Barcelona’s first Superblock, Fighting the Power of Habit and Wavering Political Will

A month ago, after nearly three decades of waiting, Barcelona urban designer Salvador Rueda finally saw the first “Superilla” (Superblock) installed in his city. The superblock faced some fierce opposition from unhappy residents and local businesses complaining about loss of curbside parking, and changes of bus stops and street direction. It was also criticized from within the city council as some council members from the opposition parties asked for it to be dismantled.

Rueda, who has led the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona since the year 2000, envisioned the superblock in 1987 when he created the the city’s street noise map, working for the city council. (See previous post: Superblocks, Barcelona Answer to Car-Centric City)

A Superblock, according to Rueda, is defined by a grid of nine blocks where the main mobility happens on the roads around the outside of the Superblock, and the roads within are only for local use. The one-way system inside the Superblock makes it impossible to cut through to the other side, while still giving neighbours access to their garages and parking spaces. So the Superblock remains free of through traffic.

Superblocks are already at work in several cities in Spain, but Barcelona could be their best iteration because of the grid pattern of the Eixample, a broad swath of the city designed by Idelfons Cerdà back in the 1850s when Barcelona was rapidly expanding.

The official presentation of the first superblock in the Poble Nou neighborhood faced some fierce opposition from unhappy residents and local businesses complaining about loss of curbside parking, changes in street direction, and the installation of the superblock itself right after the summer holidays and without prior warning, they claimed.

Other long-term residents were furious about the change of location of bus stops and routes, arguing that now they had to walk one or two blocks farther to the nearest stop, which before had been right on their block. Of course, on the flipside, some residents discovered a brand new bus stop virtually on their doorstep, when they were used to walking farther.

Before the press event, Salvador Rueda told me about one woman who had intercepted him the previous week, after the installation of the new traffic signs. She had complained that the new system took away the possibility to park in front of her building, and now she had to walk a whole block with her groceries.

Despite the initial coordination problems and these local issues, walking in the area of the superblock is, in fact, a real pleasure. The lack of through traffic and the single lane for motor vehicles moving within the block, leaves most of the area free for cyclists and pedestrians to enjoy.

But the strong reactions to this first experience has meant the plan to expand superblocks across Barcelona will face greater headwinds than anticipated. Not just resistance from neighbors and businesses, but lack of political will and additional costs unforeseen by the project designers have all added to the uncertainty.

Political Hurdles

Mercedes Vidal, who is charge of mobility for Barcelona, worked for nearly 10 years in Rueda’s team before being elected to the city council. After so many years of planning, she says, to see the first superblock in Barcelona is a great thrill.

It’s also a necessity. Barcelona regularly exceeds pollution levels set by the EU — specifically NO2 and PM10 limits — and needs a fast solution, Vidal says. The implementation of the superblocks is part of city administration’s plan to address the traffic that causes much of that pollution.

While only 24% of people use private vehicles to move around Barcelona –including commuters from outside the city– those vehicles use most of the public space and produce the greatest proportion of pollution in the city, Vidal says.

The 2008 European Air Quality Directive allowed Member States to have, under strict conditions, time extensions for meeting the air quality standards for PM10 (until 11 June 2011) and NO2 and benzene (until 2015 at the latest). Since those time extensions have expired Barcelona will now face serious fines if the city continues to exceed the limits.

Despite that urgency, the superblocks project also faces opposition from within the city council. After the installation of the pilot, some council members from the opposition parties asked for it to be dismantled and any further superblocks to be put on hold. Vidal was critical of that attitude, pointing out that some of those same people had approved the mobility plan and superblocks project under a prior administration.

Getting ready to play street games on Superblock

Parking and Habits

One of the main challenges in installing the superblocks is the abundance of curbside parking in Barcelona. Residents and commuters alike tend to believe that on-street parking is a car owner’s basic right and that no administration should be allowed to limit or take it away.

Barcelona has more than 140,000 parking spots on the street, more than half of which are not regulated. Many residents leave their cars parked outside their apartment block for months, without using them. In places where residential curbside parking is regulated –about 40,000 units–, permit holders pay a quarterly fee using a ticket machine, and don’t need to move their car. Every time the city starts to regulate parking in an unregulated area, it faces protests. In fact, the city has regulated only 3% of the previously free parking spaces in the past three years.

The majority of the 570,000 cars registered in Barcelona, however, are parked in public or private off-street garages. That means that eliminating some of the curbside residential parking in the city would affect less that 10% of the vehicles.

But having a parking spot on your doorstep is non negotiable for some residents, who consider it a de facto right. If there is something the superblocks implementation has to fight it is people’s long-standing habits.

Superblocks are not a new idea

Salvador Rueda and his team did not invent the superblock, Barcelona had a previous plan designed 80 years ago, just before the Spanish civil war.

Called the “Plan Maciá” after Francesc Maciá, the president of the Republic of Catalunya between 1932 and 1933, the original project was part of a study commissioned by the Catalan government. Architects Josep Lluís Sert and Le Corbusier were to design a new urban plan for Barcelona based on the Eixample. They came up with a design of a residential area divided in 400m x 400m modules –equivalent to nine city blocks– where large apartment buildings would co-exist with community areas and social infrastructure.

Original Plan Maciá — Courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier

“Plan Macià” was never implemented. The Spanish civil war and political divisions at the time killed the project, says Maria Rubert, professor of urbanism at the Architecture School of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech. However, it is considered one of the most important urban design projects of the last century, she says, and was used as a model for the recovery of Barcelona’s beaches, the construction of the Olympic village and Olympic port for the 1992 games, and the rest of the seaside development in the northern area of the city.

Professor Rubert agrees that the superblocks will increase the quality of life for those people living inside the block. But she wants the city to consider other solutions for residents on streets that carry most of the traffic, such as imposing a congestion charge for cars entering the city (similar to the one in London), reducing the number of lanes and limiting the speed on main thoroughfares that cross the city.

Unfortunately, Barcelona is very accommodating to cars, Rubert says. Being a small, compact city, makes it easy to move around in a private vehicle, with most trips taking less than 15 minutes. Some streets of Barcelona are being used as motorways, she adds. It is important to “calm” all the main streets of Barcelona and divert through traffic outside the city center. It is not right, she says, that some residents should enjoy the pedestrian areas in the superblocks while others face streets full of traffic, noise, and pollution.

Two different parking policies

UCLA professor Donald Shoup, a renowned mobility expert, explained back in 2005 how parking policies can be used to improve the quality of life on city blocks.

“We have two possible futures ahead of us,” said Shoup. “One is that we can keep going in the same direction. We can stick with free parking […]. If we do, we’ll continue to use way too much oil, we’ll continue to sprawl, and it will be very hard to build at higher density and to have infill development in our cities.”

“But there’s another possible future, one in which we eliminate off-street parking requirements. How can we do that? We can charge market prices for curb parking, prices that would be high enough to yield a few vacancies on every block,” he said. “The curb spots plus some well-designed parking structures would take care of everyone’s parking needs.”

But wouldn’t the merchants and residents object? No, said Shoup, “not if we use the revenue from curb parking to finance public improvements on the block where it is collected.”

The superblocks offer similar and much broader benefits for a surprisingly cheap price tag. Implementing the first superblock took one weekend and €55,000 ($61,000). The city government has allocated €10 million to expand them to other areas of Barcelona over the next three years.

Despite all the initial opposition from residents, local businesses and council members, the superblock plan will likely go ahead. What we don’t know is how many will be created during this administration (until June 2019), where they will be, and how much they will cost.

For residents, it will take time to adjust to the changes and fully appreciate the benefits, as earlier iterations in other cities have shown. But in the end it will improve their quality of life, open up more public space for their use, and reduce exposure to traffic and pollution.

Even the CEO of Lyft, the ride-sharing company, seems to be on board with the general concept of liveable cities. John Zimmer recently wrote an opinion piece in Medium where he shared his vision of 21st-century mobility. “We’ll have the chance to redesign our entire urban fabric,” he wrote. “Cities of the future must be built around people, not vehicles. They should be defined by communities and connections, not pavement and parking spots.”



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