Can a modern city really take back most of its streets from cars? It seems far-fetched, but Barcelona has been through major changes before. The current city administration is in the midst of implementing an urban plan that is a successor to Cerdà’s — if anything, even more ambitious. If it is completed (a very big if), every single resident of the city would have direct access to walkable, mixed-use public spaces. Every resident would live in a superblock.
Cars completely swamped cities in the 20th century, bringing with them congestion, air pollution, noise, and greenhouse gases. Now Barcelona is implementing an urban plan that would decisively change that, pushing cars off most streets and turning the land over to citizens for mixed-use public spaces, or “superblocks.”
In 2016, Barcelona implemented its first proper superblock, in the Poblenou neighborhood. The process was bumpy, to say the least — there was intense initial resistance — but it ended well. The Poblenou superblock is secure and the city has learned important lessons, which it is now carrying forward.
Part Three: Barcelona is pushing out cars and putting in superblocks. Here are the 2 biggest challenges ahead.
Covering Barcelona in superblocks is eventually meant to give everyone in the city access to walkable public spaces. But as they are being built, superblocks may have unwelcome short-term effects, like increasing traffic in surrounding areas, or increasing home prices (which brings gentrification). Here’s how the city is addressing those risks.
For Salvador Rueda, traffic calming in superblocks is only the beginning. He envisions each superblock becoming a social unit, a tight-knit community with shared common facilities, resilient against the stresses of climate change. But before that vision can come to pass, there’s the small matter of municipal elections in May.
What Barcelona is doing may seem remote to Americans. Few US cities share Barcelona’s combination of density, mixed-use zoning, and functional public transit. But the superblocks concept is flexible enough to adapt. What’s important is creating shared public spaces where urban community can be re-knit.
To appreciate what’s currently happening in Barcelona, it helps to understand the city’s long and fascinating history of being radically redesigned and reborn. We begin with the medieval city of Barcino and follow its growth and development into a modern-day global tourist destination.