David Roberts @drvox Seattleite transplanted from Tennessee; now blogging for vox.com/ about energy politics. Climate hawk, deficit dove. Not a doctor. May. 24, 2019 7 min read

1. Barcelona is holding municipal elections on Sunday! In anticipation, I'm going to tell you, one last time, about my research project on Barcelona's "superblocks." If you care at all about urban planning -- or just living in cities -- you will find this story fascinating.

2. Barcelona (BCN) dates back to 1 BC (!). The story of its evolution - esp. the transformation engineered by architect Ildefons Cerdà in the 19th century - ended up being so interesting I wrote a separate piece on it, a kind of prelude to the series.  https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/4/8/18266760/barcelona-spain-urban-planning-history 

3. Cerdà's plan to expand the city -- the Eixample -- is what left BCN with its famous grid pattern of relatively small blocks. The regularity & uniformity of that pattern was criticized at the time (& still is), but it has proven *enormously* adaptable over the years.

4. Today, BCN is, like most successful, growing cities, utterly choked with cars. It's even worse for BCN than for many others. It has high population density, high auto density (3X London's), comparatively little green space, & high levels of noise & air pollution. Unhealthy!

5. So BCN is taking action. Lots of cities are -- closing city centers to cars, building out transportation options, implementing congestion charging -- but BCN's plan is more comprehensive, ambitious, and just friggin' *awesome* than any other city's.  https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/4/8/18273893/barcelona-spain-urban-planning-cars 

6. The plan is big, w/ many parts & many authors, but the core inspiration traces back to this guy: Salvador Rueda, an urban planner who's been working in BCN for over 40 years. In the few hours we spent together, he became one of my favorite people: jolly, brilliant, & humane.

7. Rueda's core insight, tracing way back to the '80s, is simple: it is impossible to provide urban residents with humane conditions (vis a vis noise, pollution, etc.) if they live next to a street full of fast-moving automobiles. That circle cannot be squared.

8. To live in humane conditions, urban residents must be freed from ubiquitous, fast-moving cars. That's the premise at the base of all this. So Rueda thought: instead of ALL streets in BCN serving as through streets, why not just choose a few key arterials to carry that traffic?

9. The areas in between the arterials (clusters of roughly 9 city blocks, 3x3) will be closed to through traffic. Inside them, only resident or delivery vehicles are allowed & they must move at pedestrian speed. The interior streets become mixed-use public space. Superblocks!

10. Rueda envisioned the entire city being carpeted, from end to end, with superblocks - 500 of them! -- meaning that *every* BCN resident, regardless of income or station, would have access to quiet, clean air, public & green spaces, & tight-knit community.

11. Utopian plans are a dime a dozen. The crazy thing about this one - the reason I spent 10 days in BCN investigating it - is that the city gov't has adopted it as part of its official mobility plan. They're actually doing it!  https://www.barcelona.cat/mobilitat/en/about-us/urban-mobility-plan 

12. The city has already implemented a couple of superblocks. The first was in the neighborhood of Poblenou and, y'all, the story of how it happened is so crazy. I tell that story, along with the history-to-date of the superblocks program, here:  https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/4/9/18273894/barcelona-urban-planning-superblocks-poblenou 

13. Here's Poblenou. This was really a pure test case for superblocks -- it wasn't a particularly dense or traffic-choked area. It's fairly working class, with lots of social housing. It was just: can this cockamamie notion work to create a vibrant community, even here?

14. There's a distinction between "tactical urbanism" - fast, cheap changes that create big behavior effects, like reversing the direction of a one-way street - and "structural urbanism," which involves more expensive, permanent improvements. Poblenou started with the former.

15. What do I mean by that? Y'all, with *very* little public notice, they just descended on the area, closed off streets using painted lines, & assembled an impromptu playing ground out of tires & sand. Took one weekend and, like, $1.50. Voi la: superblock!

16. (I spent many hours, without success, trying to imagine the administration of a wealthy US city doing something this radical, with this little handwringing & public discussion. I mean ... the earth would shake.)

17. Not surprisingly, this tactical urbanism was something of a shock & for the first 6 months or so, there was organized resistance. But as the city consulted with residents & began doing more structural urbanism, shaping the space to their needs, resistance faded.

18. Now? Poblenou residents adore it. One told me, "it feels like we won the lottery." They eat at their cafe, sit at picnic tables, have birthday parties, watch their kids play -- all in what used to be "the street." Once people get access to public space, they love it!

19. The second superblock is around the newly renovated Sant Antoni market. It's a more upscale area & naturally it's become wildly popular. 5000 sq. km. were reclaimed for mixed-use space; this year, it's expanding to reclaim 20,000 more!

20. Anyway, the city is now taking what it's learned & accelerating & expanding the superblock program. (5 superblocks are in some stage of implementation.) The two big challenges as it proceeds are: traffic and gentrification.  https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/4/10/18273895/traffic-barcelona-superblocks-gentrification 

21. With traffic, the worry is, if you push all through traffic to a smaller set of arterials, won't they be congested? The answer: reduce overall car use by bulking up other transportation options. So BCN is working on walking corridors, a new bus network, & a new bike network.

22. With gentrification, the worry is simple: as you make areas nice, prices will go up & working-class residents will be driven out. That happened to the Born & Gracia neighborhoods when they were pedestrianized. The only real answer? Social housing. (Er, see article for more.)

23. Rueda is now thinking about the next phase of superblocks, beyond mere traffic calming: "social superblocks," which will serve as semi-self-contained, resilient urban communities, w/ shared gardens, health clinics, civic facilities, etc. Heady stuff.  https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/4/11/18273896/barcelona-spain-politics-superblocks 

24. The focus, Rueda says, is not on creating spaces for pedestrians, but creating spaces for *citizens*. As he says, "pedestrian is a mode of transport, and citizen is another thing.” He wants more public space - "the house of everybody" - for social health & solidarity.

25. All of this raises the question of whether anything like superblocks could work in a US city. I admit, when I contemplate NIMBY resistance to even the most modest of changes (say, a bike lane) in the US, I'm not filled with optimism. But there is hope!  https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/4/12/18273897/barcelona-urban-planning-portland-oregon-superblocks 

26. No US city is prepared to carpet itself in superblocks - that requires a base level of density & land-use diversity that is rare in US cities. But there are plenty of steps cities can take to increase density & diversity, and select areas that can be made car-free.

27. It's nice to make a select area dense, walkable & car-free, but the risk is that it just becomes a gentrified tourist attraction, something people drive to visit. The key is to create multiple such areas & *link them* via multimodal transit.  https://usa.streetsblog.org/2017/01/23/montreals-car-free-street-network-gets-bigger-all-the-time/ 

28. All right, you've stuck with me this long, I shall reward you with a few videos. Here's a video on superblocks that Vox made a few years ago, when I first covered them. It proved insanely popular.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZORzsubQA_M 

29. And here's a video the awesome @Streetfilms crew made about Vitoria-Gasteiz, another Spanish city that (in consultation with Rueda's team) has utterly transformed itself with superblocks.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6VrdpYjj1Y 

30. And that's where things stand! BCN politics are...complicated, so it's unclear how this weekend's elections will turn out, whether current leftie mayor Ada Colau (pictured) will be reelected, or how it will all affect the superblocks program. I'll keep you posted! </fin>

31. Oh! I forgot to add: my BCN trip/research was sponsored & funded by the amazing @KleinmanEnergy, at UPenn. Invaluable on-the-ground help from @AndresBartos. Great photography by @Maysun. Awesome illustrations from @JZarracina. It takes a village, etc. Eternal gratitude!


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