Barcelona may be an eminently walkable city, but it is also choked by traffic, with car horns and exhaust fumes a constant companion to pedestrians in many neighbourhoods. Hemmed in by the sea and mountains, with 1.6 million inhabitants, the Catalan capital is the third densest city in Europe after Paris and Athens. And, with so many cars on its streets, it consistently fails to meet EU-established air quality standards. Now, with several studies showing that air pollution alone causes 3,500 premature deaths a year in Barcelona’s metropolitan area, the city council has decided to act.
In September 2016, in an effort to free up city streets and combat excessive noise levels, Barcelona began an ambitious plan to create ‘superblocks’. The priority in these small urban villages is on pedestrian areas, plazas and gardens. Cars are allowed to drive the perimeter, but the streets are not permitted to be used as thoroughfares. Public and delivery vehicles and local residents are allowed to enter and cross superblocks, but their speed is limited to 10 km per hour and drivers are forced to turn at each internal junction.
Superblocks are “winning back the streets for the people and for leisure activities, promoting engagement within communities,” says Ton Salvadó, the Ajuntament’s Director of Urban Planning. “For us [the Ajuntament], a healthier city—through the reduction of air and noise pollution and traffic accidents—is the basic principle of the new urban model.”
This idea isn’t new to Barcelona. The city’s first superblock was successfully implemented in 1993 in the Born, followed by two more in Gràcia in 2005. Ada Colau’s administration, however, has decided to make them priority again, as part of a wider plan to improve the urban transport network and increase the quality of residents’ lives. In September last year, Poblenou received its first superblock formed by the streets of Badajoz, Pallars, Llacuna and Tànger.
The next area to be transformed is the Eixample—ideal for superblocks because of its grid pattern and traffic-clogged streets. Each superblock will use the present street layout and will consist of nine contiguous blocks. No resident will be more than 300 metres from a bus stop and average waiting times for a bus are to be reduced to five minutes from their current average of 14 minutes. The superblocks may finally deliver the lifestyle that Catalan engineer Ildefons Cerdà hoped to create when he masterminded the Eixample neighbourhood in the late 19th century. His vision of a neighbourhood filled with green spaces and places for residents to gather was never realised, and over time the Eixample became congested with traffic and its inner squares turned into supermarkets and carparks.
The goals of the plan are lofty. As well as encouraging walking, cycling and the use of public transportation, the Ajuntament aims to reduce private driving by 21 percent within the next two years. The city also intends to establish 300 kilometres of new cycling lanes, change street signs and make bus routes more efficient.
Salvador Rueda, the director of the Urban Ecology Agency, the agency that designed the superblock model, said, “The quality of life the superblocks deliver can’t just be the privilege of a few living in the city centre; equality will come from implementing superblocks throughout the city.” Rueda supports a number of measures aimed at reducing traffic in urban environments—such as the restriction of even or odd license plate numbers from entering the city centre in Madrid or Paris on high pollution days—but he prefers the superblock to the imposing of traffic tolls, as is the case in London, “because in the end the toll is easily afforded by those with deeper pockets”.
The introduction of superblocks has not been well received by everyone. Residents have expressed concerns that they were not invited to participate more actively in the decision-making process, especially since the Poblenou neighbourhood superblock project was announced during summer vacation and was executed in early September. Businesses have also complained their operations might be obstructed due to the restrictions on the loading and unloading of goods. Parking was also cited as an issue for some residents. Jordi Tosell, 41, an engineer who lives inside a designated superblock area, said superblocks “might be a novel concept, but I drive to work and like to come home for lunch at midday and it might be problematic to find parking near home”.
Lluís Puerto, Technical Director of the Royal Automobile Club of Catalonia, which has around a million members, has pointed out some of the drawbacks of superblocks. He acknowledges that they will ease congestion in some areas, which will in turn reduce noise and local pollution and result in fewer traffic accidents. However, he is concerned about the resulting distribution of traffic and the inequity for residents on the outside roads. “It’s likely the traffic that disappears from the designated superblock areas will end up being transferred to exterior roads, which might create a sharp divide between ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ streets.”
In response to concerns of residents, businesses and experts, the city has enlarged areas to facilitate larger vehicles, lifted a ban on all left turns, allowed a bus line to traverse the superblock boundary and designated new delivery spaces. Salvadó says that the Ajuntament needed to do a better job of communicating with residents and involving them in the process. “They should have carried out an enormous public education campaign because changing entrenched behavioural habits of the individual demands huge efforts from everyone,” he explained.
Salvador Clarós, President of the Association of Neighbours of Poblenou, whose community group received both positive and negative feedback from residents, said a lesson learned from the inception of previous superblocks was that in time people came to see the benefits of their newly remodelled streetscape. In his opinion it is a natural resistance to change, which has its roots in a car culture that has been forged over the last 100 years in European cities. Clarós went on to note that some people were worried about the increase in pedestrians on the streets. “During our pilot [superblock] in Poblenou, various locals were against the measure because they thought it would give rise to more foot traffic on their street.”
Despite their shortcomings, Barcelona’s superblocks have caught the attention of transportation officials, urban planners and activists as far away as New York. Michael Replogle, New York City’s Deputy Commissioner for Urban Policy, said, “The city hasn’t linked street closures in ways that would form superblocks to limit traffic, but we are exploring how we might learn from experience in cities like Barcelona.” He added, “Many parts of New York City have a higher density than anywhere in Barcelona, making for intense competition for street space for loading and unloading trucks, as well as other traffic demands,” and therefore, “planning for superblocks needs to take into account a variety of local factors.”
Wide pavements are filled with cafés, children play freely in the cobblestone streets, and cycling is safe and stress-free on the quiet roads
“Superblocks are an innovative and inspiring model because they show how streets can be reclaimed for the people in different ways and for various purposes, depending on the needs of the community in question,” said Paul Steely White, the executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Transportation Alternatives. “When people see and hear about what’s going on in Barcelona, it gives them the confidence that they can do this where they live, that they can push our city officials to do more to transform our streets.”
Still, White recognises that a one-size-fits-all approach to superblocks might not be appropriate. “New York campaigns focus on reclaiming parts of a street to give more space to people who bike, walk and use public transit, rather than on proposals to close streets entirely to vehicle traffic,” he said.
In London, superblocks may be less applicable. “London is not a block-based city,” said Dr. Alan Mace, an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Studies at the London School of Economics, adding that the city’s traffic management scheme in London already includes a road hierarchy that directs the bulk of traffic onto main roads and keeps residential roads relatively traffic-free. Dr. Mace said that one shortcoming of superblocks may be that “unless you reduce traffic overall, you are simply redistributing the problem”.
Yet according to many, the effects of superblocks are discernible in Barcelona. Rueda says that in Gràcia “kids now go around on skates and scooters where cars once had the right of way”. Public spaces make up more than 75 percent of the streets, pedestrian trips are up 10 percent, vehicular traffic has dropped by 15 percent and biking has risen a healthy 30 percent in the neighbourhood.
The robust change that superblocks have brought about is perhaps most visible in the Born, a neighbourhood that just 20 years ago was filled with derelict buildings. “There used to be cars everywhere and not a lot of people would walk to places,” recalled Alicia Pujols, 54, a longtime resident of the neighbourhood.
Nowadays, cars are rarely seen in the hip barrio, and when they are, they are driving slowly. Wide pavements are filled with cafés, children play freely in the cobblestone streets, and cycling is safe and stress-free on the quiet roads. Real estate prices have risen and some residents complain about gentrification, but the city has built low-income housing and the area is still home to small businesses that have been there for generations.
The Eixample, where almost every street is a thoroughfare, poses a much larger challenge than the Born or Gràcia. The latter neighbourhoods had always preserved their village feel, and although the presence of cars was troublesome, it was nowhere near the scale of traffic that passes through the Eixample every day. Whether the superblocks really do reduce traffic, or just push the problem somewhere else, remains to be seen. But, in an area of the city where the lack of green space and the presence of so many cars is one of the main drawbacks for its residents, any initiative which will breathe life back into Cerdà’s vision is very welcome.