Pop (-Up) Urbanism in the City of Design

Tactical urbanist sidewalk enlargement in the form of a < 1 m gully that looks like a new bike lane but isn’t, actually, leading to daily close calls between cyclists and pedestrians.

Barcelona is known around the world today as a city of design. Its urban grid, buildings, parks, squares, streets, benches, street lighting, traffic lights, and even trash receptacles are objects of design. In the last few years, however, and especially since the onslaught of Covid-19, large swaths of brightly coloured paint have started to appear on Barcelona’s asphalt, often in conjunction with traffic elements such as jersey barriers, bollards, traffic cones, and fences. The intention, as in many other cities, is to enable physical distancing in public urban space while at the same time reducing motor traffic, thereby encouraging greener urban mobility options such as walking or cycling. Barcelona not only has the highest population density in Europe, but also the highest motor traffic density, with all the noise and air pollution that this entails. “The attrition of automobiles”, as Jane Jacobs prescribed in her 1961 book, is exactly the idea behind all the paint and barriers, and the way planners have decided to go about it is quickly, using readily available elements that can —in theory— be readily undone or redone if need be. “Tactical urbanism”, as this modus operandi has come to be referred to, is essentially “pop-up” urbanism: quick, cheap, and temporary.

But temporary until when? How long until the city gets around to implementing these changes permanently, with solid, long-lasting materials that don’t fade, crumple, or wear out? In theory, tactical urbanism is an interim solution toward permanent change that uses an empirical trial-and-error method. But based on recent experience in this city, practice could turn out to be quite different from theory, with these interventions possibly remaining in their current form. Some are already showing wear and tear, and much of the paint applied in groovy, colourful super-graphics reminiscent of Archigram is already fading. Tactical urbanism is tolerable as long as it’s temporary, but it doesn’t age with dignity. Without a plan to replace these pop-ups permanently and yes, beautifully, growing political opposition to them may eventually lead to their undoing; a reversal to the way things were before.

Most citizens of Barcelona don’t actually object to the creation of more sidewalk space at the expense of traffic flow, for the simple reason that most don’t drive much; many not at all. Going for leisurely walks and sitting at a sidewalk café is a favourite pastime here, so if done with some care, there is widespread support for motor traffic reduction. The only opposition is from a minority of motorcycle wingnuts who want to be able to noisily ride the streets at breakneck speed, and from suburbanites who feel it is their God-given right to drive an SUV into the middle of the city (disclaimer: I own a compact automobile and only use it for driving in the country).

Sidewalk café protected by painted jersey barriers. Nice place for a café con leche, isn’t it?

It is the seemingly non-designed, improvised and haphazard aesthetic of tactical urbanism that has people upset; not its aims. Brightly painted surfaces with clunky concrete jersey barriers or flimsy plastic bollards just isn’t most people’s cup of tea. This is a city with more architects, interior designers, and fashionistas than you can shake a stick at, and many are voicing criticism of how unsightly Barcelona’s streets have become. Yes, unbelievably, architects and “the people” are united in their aesthetic sensibility for once!

The other issue, leaving aesthetics aside for a moment, is the absurdity of some of the interventions. What is the point of widening a sidewalk by less than a meter with kilometers of plastic bollards while bicycle lanes remain absent, creating a narrow space of conflict between cyclists and pedestrians? Indeed, little has been done to calm Barcelona’s busiest car sewers, many of which, after years of promises, still have no bike lanes. Makes you wonder about the criteria employed in determining where to intervene. Lottery? Pulling straws? Eeny, meeny, miny, moe?

Meanwhile, Barcelona has other streets that have recently been permanently “improved” without addressing problems such as unusually narrow sidewalks that can’t handle pedestrian demand and abnormally high kerbs that make them impossible to navigate in a wheelchair. Once a permanent change such as new black top is decided upon by city hall, isn’t that the moment to redress a long-standing deficiency? Not very tactical, let alone intelligent.

A busy commercial street in El Raval recently re-paved without any thought to wheelchair accessibility: the kerb is 20cm high, and the sidewalk is barely a meter wide.

The problem, then, is not tactical urbanism per se. It’s when tactical interventions are not made permanent, when ones that don’t work are not corrected, or when certain permanent interventions do absolutely nothing in the way of urban improvement, thereby wasting a perfect opportunity. It is this that has me worried: if the city is incapable of making a half-decent permanent improvement to a narrow, short and busy commercial street, maybe all those tactical, supposedly trial-and-error interventions are not in fact temporary at all, but permanent.

Above photo manipulated to show what should have been done: new pavement raised to match the height of the sidewalk, creating a single, barrier-free surface that forces motorized traffic to respect pedestrians.
Only this tactical but less than ideal solution remains viable now. When in an ancient Roman colony, do as the ancient Roman colonists.

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