Exactly one week ago I embarked on one of the most exciting journeys of my life. With a oneway ticket to Barcelona, I exchanged the safety of my comfortable life in rainy Belgium for the Spanish vibes in Barcelona. Having no place to call home yet, I booked a cosy hostel to start my apartment hunt in the Gracia neighbourhood — popular with students, young professionals and families alike. With its abundance of second hand shops, vegetarian restaurants, ecological streetmarkets and low-traffic streets, it didn’t take long before I fell in love with this village within the city. No wonder rooms are expensive and hard to find.
But Gracia has not always been like this. It was only after a major reorganisation of the neighbourhood in 2003 that the streets were given back to the people. The urban concept behind the area-wide urban experiment is the Superille or Superblock. The superblock idea was first outlined in 1987, after studies revealed noise and pollution levels in the capital of Catalunya are far above what can be considered healthy. Madre mia! Disclosing a territorial unit smaller than a neighbourhood but larger than a residential block for public space — therefore bearing the name superblock — are meant to improve the quality of life and conditions for local residents. Car traffic is deviated to a couple of large streets enclosing the superblock, within pedestrian and bikers are king.
Barcelona Ecologia, the agency for ecological urban development of Barcelona, defines the superblock as follows. The superblock is composed of a set of basic roads forming a polygon that contains within it several blocks of the current urban fabric. This new urban cell has both an interior and exterior component. The interior (called intervía) is closed to through vehicles and open to residents, primarily. The exterior forms the basic road network on the periphery, and is approximately 400 metres wide for use by motorized vehicles.
The superblock becomes a small city within the city, with a high quality of life for residents and visitors alike. Noise and air pollution are reduced significantly. Here in Gracia I experience the benefits myself. It is a pleasure to stroll around the neighbourhood, let myself be tempted to have an organic smoothie while enjoying people watching on one of the many cute squares. Fresh and local products for dinner I buy in one of the street markets, where once car parkings took in public space. The streets are full of life. Old men discuss the latest football match that took place in Camp Nou, the ladies exchange gossip and young parents chat while the kids live their childhood adventures in one of the playgrounds that were erected in the neighboorhood. Qué guay! Strolling around, I don’t have to bother much about cars — I’d rather watch myself not bumping into a kid on a scooter.
Barcelona showing the way
Many areas of Barcelona are perfectly suited to apply the superblock concept. The rectangular street grid of areas like Eixample seem to be made for it. Blocking of some roads is essentially enough to give birth to a superblock. Replacing concrete and asphalt by green zones makes city life so much more pleasant, and in addition reduces air pollution levels and the urban heat island effect (black asphalt absorbs the sun’s heat and the heat build-up drives up temperatures to unpleasant levels in summer).
The Masterplan a.k.a. the Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan
I guess the practically minded readers are scratching their head while reading. Perdon, pero… How the heck am I going to do my shopping, how to get to work, and most importantly in Barcelona: how to get the beach as fast as possible? A good idea like the superblock only works when applied in a larger masterplan. Luckily the city council of Barcelona has one: the Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan. Besides the superblock, many other measures are being implemented, among which a new orthogonal bus network — connecting every point in the city with one change of line at max — and the extension of the cycling network. Delivery services to local collection points are set up so your larger shopping trips do not end in a hell ride on the bus with ten bags in your hand.
The whole plan is aiming for a reduction in motorised traffic by at least 21%, and freeing up nearly 60% of the streets currently used by cars to pedestrians. The plan will also drive down road accidents (there were 9095 in 2015, of which 27 fatal) and reduce the number of fatalities by air pollution with an estimated amount of 1200 deaths per year. Yes, life is about the become much, much better in Barcelona. Muy bien.
Time to bring la fiesta back to the streets
Although a square pattern like the street grid in Eixample is perfect to implement the superblock, it is not a prerequesite. Many other cities started to implement to idea as well. The Spanish city Vitoria-Gasteiz was the winner of the European Green Capital Prize 2012. In Gracia, the superblocks project achieved the first prize for urban innovation by BMW in 2011. Spanish people love to live the good life. And the best place to do it is on the streets, together with your neighbours. It is time to bring la fiesta back to the streets, and Barcelona is leading the way.