The city block is a fundamental element of urbanism. The Ancient Romans called a city block an insula, or “island”, which is also how the Catalan language refers to it: illa (Curiously, Castilian Spanish uses the word manzana, or “apple”). In densely built up cities such as Rome or Barcelona, the island metaphor makes certain sense: each city block can be seen as a land-mass, separated from other land-masses within the “archipelago” that is a city by a margin of public space that enables each one to be accessed. This public space, mostly in the form of streets, is a “right-of-way”: everybody has the right to use it; nobody or no minority group has the right to make it exclusively theirs.
Precisely because of its highly accessible public nature, the open space between dense city blocks is inevitably under a great deal of demand by different users. Pedestrians want wider sidewalks with trees and playgrounds, cyclists need more bike lanes, café and restaurant owners want more sidewalk space for outdoor tables, truckers need more loading zones. And then there are owners of private motor vehicles: they seem to always need evermore road-space for driving and parking; a situation that, when satisfied, only increases the need further.
Yet, for well over half a century, it’s been almost always motorists’ demands that have triumphed in this competition for space, often without much resistance or question. The auto industry, because it also manufactures military “goods”, has always been close to those in power, and so it’s an immensely powerful lobby group. In recent decades, however, a “car-free movement” largely inspired by the writings of critics such as Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl has been growing worldwide as the environmental and public health cost of massive motor-vehicle ownership becomes more and more apparent. So while the motor-vehicle may still be the king of the urban jungle in most parts of the world, the tide is slowly changing; a fact that explains precisely why advertising campaigns for automobiles have become so much more ubiquitous and aggressive in recent times.
Barcelona has just inaugurated a pilot project as part of an ambitious urban initiative called Superilles that proposes to convert more than half of the city’s streets into car-free spaces. Through the creation of “superblocks” assembled from up to nine current city-blocks and the relegation of all motorized through-traffic to the streets at the superblocks’ perimeter, interior streets can be turned over to uses that are in high demand and low supply in Barcelona, such as parks, gardens, playgrounds, or paths for walking and cycling. Superblocks thus create a new super-grid for motor-traffic, and a new, more verdant micro-grid for leisure and non-motorized transportation.
Superblocks are not a new invention. The 1932 Macià urban plan by the GATCPAC and Le Corbusier recommended expanding the 19th century Eixample urban expansion plan by Ildefons Cerdà with larger superblocks in which buildings would be sited in a park, not unlike Casa Bloc. What is significant about the Superilles initiative is that it transforms existing urban fabric.
The idea is the brainchild of scientist Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, and its aim is ultimately to reduce noise and air pollution within a city that often exceeds the European Union’s limitations regarding acceptable levels. With the superposition of this new super-grid over the existing grid, only one out of every three streets will continue to serve vehicular through-traffic, entailing a drastic reduction in the number of motorized vehicles in the city. No less than 160 chamfered intersections of the grid will become car-free spaces the size of typical urban squares in older parts of Barcelona such as Gràcia.
To achieve such a radical reduction in motorized traffic, public transportation is having its capacity increased, and Barcelona’s lame and ridiculously inadequate bike lane network is being expanded. A number of the city’s circuitous bus routes have already been replaced by a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system that runs orthogonally through Barcelona’s grid on those streets designated as thoroughfares. The pacified streets within the superblocks are still accessible to emergency vehicles, taxis and private vehicles entering parking garages, but these streets are being rerouted as loops so that they cannot accommodate through-traffic. The Superilla that was recently inaugurated as a pilot project, in Poblenou, only had to have its street signage changed, bollards added, and a handful of ephemeral interventions by students from various architecture schools introduced in order to become transformed into a car-free zone. It’s all being done on a shoestring.
Needless to say, the superblock concept is not without its problems. It divides citizens into two groups: those who live on pacified streets, and those who live on busy thoroughfares to which the traffic has been relegated; a situation that has already generated complaints ranging from “Why wasn’t my street pacified?” to “Now I can’t park on my street anymore!” Of course, depending on one’s needs or wants, one kind of street is not necessarily any better than the other: an elderly person may prefer living on a busy thoroughfare if it means having the BRT stop closer to their doorstep, while families with small children would likely prefer to live on a pacified street. In the current pilot project, there are several auto-mechanic shops and an auto dealership who suddenly found themselves on a pacified street one recent morning. Their business will suffer, without a doubt, unless they relocate to a thoroughfare. On the other hand, café and restaurant owners who find themselves on pacified streets will likely see their business improve. Over the long term, the pacified streets will probably become more residential and local in character, while the thoroughfares will probably become more commercial, eventually containing more offices than residences.
But such is urban change: it is impossible to please all the people all the time. What is clear is that, when completed, this urban change is likely to generate a significant net benefit for the city on the whole, even if a handful of people are affected negatively. It is important to remember that only a minority of Barcelona’s residents use private automobiles on a regular basis; the majority of the car traffic in the city commutes in every day from the surrounding suburbs and small towns. Why should a suburban lifestyle that is unsustainable continue to impose its demands on everyone else? If cities don’t lead the global transformation toward a less energy-intensive and less polluting future way of life, nobody will.
In this regard, no city block is an island.