As someone who believes in that planning can improve people’s lives, it has been frustrating to see conspiracy theories emerge around concepts designed to make our neighbourhoods more liveable and inclusive.

Neither I nor my colleagues wish to imprison anyone or confiscate their cars. We do want to do is enable people to meet most of their daily needs within a reasonable distance of their home. The 20-minute neighbourhood (20MN) principles adopted by the Scottish Government attempt to facilitate connected, compact neighbourhoods with active and sustainable transport options. But the obstacles to making them a reality are huge.

Most existing neighbourhoods are designed around the primacy of motorised vehicles. Retrofitting them to support more active forms of travel will not be easy. To make movement safe for cyclists and pedestrians, car users would have to accept that they no longer have priority. This may not be electorally popular.

Even with significant investment, the configurations of roads and streets mean that not all localities can form 20MNs. To be successful, a 20MN needs to provide local facilities and services – shops, schools, greenery/parks, and ideally workspaces too. Large-enough populations are needed to make all these viable if the potential benefits such as improvements to the quality of life, air quality, biodiversity, and mental health are to be achieved.

The 20MN is not a new concept. Its origins go back to the garden city movement. What is new is the accompanying fearmongering.

Opposition typically comes from those who fear that 20MNs will de-prioritise the use of cars. But motorised public transport, taxis and personal vehicles will all still obviously be needed. The point is not to eradicate cars but to make cleaner and safer alternatives more attractive.

Interest in 20MNs was greatly accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Globally, governments have expressed interest in a future that is more resilient to health and economic crises. The inadequacies of our existing built environment were highlighted, revealing widespread structural inequalities. The pandemic also unleashed an unprecedented wave of conspiracy theories so we should not be surprised that people who came to distrust governments, academia and authorities should be attracted to other theories portraying them as malign actors.

There is also the fact that some of the problems that we urban designers and planners are seeking to address – isolated communities, lack of amenities, poor transport links etc – were caused because we abetted a traffic engineering approach to the design and operation of our streets since the middle of the last century.

There remains a lack of consideration, beyond naïve environmental determinism, of the two-way relationship between the built environment and people’s behaviour. Personal choice will impact on the deliverability of 20MNs but this is not being factored into plans.

Without a strong political mandate and considerable financial resources, architects, urban designers and planners will have limited ability to improve the lives of people in potential 20MNs.

Dr Husam AlWaer is Reader in Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Dundee