Cities on the World Stage: A ‘superblock’ design that inspires more like it

This week, we’re looking at the ways in which cities and regions collaborate to push global standards. In this third and final part of our series, Robin Mazumder takes us to Barcelona, where innovation has required a certain amount of risk-taking. 

By: /
October 18, 2018
Barcelona
Barcelona's Superblock. Robin Mazumder / OpenCanada.org

The moment I crossed into the space, a calm came over me. The steady drone of traffic quickly died away. I could hear the gentle creaking of my rented bicycle and the voices of the nearby people sitting on benches in the middle of the road.

There in Barcelona’s Superblock, I could relax enough to take in my surroundings, no longer needing to be hypervigilant to the threat of speeding cars. I was able to focus on a beautiful cast iron sculpture that took up a parking spot on the street ahead. I wondered: “If we’re going to have an immobile piece of metal taking up public space, wouldn’t we rather delight our senses with contemporary art instead of having to stare at a parked car?”

This was one of many questions that crossed my mind as I biked through the Superblock in the city’s Poblenou neighbourhood. As a keen urbanist, I’d been wanting to make the pilgrimage to the space since first hearing about it two years ago. Word on the street — Twitter, actually — was that the City of Barcelona had closed nine city blocks, in a 3x3 configuration, off to through-traffic and transformed the street space using tactical urbanism like pop-up playgrounds and hopscotch squares. They’d given the streets back to the people. And, they did this all in the urban core. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted this in my city. How could I replicate it?

Serendipitously, I had the opportunity to learn more about it straight from the source in 2017, while I was speaking at an urbanism conference in Moscow. There, I met Alvaro Nicolas, advisor to the counselor of mobility for the City of Barcelona, and an integral player in the development of the Superblock.

It was Nicolas who hosted me in Barcelona this past August and took me on a guided tour of the magical urban oasis, sharing key details as we made our way through. What I found fascinating about the Superblock was that it was implemented in an area with dedicated social housing; this meant that this urban revitalization wouldn’t serve as a catalyst to the gentrification that often pushes marginalized people out of their communities.

“We were not just creating public space for people to shop, we were creating it for people to enjoy being outside,” Nicolas said.

Often, the case for good urban design is that it promotes economic development. This sets a dangerous precedent — shouldn’t we build good places because people deserve them? In Barcelona, it seemed they were taking more of a human-rights approach, ensuring that people, regardless of their economic status, had access to good quality urban space.

"They’d given the streets back to the people. And, they did this all in the urban core. I couldn’t believe it."

However, equity isn’t the only outcome. The Superblock has the potential to address a number of urban priorities, including air quality, noise pollution, public health and social isolation. Barcelona’s leadership and ambition with the Superblock is refreshing, and others around the world are taking notice.

Oliver Lord, deputy air quality manager and one of the lead policy officers on sustainability for London, thinks the Superblock is an ingenious and effective way to do something meaningful about air pollution. Addressing air quality in cities is about behaviour change; the key behaviour being car use. But, how we go about it is important.

“You can’t just tell people what and what not to do,” Lord said when I spoke to him over the phone in September. “We need to work with people to reimagine their streets. The Superblock approach makes it fun.” However, he acknowledges, London can’t simply just cut and paste what Barcelona did. It needs to go about it in a “London way.”

“We’re interested to learn from other cities,” Lord said, “but the difficulty we have in London is the narrow streets, and we don’t have these massive grid networks we can chop and change easily. I’m interested in looking at different ways that people reimagine streets, and then translat[ing] that to London.”

London took that approach with its “mini-Holland” initiative, which is being implemented in three outer London boroughs. Taking inspiration from the Dutch, Transport for London has redesigned roads with separated infrastructure to make them safer for cyclists, and limited the amount of through traffic in certain neighbourhoods. The plan was quite controversial, as many residents were not keen on having their car use impacted. The intervention in one of the boroughs, Waltham Forest, was studied by Rachel Aldred of the University of Westminster, who found that it increased active transportation behaviour and improved perceptions of local cycling environments.

When asked about how to learn from other cities and implement their ideas effectively, Aldred said, “One thing I’ve noticed in London is that people see that it is very important to have evidence for London, that things can work here. People are not necessarily willing to accept things that have made a difference in other European countries that are similar to Britain, until they’ve seen evidence that such things can work here.”

Interestingly, the Superblock was also in part inspired by Dutch urbanism, specifically the woonerfs in Rotterdam. A woonerf is a traffic-calmed street, with low speed limits, where pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles are able to safely and peacefully co-exist. The Superblock could be considered a woonerf with a Spanish twist. The urban designers responsible for the Superblock looked back to the original work of Ildefons Cerdà, the urban planner who developed the Barcelona district Eixample in the mid-nineteenth century, for inspiration. The Eixample is celebrated in the urbanist world for its livability, for reasons such as its easy access to green space and building design that maximizes exposure to sunlight. Cerdà similarly had dreams of urban spaces that promoted social connection. The genesis of the Superblock was a product of an outward search for inspiration and an inward process of reflection on the city’s past.

So, urban innovation and progress can involve taking ideas from other cities, but it is important that these ideas are tailored to the specific needs of the city borrowing them. Beyond the technical aspects of the Superblock, I was most interested in how the locals actually pulled it off. Change is often met with fear and pushback; in the age of nimbyism, how were they able to make such drastic changes?

Well, the project was initially supposed to be an experiment. Some university students were given the task of finding cheap and creative ways to activate the streetspace in Poblenou, and the resulting Superblock was only supposed to last for a summer. The city decided to make it permanent and facilitated an unconventional consultation process through which residents could interact with the prototype developed by the students and then provide their feedback on it. (Usually, consultations involve pictures or blueprints of a proposal; the process used for the Superblock allowed residents to engage with a real product. It’s much easier to say no to a picture than something you can actually engage with.)

Given the amount of space that was taken away from cars, it takes a lot of political chutzpah to do what the City of Barcelona did with the Superblock.

“It is risky — if you are in a weak position politically, it can be difficult to overcome the criticism. What happened with the Superblock…we need more of that type of courage,” said Nicolas. He made a point to credit a community advocacy group for helping galvanize the political will: “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

It is an exciting time for cities. Globalization bears the fruit of being able to see what municipalities across the world are doing — what works, what doesn’t. We aren’t lacking ideas, anymore. Really, when it comes to practicing good urbanism, we shouldn’t have any excuses. But, ideas alone won’t do it. We need to find “our” way of implementing them, and that takes self-reflection, community organizing and political courage.

While we can look to cities like Barcelona or Rotterdam for inspiration, we must continue to do work at the ground level to ensure conditions are right for change. We must simultaneously look outward and inward. Things are looking up. With each city that embraces urban innovation and tries something new, a politician in another city may feel more comfortable doing the same. We’re giving each other permission to take risks. We’re in the midst of a global urbanist sea change of sorts, and the possibilities are endless.