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The office—18 minutes. The city centre—15 minutes. The metro—four minutes. The gym— two minutes. The supermarket—one minute. The bar—30 seconds. Life here is, quite literally, on my doorstep. Living within reach of all my daily necessities enables day-to-day life in Barcelona to unfold with ease and creates a dynamic environment in which to live, work and play. What makes all this possible is walkability—a stunningly obvious, yet almost intangible quality. It is inherent in the dense, compact nature of the city’s fabric. It is embodied in the vibrant street life, the built environment and the historic strata. It is enhanced by design, an extensive public transport infrastructure, and a diverse mix of uses. And it enables an urban vitality that sets the scene for an efficient and convenient daily routine, played out largely within the public domain.
Talk the talk
Walkability is becoming a buzzword across the urban design world. American city planner, Jeff Speck, has made it his life’s work to study, develop and implement the concept of walkability, based on a rationale of health, wealth and sustainability benefits. Firstly; the green argument. We are all aware of the sorry state of environmental affairs around the world, but how can we make an impact in our daily lives? The way we move influences the way we live, and therefore, our carbon footprint. Historically, cities have been perceived as unhealthy and polluted, yet carbon emissions per capita are consistently lower in densely populated areas. Throughout the 20th century, however, automotive use has enabled us to sprawl and has encouraged wasteful, dispersed forms of development across the globe. The inherent mixed-use development model of a compact city offers us the best chance to go green—by foot. As economist Ed Glaeser put it; “we are a destructive species, and if you love nature,
stay away from it”. But how does all this affect your finances? The place we live shapes our economic activities and how we spend our productive energies. The most obvious economic benefit of driving less is the saving made in automobile expenses, which provides more disposable income and is likely to be spent locally.
Staying local; a prosperous economy depends (amongst other things) on the productivity of its citizens. When people come together they become more productive. To continue evolving, a city must provide the kind of environment that attracts talent, bringing vitality and new ideas. To many, the walkable life is simply more appealing. Surveys suggest that “creatives” and young professionals in general—the Friends generation, who grew up amidst a mass culture that idealised city living—prefer the pedestrian culture that grows from walkability. The health arguments are many. In 2004, US scientists published the book Urban Sprawl and Public Health, evaluating the damage done by the auto age. Asthma and car accidents rank high, but most eyes are on obesity—a global epidemic, which has nearly doubled since 1980, and causes a range of serious illnesses.
Physical inactivity is as (and sometimes more) important a factor as diet. Studies have linked obesity directly to the automotive lifestyle, even quantifying likelihood of obesity against minutes driven daily. Lengthy commutes reduce opportunities for recreation and socialising, render time unproductive, increase stress and, ultimately, decrease contentment levels.
Our environment has a big influence over this. Suburban sprawl is conducive to automobile dependency, whilst walkable neighbourhoods invite residents to build exercise into their daily routine. The car, which was once an instrument of freedom, has become a “gas-belching, time-wasting, life-threatening prosthetic device”, says Speck, essential to those living in an automotive landscape where there is no longer any such thing as a useful walk.
Walk The Walk
Barcelona, on the contrary, invites its residents to the streets: a compact cityscape, where nearness and proximity of amenities make every walk useful, and the “3 Ds” of the built environment—Density, Diversity and Design —combine to create the model sustainable community, as the city is so often acknowledged. Founded as a Roman city, Barcelona embodies 2,000 years of history amongst its eclectic neighbourhoods, which collectively create a dense yet diverse urban fabric. The Ciutat Vella envelops its pedestrians in a labyrinth of narrow streets, pretty squares and ancient architecture, which emanate an air of bygone times and a sense of escapism, to create a most interesting human-scale backdrop for city walking. Yet, step beyond the medieval city walls and into the lofty avenues of Eixample, and you won’t feel dwarfed by the more recent built environment; Ildefons Cerdà’s pioneering ‘expansion’ plan, which formed the foundation of modern Barcelona, kept the pedestrian in mind. Logical and legible, the streets that set out over 500 blocks of Eixample are between 20 and 50 metres wide, with a variety of cross sections that can be broken down into understandable segments. The vehicle zone never exceeds 50 percent of the street width, allowing broad pavements and chamfered corners to provide a sociable transition zone, with ample walking room, cafe terraces that animate the urban realm, and trees adding some welcome foliage. In some instances, pedestrians are given priority, whilst vehicles are pushed to the sides; Las Ramblas, Rambla de Poblenou and Rambla de Catalunya, for example, are all great people streets.
Whether old or new, the cityscape manages to conceive the public space between buildings as a series of urban rooms, shaped to the human scale, that offer a sense of enclosure and comfort to the pedestrian. Add to that a creative sensibility that runs through the veins of the city—from patterned paving slabs to the marvels of Gaudí—and it’s no wonder the city is walkable by design.
But beyond the aesthetics, the city’s inherent mixed-use development of retail, business and residential represents an exemplary model of urban sustainability. With a population of 1,6 million (4.5 million in the metropolitan area) and an area of 102 km2, Barcelona is a mid-rise city with a remarkably high density that has its topographical restraints to thank for shaping it upwards and limiting the urban sprawl. Block-by-block, the diverse mix of services creates a distinct identity, whilst density enables them to thrive and facilitates a shared street life that encourages the social interaction upon which communities are built; a very productive economic and social context. In 2009, figures reported 308,000 people living and 280,000 jobs within central Eixample alone.
All of these factors combine to focus the city’s energy on the streets and create the kind of walks that Speck aspires to—useful, safe, comfortable and interesting. And when it’s not within walking distance, the multi-modal transport infrastructure is always close at hand. There is still plenty of traffic (and that’s ok), but relative to density, congestion problems are limited. Over time, measures have gradually been introduced to reduce car usage and increase pedestrian zones across the city, even if road-crossing etiquette is still not for the fainthearted! Going carfree is often the most convenient option, rendering the automobile an expensive accessory in many cases, at its most valuable when escaping the city. Nothing, however, is perfect. The same highdensity model that enhances walkability, also brings its own set of associated problems: noise, crime, pickpockets, over-crowding, pollution, sewage smells, dog mess and so on. But perhaps the most obvious downside is the lack of nature. For a sustainable city, there is very little actually green about it.
Yet despite this lack of green space, just behind the city lies the magnifi cent Parc de Collserola—the world’s largest metropolitan park. In 2011, the city council launched a high-profile design competition—Les Portes de Collserolla—to identify ways of allowing these great green lungs to infiltrate the city via a number of transition points, breathing
some much needed oxygen into the concrete jungle. This initiative sits alongside many more in the pipeline (see below), which will improve walkability and form part of the overall 21st century vision for Barcelona as a ‘Smart City’.
“Productive neighbourhoods at human speed, inside a hyper-connected zero emissions metropolis.”—Vicente Guallart, Chief Architect of Barcelona City Council.
Across the globe, a “Smart City” initiative has emerged in response to the great 21st-century challenge of building adaptable, innovative and sustainable cities. Barcelona is at the heart of this forward-thinking movement, playing host to the first three editions of the Smart City Expo World Congress, with the fourth scheduled for November 2014.
As Guallart boldly summarises above, Barcelona’s urban future is envisaged as a living organism; a network of networks that can respond to your needs. “We want to be many slow cities inside a smart city”, says Guallart, combining a civilised, sustainable way of life with virtual communications through a programme of projects, ranging from self-sufficient blocks to optimised transport networks, of which walkability is an integral constituent. Although many may be sceptical about such ambitious plans during a time of austerity, it is encouraging to sense such enthusiasm for the future. Barcelona’s capacity for forward thinking and reinvention is one of many factors that generate a dynamic and vibrant place to live and work, and a concept of city living, which just so happens to improve your health, wealth and carbon footprint.
We, the international community, continue to flock here, despite the economic crisis. The reasons are many and varied, but for whatever reason we come, the lifestyle is often the reason for staying. And at the heart of that lifestyle lies walkability —possibly one of Barcelona’s finest qualities. As leading urban theorist, Richard Florida, sums up; “walkable, pedestrian-friendly, compact cities create energy efficiency, engagement, stronger communities and lift the well-being of their residents”.
TAKE TO THE STREETS
A few suggestions for getting a little bit more familiar with the streets we walk...
The Museu d’Història de Barcelona (MUHB) runs walking tours across the city in and around its many historic sites. www.museuhistoria.bcn.es
The Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) runs a regular programme of informative neighbourhood tours across the city. www.cccb.org
The new cultural centre in the Born runs three tours of the neighbourhood. One follows a literary theme, another retraces key stages in the Siege of Barcelona of 1714, whilst a third focuses on examples of cast-iron architecture. There is also a map of the 1714 trail available online. www.elborncentrecultural.bcn.cat
For a more creative perspective, Barcelona Street Style Tours conceive the whole city as one big contemporary art gallery, taking you on a trail of street art, graffiti and art installations across the Ciutat Vella. www.barcelonastreetstyletour.com
IN THE PIPELINE
• Work recently started on a €7.5 million project on Passeig de Gràcia, which aims to reorganise the street layout and introduce shared-surface zones in order to make it more pedestrian-friendly.
• The ambitious project of Les Glories conti nues in stages. Key roads will disappear underground whilst a new plaza and park, surrounded by a multi tude of public services, will create an important new hub of activity in the city.
• Provisional plans have been announced to demolish seven buildings located close to the Santa Catarina Market, to be replaced by a large flower garden in a bid to resurrect the urban gardens that once populated the ancient city.
• A new square behind La Boqueria is under construction, and will be home to the new headquarters of La Massana and some new housing.
• Reorganisation of Ronda General Mitre (between Balmes y Mandri), which will involve removing the underpass, improving connecti ons and reducing vehicle numbers, whilst creating more open and accessible space for pedestrians.
GLOBAL GLUTTONY: THE FACTS
• Overweight and obesity ranks fifth in the leading risk for deaths worldwide.
• In 2008:
- more than 1.4 billion adults were overweight.
- 35% of adults aged 20+ were overweight and 11% obese.
- 65% of the world’s populati on live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.
• In 2011, more than 40 million children under five were overweight.
• At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese.
• Despite the infamous healthy Mediterranean diet, Spaniards too have fallen foul to this global epidemic, just trailing the UK with 56% of the population overweight and 26% obese.
*Figures from the World Health Organisation