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A collage of city scenes and a grid map in Barcelona. Javier Zarracina/Vox

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Barcelona’s superblocks are a new model for “post-car” urban living

If the plan can survive politics, it can demonstrate how to create tight-knit urban communities.

This is part four in a five-part series about the comprehensive urban plan being implemented in Barcelona, Spain, which would reclaim more than half the streets now devoted to cars for mixed-use public spaces, or “superblocks.” This reporting project was supported by the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, where the author, David Roberts, is a senior fellow.

The most exciting question raised by the superblocks project is not how to push cars out of an area, but what happens next — what becomes of the newly liberated space, and what might become of a whole network of such spaces. It is in contemplating this question that the true depth of urban visionary Salvador Rueda’s ambition becomes clear.

Rueda’s plan for Barcelona, now adopted by the city, is based on design principles and metrics he shares in his “charter for the ecosystemic planning of cities and metropolises” and his book Ecological Urbanism. It is the contemporary analogue of Ildefons Cerdà’s plan for the city in the 19th century (see my piece: “Barcelona’s remarkable history of rebirth and transformation”), reflecting the same holistic perspective and humanistic goals, as well as similar morphology and geometry. It is, one might say, Cerdà on steroids. Supercerdà.

Its true nature will only become clear when there are more superblocks in place — when they begin to constitute a network, and exhibit network effects — but suffice to say, the plan involves much more than reducing traffic.

Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona and father of superblocks.
Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona and father of superblocks.
Maysun for Vox
A boy rides a bike next to the open-air book market outside the newly renovated Sant Antoni market, in a superblock.
A boy rides a bike next to the open-air book market outside the newly renovated Sant Antoni market, in a superblock.
Maysun for Vox

Rueda is ultimately driven by the same contrasting imperatives that drove Cerdà: to capture, for all citizens, the benefits of rural living (quiet, clean air and water, green and garden spaces, tight-knit community) alongside the benefits of urban living (efficient distribution of people and goods, mixing of diverse communities, economic and intellectual ferment).

Add to those considerations the looming threat of global warming, which will exacerbate Barcelona’s water and urban heat island problems. Climate change increases the need for resilience, for communities of tractable size that are at least partially self-sufficient in food, water, and energy.

“We need to prepare our cities, very quickly,” Rueda says, “because I think after five, six decades, the world will be a disaster. The movement of people will be very huge.”

Tight-knit community requires density, and it is simply impossible to have enough people, living close enough to one another, with shared public spaces and humane levels of noise and pollution ... and cars passing through. That is where the reorganization of the city must begin.

Thus, superblocks.

Superblocks transform single-use spaces to multi-use spaces

The basic idea behind the superblocks plan is to take urban surface space now devoted to one use (automobile traffic) and open it up to multiple uses (walking, cycling, hanging out, what have you). The only way to do that is to exclude vehicle traffic.

Streets for automobiles in Barcelona, currently.
Streets for automobiles in Barcelona, currently.
BCNUEJ/Javier Zarracina/Vox

The challenge when implementing superblocks, then, is to preserve adequate circulation of people, goods, and services using fewer vehicles on fewer streets. As discussed in part 3, that will mean moving people into other means of getting around, like buses, bikes, and feet. And it will mean channeling the vehicle traffic that remains — buses and (hopefully someday electric, shared) cars — onto fewer orthogonal through routes.

“From the street grid in the city, we select those streets that maintain the conditions for transversal mobility,” says Ton Salvadó, Barcelona’s chief architect, “and the rest of the streets are calmed.”

Streets for automobiles in Barcelona, after superblocks.
Streets for automobiles in Barcelona, after superblocks. (Source: BCNUEJ.)
Javier Zarracina/Vox

The idealized superblock is nine square city blocks, three by three. Obviously, a perfect three-by-three block area will be the exception, especially in other cities without Barcelona’s regular block pattern, and superblocks will take on various shapes. On average, Rueda says, he envisions a superblock containing around 6,000 residents (many more than in Poblenou).

Within the area of the superblock, streets are one-way, and none of them pass straight through. Cars are limited to about 10 kph, not much more than walking speed, so they can mix safely with human beings. Parking for residents is mostly underground (as it is in the Poblenou superblock), so there’s no surface area devoted to it.

Another way of putting this is that streets inside the superblock become shared, mixed-use public space. That is the core of Rueda’s vision.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

“In this moment, the most important for most planners is to make pedestrian areas,” Rueda says. “In my case, not. I want to make citizens’ areas. Attention! Because pedestrian is a mode of transport, and citizen is another thing.”

Rueda envisions different superblocks in different neighborhoods using their public spaces differently, for outdoor concerts, parties, sports, playgrounds, gardens, green spaces, or just areas for gathering (with picnic tables).

“The people will be different, the relations between them will be different, and the uses of public space will be different,” Rueda says. “I’m waiting for something like that. The evolution of our city will be very rich.”

Superblocks were part of the urban successes in Vitoria-Gasteiz

An urban makeover like this is not fantasy. Rueda and his team assisted in a fairly miraculous transformation on the other side of the peninsula, in the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, with just over 240,000 residents. After years of increasing private automobile use, the city reached something of a crisis point around 2006 and implemented a plan of superblocks with pedestrian, bike, and public transport networks built around them.

Funding ran short after the financial crisis, so the initial plan was dialed back somewhat; superblocks after the central one were done with more tactical than structural changes. But the results have been remarkable. The city is now as friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians as any in Europe. More than half of residents now walk as their primary mode of transportation and 12 percent ride bikes.

Rueda is revered in Vitoria-Gasteiz, but less, he notes with a laugh, in Barcelona, where he is viewed with suspicion by the business and media interests Colau disrupted.

The “social superblock” will be more than a traffic-calmed area

As superblock supporters keep a nervous eye on the upcoming municipal elections in May, in which a supportive mayor may lose her position, Rueda is beginning to think more about the next phase of his vision, something he calls the “social superblock.”

He envisions each superblock not simply as a traffic-calmed area, but as a social unit, to the urban fabric what a microgrid is to an electricity grid: partially autonomous, but connected to the larger network.

Each superblock could have a shared distribution center for goods and packages, so that delivery vans don’t have to drive inside; shared gardens for growing community food, with organic waste captured for compost; a shared clinic for health and social services, so that day-to-day health care needs could be handled by a familiar doctor and the elderly or disabled wouldn’t be forced to move out of their apartments to find care.

Rueda says that when a person moves into an elderly care home in Barcelona, they live on average for less than three more years. “Waiting rooms for death,” he calls them. He wants everyone to be able to stay where they live, mix with neighbors of varying ages, and continue to play a valued role in their community as they grow older. (Social mixing is one of the surest boosters of health for the elderly and people with special needs.)

A place for chilling out next to a tree, in the Sant Antoni superblock.
A place for chilling out next to a tree, in the Sant Antoni superblock.
Maysun for Vox

Rueda’s team also has an eye on energy self-sufficiency. Along with plans for water capture and recycling and solar panels, they’ve developed a form of thermal energy storage (essentially giant underground water tanks that store solar electricity as heat) that Rueda says could cover the heat and hot water needs of a superblock year-round. That wouldn’t mean “energy independence” — superblocks would still need to be hooked up to the larger electrical and sewer infrastructure — but every step toward self-sufficiency is a win for local democracy and resilience.

Above all, the guiding principle for social superblocks is diversity. Cities in the developed world have become segregated: by income, by race, and through suburbanization, by land use. Segregation doesn’t just hurt low-income communities or communities of color, though it hurts them most. It hurts wealthy suburbanites too. It harms individual and social health. No plant flourishes in a monocrop environment, not without artificial fertilizers and pest killers.

The great mistake of the modernist school of urban planning — best represented by Le Corbusier, who came within a hair of completely reshaping Barcelona in the 1930s, though his plan was ultimately thwarted by civil war — was to imagine the citizens and functions of a city as discrete, separable gears in a machine.

Rueda prefers to think of a city as an ecosystem that relies for health on the proper “system of proportions”: a variety of legal entities, from commerce to social services to civic and recreational facilities; a variety of different uses of space and modes of transport; and a variety of people of different ages, races, and social classes. Machines succeed through efficiency; ecosystems succeed through fecundity.

“In political terms, diversity is the biggest parameter to protect in the city,” says Salvadó. “From the social order, to the cultural, to the physical.”

To that end, Rueda’s book Ecological Urbanism contains dozens of metrics by which to measure and judge the health of an urban system, everything from natural light to multimodal mobility to diversity of legal entities to water self-sufficiency.

At the center of it all is public space, what Rueda calls “the house of everybody,” places to which all citizens have equal access, not just to move through, but to inhabit and enjoy.

Public, or “citizen-accessible,” spaces in Barcelona, currently.
Public, or “citizen-accessible,” spaces in Barcelona, currently.
BCNUEJ/Javier Zarracina/Vox

“The main goal is: make cities,” Rueda says. “A city starts to be a city when you have public space.”

That requires less space devoted to cars and more devoted to people mingling, playing, and living together, in human-scale communities.

Citizen-accessible spaces in Barcelona, after superblocks.
Citizen-accessible spaces in Barcelona, after superblocks.
BCNUEJ/Javier Zarracina/Vox

It will take time and investment, over successive city administrations, for superblocks to become social superblocks.

Current mayor Ada Colau shares Rueda’s reverence for public space. “Public space is the place for democracy: this space that belongs to all of us,” she told the New Yorker. “The more public space there is, and the better its quality, the better the quality of the democracy.”

But it is far from certain superblocks will receive that same support when Colau is gone. And that could happen as soon as the municipal elections in May — just one of many daunting political challenges standing between the present and Rueda’s utopian future.

The uncertain political future of superblocks

The superblocks built so far are on the periphery of the city, outside the Eixample, the central district featuring the dense, regular grid designed by Cerdà.

That’s been a deliberate choice, in part so that the administration can learn and build momentum before tackling the more difficult areas, but also, in part, because the periphery needs investment.

“The right-wing government focused on the center of Barcelona,” says Janet Sanz, Barcelona’s director of urbanism. “Our mandate, politically speaking, has been to return investment to working-class neighborhoods where people have been waiting for 30 years for development to happen.”

But covering the city in superblocks will eventually mean putting one in the center, where the density of residents and traffic is ten times that found in Poblenou. (On its own, the Eixample would be the most populous municipality in Catalonia; it is among the densest areas in the world.) There are five more superblocks planned for the periphery, but after that, they start moving toward the center.

There is no shortage of skepticism about whether such a thing is possible.

Across from the Poblenou superblock, signs in opposition.
Across from the Poblenou superblock, signs in opposition.
David Roberts/Vox

Miguel Corominas Ayala, a professor at the Barcelona School of Architecture who has known Rueda for years, scoffs at the idea. “I don’t think they will make more than two or three of these [superblocks],” he says. “They are not going to make one here in the center. With so many cars moving here? It’s impossible. I’m sure.” It might be possible, he says, after 40 years of work reducing traffic.

For José Mansilla, an urban anthropologist at the University of Barcelona, the problem with the plan is that it’s too prescriptive and top-down. Spaces should be created from the bottom up, by the people, he says, not simply presented to them. They will rebel. When I ask him about the larger plan, he breaks into English for the first time in our conversation. “Never is gonna happen. I say never? Never. 500 [superblocks]? Out of your mind.”

“It’s impossible,” says Jordi Campins, the citizen crusader against superblocks. “You can’t do this, even if you have consensus.”

If she wants to prove the doubters wrong, Colau must win the next round of city council elections in May. That kind of reaffirmation by the city, after so much publicity for superblocks, a few key pilot projects, and some international recognition, would ensure that the urban mobility plan stays in place and superblocks are pursued aggressively.

The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, speaks at an event on April 06, 2019.
The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, speaks at an event on April 06, 2019.
Europa Press News via Getty Images

“I’m pretty convinced that if Colau continues we’re going to make 10 more” in the next term, Salvadó says, and potentially 15 to 20 at a time after that.

Can she win? Barcelona city politics are hopelessly complicated, especially for an American accustomed to the tedious left-right binaries of US public life. But suffice to say, a lot has happened since Colau was elected in 2015.

Catalonia has been torn by tensions over independence

Catalonia, the semi-autonomous region of northeastern Spain of which Barcelona is the capital and largest city, has always dreamed of independence, chafing at sending money to the rest of the country. (Federal taxes are controlled out of Madrid, the capital.)

In fall 2017, after years of increasing tensions with the central government, the Catalonia Parliament declared a public referendum on independence. Holding the referendum was ruled illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court. To try and stop the vote, Madrid sent federal police, leading to violent clashes with Catalan protestors in the streets of Barcelona. Most people ended up not voting, but those who did favored independence.

Spanish National Police clash with referendum supporters in Barcelona on Oct. 1, 2017.
Spanish National Police clash with referendum supporters in Barcelona on Oct. 1, 2017.
Emilio Morenatti/AP

This disruption took place while Colau was mayor. She is generally credited with handling the chaos in the streets well, but she has refused to take a position on the larger question of independence. That has drawn suspicion and ire from both sides, including from progressive separatists who might otherwise be part of her base.

Then there’s the simple fact that Colau displaced a centrist coalition that controlled the government, the business sector, and the media for years. That has left her with many enemies.

“Many on the center-left and the center-right, who for years had a grip on the Barcelona model, are not liking that they are not part of the picture any more,” says Isabelle Anguelovski, an urban researcher and director of the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability. “They can’t stand that a left-wing, female mayor is taking ownership over how the city projects itself internationally, and offering an alternative to the model they owned and developed. They are trying to take down anything she does.”

The question of independence has left Barcelona politics fractured and uncertain. And given that the city council elections will be held simultaneously with regional elections and elections for the European Parliament, the outcome is maddeningly difficult to predict. At least currently, however, polls show Colau behind.

If Colau doesn’t win, no one’s quite sure what will happen with superblocks

How would superblocks fare under a different administration? That is a subject upon which there is little agreement.

“We’re a guarantee of continuity and execution, taking the project further,” Sanz says, “but nowadays, nobody would dare take a step back. We’ve reached the stage where the proposal goes beyond this city hall.”

Cynthia Echave, a technical coordinator at the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, thinks the plan might go forward in some kind of rebranded or slightly modified form. “If a new administration takes Colau’s place,” she says, “I bet they will continue [superblocks] and change the name again.”

Others think superblocks have gotten too bound up with leftism and opposition to cars. As Anguelovski points out, people alive today remember donkeys in the streets of Barcelona in the 1980s, in the wake of dictator Francisco Franco’s misrule. “For our parents,” Poblenou resident Silvia Casorrán says, “cars are a symbol of power, progress, and freedom.”

“I think the only possibility the superblocks have is that Ada Colau continues in government,” Mansilla says.

There’s also the possibility that a less progressive administration could simply water the plan down. Already critics point to the Sant Antoni superblock as little more than traffic calming. “Anything that’s considered calming is now called ‘superblock’,” Campins grumbles.

The Sant Antoni Market, at the center of a superblock.
The Sant Antoni Market, at the center of a superblock.
Maysun for Vox

On top of all that, some to Colau’s left are worrying that the need to befriend the business community has her blunting her own ambitions, with little pushback. “If you take all the people who were around you as an activist into the city council, the streets are empty of people,” Mansilla says. “Nobody contests!”

These cross currents will converge in the May elections, with unpredictable results.

If Colau wins, it will be, among other things, a vote of confidence in the superblock model. Then it will be full steam ahead, and the world will see just how far the pushback against cars can go and what social superblocks might look like.

If she loses, the fate of superblocks will depend on the grip they have taken on the public imagination and the momentum the program has built thus far. If neighborhoods continue spontaneously demanding them, it may be that any administration will be forced to respond, no matter its political disposition.

The program’s architects are confident that momentum has reached the tipping point. “I don't think it will be easy, if a new city government takes over, for them to stop this transformation,” Salvadó says. “I’d like to think it is unstoppable.”

For now, Rueda’s vision remains just over the horizon, tantalizingly within reach, but vulnerable, as Cerdà’s was centuries earlier, to the vicissitudes of political circumstance.

Barcelona has a unique set of circumstances enabling it to pursue an urban plan of mind-boggling ambition. It may sound somewhat exotic and remote to inhabitants of US cities, so often built around freeways and dominated by cars, where even a few bike lanes present a titanic struggle.

Could something like superblocks ever work in a US city? In part 5, our conclusion, we’ll take a closer look at that question.


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