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Super-sizing the Superblock

Many smart city concepts like bike lanes made from solar panels and are often nice in theory and make for extremely shareable internet content. But the real test comes down to how scalable they really are. Barcelona is about to put the ‘Superblock’ to this test.    

Superblocks are islands of (almost) car-free spaces that reclaim the streets in between clusters of blocks for communal and pedestrian use – while through-traffic is rerouted around the outside of the cluster. We have covered superblocks before at Drive Sweden [1] with one of the most high-profile examples being Barcelona’s implementation of the concept back in 2016 which spanned over 9 city blocks – you can watch a great short video about it here [2]. But now Barcelona is set to take the superblock a whole lot further.

Bloomberg reports that the city will create a new super-superblock that is an order of magnitude (or 10 times) larger than the existing ones [3]. This will cover 21 streets in Barcelona’s Eixample district, where new green spaces and pedestrian spaces such as plazas, playgrounds, and outdoor dining areas will be created from reclaiming road and parking spaces. Vehicle traffic will only be permitted around the perimeter, leaving streets within the district only accessible by motor vehicle to residents, essential services, or deliveries. Vehicles traveling inside the superblock, or superilla (super-island in Spanish), will be limited to only 10 km/h with the roads inside the block intentionally designed to pacify vehicle speed. The exact design of the streets will be selected from a public competition ending May next year, with specifications including that 80% of the street surface area should be shaded by trees in the summer, and that priority should be given to creating safe spaces for children and the elderly.   

Superillas have predictably been met with some resistance from motorists in the past, even with demonstrations having been organized against them. Given the scale of the new proposed super-superblock, and its more central location in a very dense part of the city, such resistance could re-emerge again. As such, the city is proposing a more staggered transformation, beginning in 2022 and gradually moving from east to west of the proposed area until all 21 streets are remodeled by 2030. This particular super-superblock is also still just a part of Barcelona’s full plan to convert 503 blocks, or the vast majority of its central area, to superillas. The city, motivated by its desire to reduce air pollution, climate impacts, noise pollution, and the urban heat-island effect, believes it can free up 70% of the current road space for active travel and recreation space if it reaches this aspiration. 

 

Personal comments

While it is always exciting to see new ideas and concepts for how to make cities more sustainable, what is even more satisfying is seeing these ideas actually ‘grow up’ and move beyond being just a novelty found in a small handful of places. For me, seeing things scale is always vastly more interesting, even if it’s bound to bring with it a lot more problems and ambiguities than envisioned at the initial ‘Instagram story’ stage. 

The article talks a lot about reclaiming roads and parking for creating new green and recreational spaces, but what seems to be missing is a discussion around mobility solutions that will replace the reliance of residents in these blocks for owning cars. What do the designers of these super-superblocks envision will be the primary means of mobility for residents? Will there be car-sharing fleets available, or public transport corridors cutting through the block, or new parking garages at the perimeter of the block? 

It also seems like the super-superblock will need to integrate other smart city concepts like the 15-minute city to minimize the need for regular travel outside the block for daily essentials, and possibly urban consolidation centers to ensure that goods deliveries inside the block (where the speed limit is only 10km/h) can still be workable. It will be interesting to follow the implementation of this in Barcelona to see what challenges and solutions will arise from the scaling-up process – and which other cities will want to emulate it. Or perhaps those cities will prefer to take their inspiration from other approaches like London’s Low Traffic Neighbourhoods or Milan’s Open Streets plan [4].

 

Written by Bobby Chen, RISE Mobility & Systems.

 

Sources

1. 2019-11-06. Superblocks – Both Climate Heroes and Life Saviours for Our Cities?
2. 2018-08-03. Barcelona’s Superblocks: Change the Grid, Change your Neighborhood.
3. 2020-11-11. Barcelona Will Supersize its Car-Free ‘Superblocks’.
4. 2020-11-20. How four European cities are embracing micromobility to drive out cars.