The exportation of the Superblock Concept.
Article written by Olivier Peyre – Posted by Darren Platakis
Barcelona’s “superblock” is gaining traction, and the concept may inspire a lot of cities struggling with increasing traffic congestion.
In The Guardian’s article “Superblocks to the rescue: Barcelona’s plan to give streets back to residents” (2016), the British journal described the ambitious project adopted by the city of Barcelona to reduce vehicular traffic while increasing public space.
With the superblock in mind, the Barcelonan city council selected neighborhoods in which side streets would be closed to outside traffic. The cars would continue to have access to the larger avenues encircling and cutting through each neighborhood, but the smaller streets would be saved for pedestrians, deliveries, and residents’ cars only. While these side streets would be in use, there would be a speed limit below thirty kilometers per hour put in place.
The objective behind the superblock is to return public space to pedestrians. As most modern cities were developed following the rules of motorization, the urban space dedicated to vehicles represents now an average of 90% of the total public space (M. Robert, 2008). Converting so much of this space into pedestrian zones provides citizens and planners with a new way to interact with their environment.
In the six months following the experiment’s launch, the side streets within Barcelona’s superblocks have spurred the development of new commercial districts. While local business owners at first considered the removal of the cars from the streets as a threat, the newfound dynamism within superblocks has been a boon to Barcelona’s economy.
However, despite all the praise the article heaps upon the initial results of the superblock experiment, it remains to be seen if this concept would be applicable to other cities across the world, including those in North America. Every city is unique, and while Barcelona’s layout appears to be suitable to the implementation of superblocks, the concept may not mesh well with other cities’ grids.
Barcelona, the layout of which follows a rectangular grid pattern, is also home to a population density of 16,000 people per square kilometer (World Population Review, 2016). This city’s density is thus four times higher than that of Toronto and ten times higher than that of Atlanta. In the same way that high density is a key factor in public transit efficiency, it contributes to the stimulation of pedestrian traffic, bolstering revenue to businesses. Pedestrian traffic would not necessarily arise at the same rate in a low-density area, where the patrons of local businesses and services more often travel by car than by bus or train.
Further, most European cities like Barcelona feature streets two to three times narrower than those in North American cities. Street width plays an important role in speed limits. Unlike the highway or the boulevard, narrow streets force drivers to pay closer attention, leading them to instinctively decrease their speed. This phenomenon contributes to a safer, multimodal environment for cars and pedestrians alike.
The factors leading to the apparent success of Barcelona’s superblocks are due in no small part to the specifics of the Catalan metropolis, such as its grid layout, high density, and street width. Most cities outside of Europe—especially those in North America—are not laid out in this way and may not necessarily benefit from the superblock concept in the way that their neighbors across the Atlantic have. Urban areas are all unique, and this underlines the complexity, and sometimes inaccuracy, in the local reproduction of foreign urban planning concepts. It is the responsibility of local city planners and government officials, then, to provide individual, effective solutions to traffic problems and pedestrian comfort.