the filter at certain times of the day, the camera will read the number plate and (if you do not have an exemption or a residents’ permit) you will receive a fine in the post.”
Buses and taxis “will be able to pass through the traffic filters freely at all times, people can walk or cycle through them at all times, and there will be exemptions and permits for blue badge holders, emergency services, health workers, and both professional and non-professional care workers,” the council added. “People receiving frequent hospital treatments will also be eligible to drive through the filters.”
The aim is “to support and add services, not restrict them,” the notice stressed.
The Not Our Future leaflets slipped into Oxfordshire mailboxes deny anthropogenic climate change and claim that “achieving net-zero by 2050 will destroy our way of life.”
Founded and directed by COVID-19 conspiracy theorist and alleged serial scam artist David Fleming, Not Our Future is “backed by a network of high-profile climate deniers and conspiracy theorists based in the UK, Canada, the United States, and Australia,” reports DeSmog UK. Its signatories include Kathy Gyngell, a trustee with the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a UK think tank with deep, and lucrative, ties to the fossil fuel industry.
“Gyngell is also editor of TCW, formerly The Conservative Woman, a website which regularly publishes climate science denial and COVID misinformation,” DeSmog writes.
Other signatories include the British actor Laurence Fox, whose Reclaim Party—founded by Fox to “reclaim” what he has defined as “British” values—has actively campaigned against low-traffic neighbourhood schemes.
Back across the pond, amplifiers of the “climate lockdown” canard include Steve Milloy, director of the Heartland Institute, and University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, a hectic disseminator of climate and COVID-19 denial with 3.9 million followers on Twitter. His late December tweet in support of the “climate lockdown” claim has been viewed 7.5 million times.
The pandemic has delivered rhetorical and political riches to the climate denial camp, Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), told DeSmog.
“Until 2020, fearmongering about so-called ‘green tyranny’ had little to point towards,” she explained. It was a relatively abstract “boogeyman” until anti-climate action groups weaponized the pandemic and its “moments of genuine trauma for millions of people.” Then, they began to draw connections between lockdown restrictions and climate-friendly public policies like 15-minute cities.
Back in Toronto, Saccoccia announced his intention to run for mayor in a public statement in which he declared Toronto the “crown jewel in this whole scheme of the World Economic Forum (WEF) and United Nations.”
His words echoed those of climate deniers and conspiracy theorists in Australia and the UK casting sustainable economic recovery initiatives as a pretext for global control.
That narrative’s “nebulous, and therefore highly adaptable nature” has allowed it to find traction with a wide array of fringe communities, ISD writes. They included anti-vaccine activists, who claimed the World Economic Forum would impose forced vaccinations; QAnon followers, who wove it into their existing narratives of a Deep State cabal; and the far-right and neo-Nazis, who considered it a Jewish plot.
Saccoccia may also have indicated some personal skin in the game of discrediting urban planning that prioritizes sustainability and livability for all. In his day job, he’s vice-president of Ontario-based SkyHomes Corporation, a builder of multi-million-dollar McMansions whose average size is well north of 5,000 square feet.
Speaking with the Globe and Mail back in 2014, Saccoccia expressed frustration with city planners who were refusing to allow developers access to “hundreds of acres” of farmland around the village of Kleinburg.
“All the land prices going up is pretty much being artificially controlled by the government,” he said. “They’re putting a freeze on the land to create this scarcity. It’s really ’cause they want the higher density.”
Will I have to ask permission to visit my grandchildren? Do I have to pick a special day or time? Can I just go visit them anytime or will the city need my schedule to approve? It all sounds worrisome. 1984ish.
Gwee, of course not!! The idea of 15-minute cities was around, and thriving, long before conspiracy theorists decided to make it their latest pretext. (Since they can’t complain about mask mandates anymore, and no one gets fired up about carbon pricing the way they used to.)
The idea of a 15-minute city is to make life easier, not harder. The thinking is that if we can get access to more of the day-to-day amenities we need — groceries, supplies, a good coffee shop (you can tell what my day-to-day priorities are) — within a 15-minute walk, bike ride, or bus trip, we’ll spend less time in gridlocked traffic and get back more time in our day. The side benefit of leaving our cars at home more often will be cleaner air and lower carbon emissions (until cars are all electric), less wear and tear on our roads, and therefore lower road maintenance costs. But the main purpose is just to make life better.
The vicious, utterly false narrative we wrote about in this story imagines a 15-minute city as a place you can’t leave without permission. That’s nothing more than a false fever dream. Some cities restrict *car* access to even and odd days, usually because there’s only so much road space available and they have nowhere else to build, even if they wanted to. (And they shouldn’t want to — that new construction means permanent maintenance costs for taxpayers, and it’s well established that anytime anyone builds a new road to relieve congestion, more people take the cue to drive more and more often.) But when those rules are done right, and they usually are, they’re accompanied by other forms of access, including transit, so that it’s easier to get where you need to go (and see your grandchildren whenever you want to), not harder.
At the risk of over-sharing — we have this conversation at home all the time, ever since we moved to a location with about eight transit routes within a three- to five-minute walk. Given a choice between driving downtown, getting stuck in traffic, then losing another 10 or 15 minutes to find parking, and — worst of all — not being able to work on my next story for The Mix while I’m en route, I almost always prefer to take a bus or light rail. Others in our family prefer to drive. And that is precisely the point. Everyone gets to make that choice, because 15-minute cities are about more choices and more options, not fewer.