urban planning & infrastructures

Barcelona Superblocks: New mobility on the move

Oct 19, 2020

“Superblocks were conceived as resilient environments which can be very much inspiring today.”
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Using the 1992 Olympic Games as a catalyst for development and a showcase seen by the entire world, Barcelona has been profoundly transformed during the last thirty years and has become extremely attractive for tourism and economic activities.

An international and cosmopolitan city, sport centre, and cultural capital, Barcelona stopped neglecting the sea front and re-invested in it, giving the city a new face. Barcelona is now recognised as a very inspiring city that successfully managed to change its urban plan and image.

As success generally does not come without consequences, Barcelona has had to face a problem which grows every day: car traffic. For the last 30 years, the City has both benefitted from and undergone economic activity growth, including mass tourism. Barcelona is denser than New York, with 53,119 inhabitants per square kilometre compared to 11, 000 inhabitants per square kilometre in NYC. It suffers from a severe urban heat island effect and noise pollution, combined with a lack of green spaces. Along with the expansion of Barcelona’s suburban areas, the number of commuters has also grown. And though the inner-city public transportation network is adequate, the in-out network remains poor.

A programme entitled, “Let’s fill streets with life – the establishment of Superblocks in Barcelona” emerged from the need to address the two-fold challenge of improving people’s quality of life by making the city healthier and more habitable, while reducing the impact of human activities and ensuring the short- and long-term integrity of the environment. The plan incorporates and coordinates several mobility and public-space projects within the same city model. Superblocks were conceived as resilient environments which can be very much inspiring today. Many cities across the world are looking at the Catalan City’s comprehensive experience that takes into account traffic problems, global warming, quality of life, and the need for social relations.

What is a superblock?

The Superblock model is a way of organising the city based on reversing the distribution of public space among vehicles and people, giving priority to the citizen, to improve environmental conditions and people’s quality of life. To achieve these goals, it is based on a diversification of streets with regard to their habitability, uses and connective capacity. Evoking the patterns of a tartan cloth, Superblocks are spread throughout the urban landscape. Green spaces, points of attraction and facilities, pedestrian hubs, streets and various mobility networks: all of these systems overlap with each other and facilitate the interlinking of districts, neighbourhoods and neighbourhood units (housing).

The Superblock model is not about delimiting various units. A neighbourhood is a changing social concept, dependent on many factors and is difficult to identity in specific terms. It is not about understanding Superblocks as an isolated cell bound by street hubs along their perimeter. It is about a diversification of streets which is based on recognising and boosting their existing features and adding the various networks to them. It opens up the possibility of public spaces being dedicated to other users and uses such as playing games, practising sport, engaging in cultural exchanges, and participating in expressive actions and protests, with streets becoming meeting spaces between generations of people and groups with children and teens expressing their right to utilise public space.

The purpose is not to remove cars from the streets but to improve the quality of life while giving priority to people; this is key in achieving such a goal. Beyond urban planning, there is a 21st century vision that changes the older, car-centred development paradigms. It relies on the principles of urban ecology.

The theorist behind superblocks, Salvador Rueda, founder of BCNecologia invites us to rethink not just the way we move, but the way we live. Superblocks are conceived as a comprehensive, inclusive and long-lasting societal project. The Superblocks model works with a high-density population which allows for more social and retail infrastructure but with a smaller environmental footprint.

Square blocks inducing virtual circles

The associated health, economic, environmental, and social benefits of the superblocks are measurable both in terms of quantity and quality.

  • Reduction of air pollution, noise and heat, greater access to green spaces and increased transport-related physical activity;
  • Decline in mortality rates;
  • Increased life expectancy;
  • Reduced health costs;
  • Social links;
  • Mental health;
  • Satisfaction of the locals versus that of car owners;
  • Increase in the number of local businesses.

The exchange of priority between pedestrians and cars was introduced some time ago in different neighbourhoods with specific urban tissues and with narrow streets. In recent years, the main challenge was how to introduce this model in an orthogonal urban grid with wide streets and avenues (the Cerdà area). From 2016 until now, Barcelona City has worked with two neighbourhoods to introduce the Superblocks program – Poblenou and Sant Antoni. In 2019, a study by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health calculated that the city could prevent 667 premature deaths each year if the Superblocks concept was expanded throughout the entire city. Superblocks improve the living conditions of thousands of people.

How to “set up” a Superblock? Steps and key requirements

Implementing Superblocks requires strong political will. The first initiatives are intended to be carried out through two major lines of work: citizen empowerment and tactical urban planning. A participatory process has been designed that is intended to accompany the entire deployment of the measures to be implemented, seeking at all times the involvement and joint responsibility of the social fabric of each area. From the beginning, this process is conducted without the planning of any major physical changes. The first initiatives will involve commitment to flexible physical changes, (with low budgets and which, in some cases, may be reversible), as well as tactical urban planning. In this way, city residents can quickly reclaim their streets and determine for themselves whether or not the model works for them. Superblocks must be combined with complementarity strategies and instruments to maximise their positive effects.

Finally, public space – “the house of everybody” as Rueda names it – is closely linked to the expression of freedom and democracy. Superblocks are conceived for citizens and not just for pedestrians. As the Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau says, “public space is the place for democracy.”

Challenges faced

Superblocks do not receive unanimous support, and their implementation faces important two challenges, traffic primarily, and gentrification secondarily.

The Urban Mobility Plan employs several approaches which come together in the implementation of a Superblocks programme in an urban area. It takes into account pedestrian networks, the deployment of bike-lane networks, the establishment of the new orthogonal bus-line network and improvements in public transport, as well as prioritisation and improvements in managing the street network for private vehicles, aimed at achieving a switch from private-vehicle mobility to alternative means of more sustainable transport, and reducing car and moped use by 21%.

As a consequence of the improved quality of life, Superblocks have also become attractive for real estate investors who buy and rent flats to tourists and wealthy people, leading to a risk of gentrification in these areas. In Barcelona, the flow of tourists has been constantly increasing for the last 30 years. This is contrary to the whole purpose of a superblock whose success relies on social diversity. The solution to fighting gentrification is to multiply superblocks while preserving social housing in all parts of the city and ensuring the same quality of life for inhabitants. For Rueda, “to capture, for all citizens the same benefits of rural living (quiet, clear, air and water, green and garden spaces, tight-knit community) alongside the benefits of urban living (efficient distribution of people and good mixing of diverse communities, economic and intellectual ferment)”.

Replicability examples

According to Salvador Rueda, the model is replicable in any city, but it has to take into account diversity among potential candidate cities and be adapted in the field.

In Paris, there have been some signs of implementing a polycentric model. This includes multiple small centres within the city centre, based on a 15-minute model. In this configuration, most residents’ needs (work, shopping, leisure) would all be found within a 15–minute walk or bike ride from their home. In a way, urban villages are structured within the city.

In Seattle, there is a proposal to introduce something akin to the Barcelona scheme in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood. It follows Home Zones initiatives in which residents are financially encouraged to introduce traffic-reduction schemes.

Some cities have started to tackle the traffic challenge. Oslo has banned cars from the city centre. London plans to make half of the streets in its city centre permanently car-free. Paris has banned cars from the centre on the first Sunday of each month. Montreal is building a whole network of car-free streets. Bogota has set up 200 miles of bike networks (Ciclovias). New York City has banned cars from Central Park. In Denmark, cycling superhighways have been implemented between its small towns, and starting in 2030, the country intends to ban the sale of gasoline and diesel cars entirely.

Superblock structures are not possible everywhere since without the necessary density of large cities there is no walkability and no spontaneous mixing. These changes take time and need strong political commitment as well as continuity to allow for ownership on long-term projects that require a paradigm shift.

Looking forward

In today’s Covid/post-Covid context, spatial space organisation relying on superblocks has a special resonance. Are these coloured circles and lines a new definition of public space, post Covid–19? Taking these pictures of superblocks out of context, it is striking to see how this organisation of space can be read through pandemic/post-pandemic lenses. These images of the organisation of outdoor space organisation featuring delimited areas have become recurrent in the last few months. Indeed, this period invites us to rethink urban planning and safety in open spaces, combined with our vital need for social relations and get–togethers. The philosophy of superblocks provides us all with much to reflect on.

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