Reclaiming urban space: The influence of the Superblock

I mentioned Barcelona’s superblocks in passing in my post on the city’s air pollution, but due to the significance of the policy in reconfiguring the urban structure of the city, this post will look into the planning, implementation and future of superblocks in more detail.

Car-dependant city planning has resulted in high levels of pollution, sedentary lifestyles, noise pollution and car dominated streets. Barcelona, like many European and global cities, is facing these issues with pollution levels exceeding the EU limits for NO2, almost 20% of children at risk of becoming overweight and 61% of the city’s residents suffering from noise that exceeds permissible limits.

When the iconic city block structure of Barcelona was designed in the late 19th century, Ildefons Cerdà, the plan’s architect, envisioned a city that promoted diversity, social cohesion and liveability through vast amounts of public space, with the original plan reserving 50% of each block as open space. However, 100 years after the plan’s proposal, the built-up space in the average block had increased from 67,200m3 to 294,771.61m3

The infilling of Cerdà’s city blocks, from the original plan (top left) to 1972 (bottom right). Source: Vox

The superblock plan of today’s Barcelona builds on Cerda’s vision, combining 9 blocks and limiting the use of cars on internal roads, re-producing public space for culture, leisure and community.

Barcelona’s first superblock was created in the Poblenou district in 2016. It was originally built with no new permanent infrastructure; using tires, paint and potted plants to create new public spaces that could be re-imagined by the neighbourhood’s residents. There was initial opposition against the creation of the superblock, but six months after the introduction of the first superblock, following extensive public consultation, attitudes turned around and the city built a more permanent playground, planted green spaces and added picnic tables.  

The Poblenou superblock in its inital, temporary form. Source: Vox

The city has so far built 6 superblocks, all of which are unique and have been developed with the help of local communities. The public were able to have a direct impact on the design process via the SuperBARIO platform – a gaming interface that collects user feedback on the design of public space, collecting data about citizen’s needs, desires and proposals. This data was then used to create the public spaces within each superblock, directly influenced by those who will use it daily.  

Despite the initial opposition to the scheme, the superblocks are now seen as environmental, social, health and economic successes, and there are plans to implement another 503 superblocks throughout Barcelona.  

If all the planned superblocks are realised, private vehicle use is estimated to decline from the current 1.2 million trips per week to 230,000, due to an uptake in public transport, walking and cycling. This in turn is predicted to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels, which are currently 47 micrograms, by 23%, bringing them below the legal limit of 40 micrograms set by the EU. The health benefits the superblocks will provide via improved air quality, reduced temperatures, increasing social cohesion and promoting more active lifestyles are predicted to increase the life expectancy of the average Barcelona resident by nearly 200 days, and prevent 667 deaths per year.  

Barcelona’s superblocks are re-creating the city, turning previously vehicle-dominated streets into places where communities come together and children play, re-imagining city life. To find out more about the superblocks and get a real idea of what it’s like to experience them and the change they have had to city life, take a look at the video below, created by StreetFilms.

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