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Superblocks post-car urban living

Barcelona Superblocks can demonstrate how to create tight-knit urban communities.

The most exciting question raised by the Barcelona superblocks project is not how to push cars out of an area, but what happens next — what becomes of the newly liberated space, and what might become of a whole network of such spaces. It is in contemplating this question that the true depth of urban visionary Salvador Rueda’s ambition becomes clear.

Superblocks’ plan for Barcelona, now adopted by the city, is based on design principles and metrics he shares in his “charter for the ecosystemic planning of cities and metropolises” and his book Ecological Urbanism. It is the contemporary analogue of Ildefons Cerdà’s plan for the city in the 19th century, reflecting the same holistic perspective and humanistic goals, as well as similar morphology and geometry. It is, one might say, Cerdà on steroids. Supercerdà.

Its true nature will only become clear when there are more superblocks in place — when they begin to constitute a network, and exhibit network effects — but suffice to say, the plan involves much more than reducing traffic.

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Superblocks transform single-use spaces to multi-use spaces

The basic idea behind the superblocks plan is to take urban surface space now devoted to one use (automobile traffic) and open it up to multiple uses (walking, cycling, hanging out, what have you). The only way to do that is to exclude vehicle traffic.

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The challenge when implementing superblocks, then, is to preserve adequate circulation of people, goods, and services using fewer vehicles on fewer streets, that will mean moving people into other means of getting around, like buses, bikes, and feet. And it will mean channeling the vehicle traffic that remains — buses and (hopefully someday electric, shared) cars — onto fewer orthogonal through routes.

“From the street grid in the city, we select those streets that maintain the conditions for transversal mobility,” says Ton Salvadó, Barcelona’s chief architect, “and the rest of the streets are calmed.”

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Within the area of the superblock, streets are one-way, and none of them pass straight through. Cars are limited to about 10 kph, not much more than walking speed, so they can mix safely with human beings. Parking for residents is mostly underground (as it is in the Poblenou superblock), so there’s no surface area devoted to it.

Another way of putting this is that streets inside the superblock become shared, mixed-use public space. Different superblocks in different neighborhoods using their public spaces differently, for outdoor concerts, parties, sports, playgrounds, gardens, green spaces, or just areas for gathering (with picnic tables).

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“The people will be different, the relations between them will be different, and the uses of public space will be different,” Rueda says. “I’m waiting for something like that. The evolution of our city will be very rich.”

The “social superblock” will be more than a traffic-calmed area

Each superblock could have a shared distribution center for goods and packages, so that delivery vans don’t have to drive inside; shared gardens for growing community food, with organic waste captured for compost; a shared clinic for health and social services, so that day-to-day health care needs could be handled by a familiar doctor and the elderly or disabled wouldn’t be forced to move out of their apartments to find care.

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Rueda prefers to think of a city as an ecosystem that relies for health on the proper “system of proportions”: a variety of legal entities, from commerce to social services to civic and recreational facilities; a variety of different uses of space and modes of transport; and a variety of people of different ages, races, and social classes. Machines succeed through efficiency; ecosystems succeed through fecundity.

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The main goal is: make cities and a city starts to be a city when you have public space. That requires less space devoted to cars and more devoted to people mingling, playing, and living together, in human-scale communities. It will take time and investment, over successive city administrations, for superblocks to become social superblocks.

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This is part of a series about the comprehensive urban plan being implemented in Barcelona, which would reclaim more than half the streets now devoted to cars for mixed-use public spaces, or “superblocks.” This reporting project was supported by the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, where the author, David Roberts, is a senior fellow.

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