HERE COME THE SUPERBLOCKS

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SUPERBLOCKS, BARCELONA.

Client: Ajuntament de Barcelona

Developed by: Agència d’Ecologia Urbana de Barcelona

Project Area: 700 ha

Project Date: Ongoing

AN URBAN REVOLUTION?

What if we could redefine what makes our cities and how we experience them? What if our public spaces were true communal spaces, and we were able to slow down city life? Barcelona’s ‘Superblocks’ are trying to do all that and more.

The Superblock strategy is the Catalan capital’s latest success story in a city known for its urban transformations and reinventions. Making headlines around the world, Barcelona is set to change urban mobility concepts with its ambitious goal to free up to 60% of the traffic area for public space and green infrastructure, create multifunctional ‘citizen spaces’, and tackle air pollution and the urban heat island effect.

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Reinventing the green city 

The term Superblock – or Superilla in Catalan – derives from the city blocks in the characteristic orthogonal urban grid of Barcelona’s 19th-century extension, the Eixample. This ground-breaking concept by Ildefons Cerdà, an engineer influenced by Utopian Socialism, was based on the idea of the green city, full of fresh air and light. But speculation and a shortage of housing meant that over time the percentage of green spaces was reduced from 30% to currently only 0.6%. Once seen as the prototype for the healthy city, the Eixample, like most inner-city suburbs, now suffers from high traffic volume, pollution and noise levels. In summer the heat can be unbearable.

This is where the Superblocks come into play. Made up of nine city blocks with a total size of around 400x400m, the Superblock has its internal traffic reduced to one lane, and transit traffic diverted to the perimeter roads. The newly created ‘citizen spaces’ exemplify a very Mediterranean definition of street life and public space - one that includes community, leisure, exchange, culture and participation. 

The City of Barcelona plans to implement more than 503 Superblocks over time. This amounts to an overall area of around 700 football fields, almost half of Barcelona’s current traffic area. Public transport, especially bus lines and the bicycle network, will be expanded massively, with the aim to reduce car traffic by 21 percent.  

The Superblock – cornerstone of the Ecosystemic Urbanism model

Barcelona’s Plan Macià, a project drawn up by architects Josep Lluís Sert and Le Corbusier in 1932 but never realised, included large modules the size of 400x400m based on the grid system of the Eixample for high rise buildings and parks. However, the idea of the Superblock in its current form originated in 1958, when architect Oriol Bohigas recommended joining nine city blocks to restructure the existing urban fabric of the Eixample and adapt it to modern mobility concepts. Following Cerdà’s analytical planning method and principles of hygiene, mobility and social justice, the Barcelona Agency of Urban Ecology took up this idea to develop the Superblocks as part of their Ecosystemic Urbanism model, explains Salvador Rueda, chief strategist and director of the agency. This complex urban model represents a holistic vision of the city as an ecosystem defined by relationships, restrictions and proportions. Its characteristics are a compact morphology and urban functionality, a complex organisation in terms of mixed uses and biodiversity, metabolic efficiency in the form of flow of materials, water and energy and therefore self-sufficiency. Plus – most importantly – social cohesion. 

A human-centred approach

What sets Superblocks apart from other eco-city models is an approach that puts human beings at the heart of the urban ecosystem, and that stresses the importance of citizens’ relationships with each other and the city itself. The urban model is scalable and can be applied to new developments and the urban regeneration of compact inner-city suburbs and low-density settlements. The 16-20ha-sized Superblock is considered the smallest possible urban ecosystem to achieve the principles of mobility, social infrastructure, green spaces, self-sufficiency and density. This includes everything that can be reached by foot.

Pilot projects and phased implementation

The process to set up the Superblocks comprises gradual interventions in two stages. Stage 1 involves introducing the mobility concept and transforming the public realm, both integrated into the wider transport system and green space network. Transit traffic and bus routes are redirected along the perimeter of the Superblock. Internal traffic is restricted to deliveries and resident traffic on one lane only. Speed limits are set at 30km/h in Stage 1, and 10km/h in Stage 2. 

The first phase is predominantly intended to experiment with functions and finetune traffic management, through the use of signage, container trees, street furniture, plenty of paint on asphalt, and temporary activities. Stage 2 is aimed at maximising green spaces. Tree plantings, rainwater management, green roofs and façades are installed successively, hereby increasing the proportion of green and open spaces by up to 35%. These new green spaces are part of a citywide network and will contribute to the improvement of biodiversity and the city climate.

While the first successful Superblocks in the suburbs of Born and Gràcia date back over a decade, their implementation has recently picked up speed, with two new Superblocks in Poblenou’s innovation district 22@ and in Sant Antoni. More are planned in urban areas beyond the Eixample.

Local conflicts

Despite the Superblocks’ international acclaim, not all local community groups support the initiative. In particular, members of the Plataforma d'Afectats per la Superilla de PobleNou have voiced fierce opposition. They protest the removal and relocation of bus stops, inadequate community consultation and higher traffic volumes along the perimeter, which some critics say has created a divide between winner and loser streets. Salvador Rueda responds to these allegations by referring to the extensive consultations undertaken before and during implementation. No demonstrable increase in traffic along perimeter roads has been detected. In fact, statistics show that in the Gràcia Superblock car traffic has decreased, as local citizens switch over to bikes or simply walk. Local acceptance of the Superblock has also grown over the years, though ongoing close collaboration with residents is essential to dispel fears. 

The departure from the car-centric city will require a cultural change and shift of mindset, which can only happen over time. 

Risk of social inequity and gentrification

Not all criticism can be dismissed. The Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, a local research institute, points out the risks of politicisation of the Superblocks through political parties, and a possible Greenwashing effect that the urban regeneration might entail. The institute cooperates with the city council to identify potentially negative effects of greening projects and urban transformations like the Superblocks. Their work aims to raise awareness of social inequity and gentrification with residents and stakeholders, and to take steps to improve community inclusion in the decision-making process and maintain accessible housing in the area. 

The next urban revolution?

The Superblock is key to the successful implementation of the complex and ambitious Ecosystemic Urbanism model, as its size makes it the ideal testing ground to trial and adapt the strategy, allowing for tangible and immediate results. Its neighbourhood scale can also foster a bottom-up approach and local citizen engagement. As more and more Superblocks emerge around the city, it becomes clear that a flexible approach, ongoing community engagement and retaining the social balance are vital for urban regeneration and the success of the model, as the Superblocks will remain a permanent process. 

Cities are key players in addressing the challenges of climate change and a growing population. However, this is neither reflected in governance and regulatory frameworks nor institutional and economic structures, where cities play a subordinate role to countries or regions. Giving cities the control – and the budget – is required for them to fully implement strategies like the Ecosystemic Urbanism model, and to drive the urban transformation.

We might not have an urban revolution yet. But in some parts of Barcelona, life has definitely slowed down and become more diverse. For some impressions of how this looks like, check out the videos below.

This article was partly published in Topos Magazine and Garten+Landschaft, June 2018.

Image Rights: © Agència d’Ecologia Urbana de Barcelona



Barcelona’s Superblocks: Change the Grid, Change your Neighbourhood’ by Streetfilms.

‘Superblocks: How Barcelona is taking city streets back from cars’ by Vox.