Salvador Rueda, Director of Barcelona’s Urban Ecology Agency, bears the illustrious title of the ‘Father of Superblocks’. Since being appointed to the post in 2000, Rueda has become the driving force behind the development of a project he hopes will one day be extended to 500 neighbourhoods. The initiative is aimed at improving the quality of life of the Spanish city’s 1.6 million inhabitants.
What he terms ‘urban sustainability’ involves a new conceptual and instrumental framework for building more workable urban models. ‘On the one hand, we need to articulate a new strategy based on information and knowledge,’ he says. ‘This is what smart cities are all about, information and sustainability, which complement one another.’
The principle underlying superblocks is that neighbourhood space in cities should be devoted to people, rather than as a thoroughfare for driving from one point to another. The problem is how to reclaim for residents urban areas that are mostly composed of street grids for moving cars through and around them.
The international database Numbeo ranks Spain as the third most polluted country in Western Europe. The European Environmental Agency says contamination levels in the Catalan capital are well above the recommended limit. Moreover, local environmental agencies estimate that some 3,000 deaths a year are linked to pollution. ‘Clearly this is a matter of some urgency,’ says Rueda. ‘We are looking at steps to bring air as well as noise pollution down to an acceptable level in the city.’
The first task, he explains, is to reduce the number of streets for automobile use, which will require expanding the public transport network as well as building more cycle lanes and pedestrianised streets. By 2018 the city will roll out people-friendly bus routes, which will run mainly along broad avenues. This is part of an initiative that will at the same time add more hybrid and electric vehicles to the fleet. In addition, 200 kilometres of cycle lanes will be added to the existing 100-kilometre network. A significant increase is also envisaged for public car park fees, a policy intended to discourage motorists from driving into the city centre.
The overall objective is to reduce traffic by 13 per cent within the next five to six years. It is hoped this will cut the city’s air pollution levels by 21 per cent in the same period. The results so far have been encouraging. For example, over the past year the number of passengers on public buses in Barcelona has increased by 5.5 per cent, thanks largely to the success of a pact struck with the city’s transport authorities to boost the number of routes and frequencies.
The jewel in the crown of the plans, though, are the ‘superblocks’ (superailles, as they are called in Catalan) or mini neighbourhoods. In its broadest term, a superblock aims to redirect traffic to a number of main thoroughfares and turn smaller streets into public spaces for culture and leisure activities.
To appreciate the superblock principle, think of a three by three grid of neighbourhood blocks criss-crossed throughout with vertical and horizontal streets open to traffic. In the superblock, the internal lanes in the grid are replaced by a new system of ‘green’ streets in which most traffic flows outside and around the superblock, now designated off limits to all non-resident cars or non-essential emergency vehicles.
‘Imagine the city where you live, or your neighbourhood,’ elaborates Rueda. ‘Now imagine confining motorised vehicle traffic to a perimeter around several interior blocks, where space would be opened up to festivals, farmers’ markets, cycles, families out for a stroll, children playing in the streets and you, in your favourite café, sipping an espresso in a traffic-free environment.’
The system has been operational on a small scale for nearly 25 years, but it is now moving into high gear. Rueda cites the El Born district near the waterfront, once a medieval jousting ground. ‘In 1990 it was falling to pieces. Now, thanks to the introduction of the superblock, it has become one of the most fashionable places in the city,’ he says.
‘People are especially sensitive to any changes that interfere with their right to drive’
Not everyone in Barcelona is happy with the superblock system, however. Earlier this year residents of El Poblenou, another neighbourhood near the sea, took to the streets to protest. Their argument was that superblocks made it more difficult to travel from their homes to the city centre. Some local businesses have expressed concern that the introduction of restrictions on delivery times could cause serious disruption to their trade. Concerns have also been raised about security in the streets, as many of these areas are deserted after dark.
Rueda acknowledges that there will always be some resistance to new initiatives. ‘People are especially sensitive to any changes that interfere with their right to drive,’ he says.
Rueda points to the city’s first superblock, built in 1993 in the Gràcia neighbourhood of the city centre. His team recently released a report which found that over the past ten years there had been a ten per cent increase in the number of local residents who had taken to walking as a daily activity, while 30 per cent more got around by bike. At the same time, driving had decreased by 26 per cent in the general area and 40 per cent inside the superblock itself.
‘We seem to forget that there are more pedestrians than drivers most of the time,’ he says. ‘Now in Gràcia, where children can play safely in the streets, nobody wants to go back to the previous system.’
Rueda estimates that if superblocks were fully implemented across the city, 60 per cent of road space now devoted solely to cars would instead become car-free or be shifted to mixed use. ‘From the feedback I’ve had so far, I can comfortably say that 99 per cent of the people living within a superblock are happy with the changes,’ he says.
The superblock concept has caught on in other parts of Spain, and Rueda claims that the model can be used in any city, in any country, and that it’s far cheaper than building new infrastructure. ‘Superblocks are easier to implement when you start with a neat street grid,’ he admits, ‘as in Barcelona’s Eixample district, where some of the first ones are located. But there’s no reason the basic idea couldn’t be adapted to other configurations.’
Another city that is adopting an ambitious superblock system is Vitoria (or Vitoria-Gasteiz to give it its official Basque name), the capital of Spain’s semi-autonomous Basque Country. ‘Around ten years ago we began to look at developing a new environmental programme for the city,’ says Juan Carlos Escudero, director of Vitoria-Gasteiz’s Environmental Studies Centre. ‘The idea was implemented a year later with the introduction of trams. At that time, the issue was raised of upgrading the quality of public spaces.’
Green space is very much a part of Vitoria-Gasteiz’s DNA, thanks to which in 2012 the city was awarded the European Green Capital Award. Vitoria-Gasteiz is laid out in rough concentric circles around the inner urban centre. The Green Belt, a semi-natural green area partially reclaimed from degraded areas, rings the centre and brings nature closer to the inner city. A third outer circle is dominated by forestry and mountains.
The task of reducing traffic and improving quality of life for its citizens is challenging for this city of 245,000 inhabitants. A plan to introduce pedestrianised streets, the first in Spain, came into being as early as 1976. Less than 20 years later more than 20 streets had been freed of traffic. Yet that same period saw a 50 per cent increase in the number of cars in the city. In some areas, the volume of traffic grew to more than 25,000 cars per day. Something needed to be done to prevent the city choking on exhaust fumes and rendering a pleasant stroll about town all but impossible.
‘In 2007, we enacted the Sustainable Mobility Plan, in which superblocks featured as the star,’ says Escudero. The programme of superblocks required support tactics, such as higher charges for public car parks and a cut in the number of buses, while running them at increased frequencies, much like in Barcelona. The parking restrictions were met with protests by residents, again mirroring events in Barcelona, but despite their ideological discrepancies, the major political parties that had enacted the plan stuck to their guns with the scheme.
The objective is now to create 77 superblocks in the city, along with a revamp of the public transport network, new traffic light regulations, more pedestrian and bicycle lanes and urban freight logistics. The first initiative to emerge from the plan was the €4.2million Sancho el Sabio street superblock pilot scheme. ‘This entailed the transformation of Sancho el Sabio and adjacent streets into residential thoroughfares,’ says Escudero. ‘We brought in new tram lines, pedestrianised streets with playgrounds and recreational areas, while imposing restrictions on non-resident traffic.’
The success of the Sancho el Sabio pilot scheme is reflected in an increase from 45 per cent to 74 per cent in pedestrianised surface area within the superblock, a noise reduction from 66.5 to 61 decibels in a city in which a third of the population lives with noise above the recommended WHO levels, and a 42 per cent cut in CO2 emissions.
This initial success has inspired Escudero and his colleagues to set ambitious targets for enhancing the city’s environment. ‘In 2006, 64 per cent of Vitoria-Gasteiz’s urban area was taken up by vehicles and only 36 per cent was assigned to pedestrian traffic,’ he says. ‘Thanks to the superblocks and other measures, we confidently expect to rebalance that in the near future to 29 per cent for cars and 71 per cent for pedestrians. We have already seen a boost in pedestrian traffic to 54 per cent, with a 2,500 cut in the number of cars. This was only achievable through radical action.’
This was published in the May 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.