Most cities feel dominated by cars. Being a pedestrian in a city often involves being shuttled around the edges of open spaces, and then waiting for your turn to cross the road. One of the places that feels different is Barcelona, where the ramblas create shady walking routes through the city. The first time I visited, I was struck by the fact that for once, the people got to walk down the middle and the cars were at the edges.
Barcelona is in the middle of a more radical idea, currently being trialled in a few sections of the city. The plan is to tweak Barcelona’s grid layout, combining groups of city blocks into ‘superblocks’. Traffic will have to go around the outside, opening up the inner roads of the block for pedestrians, cyclists, and public space.
Where every junction within the superblock used to serve cars, now they become multi-functional spaces that can host playgrounds, parks, markets, or just more shady places to walk. It reduces traffic and air pollution within the superblock, and reclaims the space for people rather than cars. Residents can still drive in, and so can delivery vehicles and council services, so they are not entirely closed. But most people will be going around, and the limited traffic within the superblocks will be moving very slowly.
Plans for the superblocks include more tree planting and green walls, increasing the green space in the city, reducing pollution and the urban heat island effect. As the city becomes safer and more pleasant to travel through, more people may choose to walk or cycle, multiplying the benefits. With investment in buses and cycle infrastructure, the plan is to reduce traffic by 21%.
Lots of other places are watching Barcelona to see how it works. I don’t suppose many of those places will be in Britain, where few towns and cities are built on a grid – but there may still be lessons to learn about creating pockets of public space and reducing traffic speeds. I think we’ll see more superblocks, along with reclaimed parking space and obsolete roads repurposed as we renegotiate the relationship between the car and city.
- There’s an episode of the BBC podcast People Fixing the World on superblocks, and Vox discuss how it could be applied to US cities in this video.