Superblocks: How Barcelona is taking city streets back from cars

If you imagine a typical American city street,
and you take away the space that’s dedicated to cars, you aren’t left with very much. There are some narrow walkways on the side,
and some bridges in between them, but not much else. Cars dominate cities. Spend some time walking around most cities
and you’ll find yourself pushed to narrow sidewalks, waiting for crosswalk lights. You’ll find cyclists navigating really narrow
strips of space. Americans are used to cars the way that fish
are used to water. That’s so ubiquitous in the U.S. that I
think for most people, it just never occurred to them that it could be otherwise. But what if there were a way to change that? To give space back to pedestrians and bicyclists,
and to make cities more friendly to life outside of a car? It turns out Barcelona might have a solution. In 2014, the city was faced with serious air
pollution problems. Barcelona and its 35 surrounding municipalities
consistently failed to meet the EU’s air quality targets. Studies were showing that air pollution in
the region causes 3,500 premature deaths every year. Traffic in the city also causes severe noise
pollution. So the city developed an extensive Urban Mobility
Plan with the hope of reducing traffic by 21 percent. The coolest part of the plan were these things: They call them “superilles”. Superilles? “Si, superilles.” That translates to “superblocks”. It’s this urban design concept intended
to minimize the presence of cars in city centers. The word “superblock” has been used before
to describe huge city blocks without any passageways for cars. But that’s not what’s happening here. So here’s how Barcelona’s plan works. You take nine square city blocks and close off
the inside to through traffic. So buses, big freight trucks — or any vehicles
that are trying to get from one part of town to the next — have to drive around the perimeter. Inside the superblock, the speed limit is
kept to 10 kilometers per hour — that translates to just over 6 miles per hour — and curbside parking is replaced by underground parking. That means you wind up with street space for
markets, outdoor games, and events. Within this nine square block perimeter
you’re gonna have kind of a pleasant streetscape where people can walk around and mingle and
do things without this kind of constant fear of cars around. The concept is going to be tested out in five
neighborhoods, but the city has identified 120 possible intersections throughout the
region where it could be implemented. So how do we know what the results of this kind
of plan would look like? Well, northwest of Barcelona is a city called
Vitoria-Gasteiz, which has implemented superblock designs since 2008. In the main superblock at the city center,
pedestrian space increased from 45 percent of the total surface area to 74 percent. With so much less traffic, noise levels dropped
from 66.5 dBA to 61 dBA. Most impressive of all, there was a 42% reduction
in nitrogen oxide emissions and a 38% reduction in particle pollution in the area. On top of that, business is up. What you consistently see when people change
their streetscapes to prioritize human beings over cars is you don’t see any decline in
economic activity, you see the opposite. You get more people walking and cycling
around more slowly, stopping more often patronizing businesses more, and that … center of social
activity will tend to build on itself. So here’s the question: could something
like this work in an American city? Barcelona has some unique advantages getting
started on this plan, in that a lot of it was built before cars, and a lot of it was
built on a simple grid. The district of Eixample — where the superblock
plan is based — was designed in 1859 in this repetitive grid structure by this guy, Ildefons Cerdá. He basically invented the word for (and the study
of) “urbanization” when he laid out this grid plan for Barcelona that evenly distributed
resources like schools and hospitals. But superblock designers insist
that cities don’t need a simple grid structure to implement this kind of plan. It can work anywhere. Now, cities in the US have have attempted some
car-minimizing projects like this. The problem is, they’re usually done in
wealthier areas with lots of existing businesses. Zoning policies often require separation of
residential and commercial areas — but an ideal walkable area would be a mix of the
two. On top of that, zoning minimums on parking
availability encourage the presence of cars and parking lots, and minimums on street width
make for wide, unwalkable streets. Because of that, walkable districts are basically
isolated luxury items in the US. What makes the Barcelona plan different is
that they aren’t setting aside one fancy neighborhood or town square to make pedestrian-friendly — instead, by proposing superblocks throughout the entire city, they’ve declared car-free
spaces a right for everybody, no matter what part of town they’re in. Maybe — this might be overly optimistic — but I think it has sunk in in the U. S. that the model whereby every city resident comes with a car — and drives a car everywhere – is just inherently limited. It limits the growth of your city, it limits the health of your city and the growth of your city. So one way or another we have to find ways of having a lot of people live close to one another without all of them having cars. You know, being able to get around and work and play in live and have enjoyable lives without cars.

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