Reclaiming the streets

Every morning, Norma Nebot used to rush her children into the car for the stressful school run on roads clogged with traffic and pollution. Although it was only a short journey, the cars speeding along the three-lane highway outside her apartment block made walking not only impossible but dangerous too.

Today a beaming Norma tells of a very different daily experience. “My nine-year old son can now walk to school safely on his own and my younger daughter and I can even stop for a few minutes at the playground on the way if we’re in good time,” she says.

My nine-year old son can now walk to school safely on his own
— Norma Nebot, resident

It’s not just Norma’s morning routine that has been transformed by Barcelona’s commitment to reclaim the city’s streets for citizens. “Our street has gone from being a not very friendly street to a totally safe one where the children can play outside and I can just go downstairs and have a chat with my neighbours.”

The noisiest city in Europe

Around 400,000 people die prematurely every year in Europe due to air pollution. Soaring use of private cars is a major contributing factor – and the reason cities are having to think creatively about how to push vehicles off the roads. Barcelona had to think particularly urgently.

Already an extremely densely populated city, Barcelona had also seen auto ownership rates increase dramatically as the region around the city grew and more commuters came into the city every day. By 2014 Barcelona was facing serious pollution problems – and it failed to meet EU air quality targets.

It wasn’t just air quality that was falling below acceptable standards. The combination of concrete, scarce green space and too many cars meant Barcelona had gained the title no city wants – the noisiest in Europe.

While many cities have been inspired by initiatives such as European Mobility Week to experiment with ideas for reducing traffic – car-free days for example – Barcelona recognised the need to do something far more radical and sustainable.

A visionary’s revolutionary idea

A study of the city’s noise levels by Salvador Rueda, resident urban visionary and head of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, proved a pivotal moment in the city’s search for a solution.

The study showed that even with speed limits of 20km an hour the volume of cars on the road meant noise levels would still be too loud. If residents were to live with a humane level of noise, they must be liberated from through traffic.

So began Rueda’s journey to the superblock concept that is now revolutionising lives like Norma’s. It’s a concept that goes far beyond simply taking cars off the roads and takes into account not only that cars represent 20% of journeys in the city, but that they also take up 60% of public space.

“The most important thing for most planners is to make pedestrian areas,” Reuda said. “In my case, not. I want to make citizens’ areas. Because pedestrian is a mode of transport and the citizen is another thing. People will be different, the relations between them will be different and the uses of public space will be different.”

Rueda’s words echo an ambition later articulated in Goal 11 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to, ‘significantly transform the way we build and manage our urban spaces’. Or, as one visiting US academic David Roberts blogged, “it is a vision for a different way of living in the 21st century, one that steps back from many of the mistakes of the auto-besotted 20th century, refocusing on health and community.”

Progress with picnic tables

Rueda’s superblock model went on to find its way into Barcelona’s Urban Mobility Plan for 2013-2018. Launched with the slogan ‘Let’s fill our city with life’, superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside and internal roads with a 10km speed limit are for residents and services only.

“The essence of superblocks,” explains Rose López, public space architect and coordinator of the superblock programme, “is to reduce air pollution and noise in the city by minimising the space dedicated to car mobility and converting the spaces we liberate in areas with more permeable soil, into more green areas with spaces for spending time and interacting. Areas where vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and the disabled can experience public spaces that are safe and enjoyable.”

In Barcelona’s straight street grid, octagonal spaces between the blocks are as big as town squares – although they had become full of cars rather than people. By pushing the cars out of these spaces, superblocks are in many ways turning back the clock.

Once again, these octagonal spaces, plus entire groups of adjacent streets, are opened up for pedestrians, cyclists, playgrounds, pleasant street scapes with plants and furniture, gardens, markets, street games, concerts and community events.

Roberts describes the scene in Poblenou superblock, where Norma and her family live. “In the middle of what used to be an intersection there’s a small playground with a set of picnic tables next to it, just outside a local café. On an early October evening, neighbours sit and sip drinks to the sound of children’s shouts and laughter.”

For Norma these tables are one of the best things about living in a superblock. “We have held birthday parties for our daughter around the picnic area and I’ve met new people through the community suppers organised there. The whole neighbourhood has changed – it’s a really nice area.”

Small-scale democracy eases tensions

It might be really nice now but it wasn’t always certain that this first superblock would come to fruition.

“In theory, the idea of reorganising the city in superblocks is simple and easy, but implementation in the consolidated city is hard work,” says López. “As organisation in superblocks implies that people have to change their daily habits, in particular the way they use their cars, and there is fear in the commercial sector that their activity will decrease, at first there was a lot of resistance from groups of citizens opposed to change.”

The fact that residents are closely involved in shaping the new public spaces in their neighbourhoods helps to ease some of this tension. It will hopefully ease further as more citizens experience living in superblocks for themselves – and more evidence becomes available of their impact on quality of life and health.

Studies of the superblocks developed to date suggests they can lead to CO2 emission reductions of between 20% and 75% and an increase in the number of people walking and cycling of 10% and 30% respectively.

Reducing premature deaths by 20%

Such is the strength of political support for superblocks that the city has set the astonishingly ambitious goal of replicating the five existing superblocks another 495 times!

This future vision also encompasses a bus network that will put everyone within 300 metres of a bus stop at any time, ‘green corridors’ lined with plants and trees connecting the superblocks and 300km of new cycling lanes shaped around them.

The resulting ‘city of superblocks’ could, according to recent studies, deliver the step change in health and climate outcomes others can only dream of.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide could be reduced by 25%. Almost 280,000 trips a week could be shifted to public and active transport. As many as 667 premature deaths a year from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented. Residents could even live for an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits of superblocks.

Barcelona is striving for the greatest, fastest, people-centred transformation of any other global city. If there’s one group of people whose faces I’d particularly like to see when their neighbourhood becomes a superblock, it’s the school children. Because who doesn’t remember the moment of pure joy when we’re first allowed to walk to school on our own, with the fresh air on our faces and a spring in our step!

Tiphanie Mellor