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How superblocks can help reshape city life

Vaseline 1 month ago

Barcelona’s streets have gone from traffic-heavy to pedestrian-friendly. How? Super blocks. Ellen Rykers explains.

This is an excerpt from our weekly environmental newsletter Future Proof. Register here.

Last week I read a great interview with renowned urban planner Janette Sadik-Khan by The Spinoff’s Wellington editor Joel MacManus: “You can reimagine streets, you can redesign them and reuse them to meet today’s needs do not conform to the culture of 60 years ago,” said Sadik-Khan.

Barcelona has found a way to reshape its streets: superblocks. The city’s director of urban ecology, Salvador Rueda, recently visited New Zealand to discuss the superblock concept he is leading in a city that was once one of the noisiest and most traffic-heavy in Europe.

What is a super block?

A superblock groups several smaller city blocks, often a 3×3 grid. Through traffic is limited on the streets within the superblock. Cars can still enter, but they have a speed limit and must give way to pedestrians. “It sucks to go in if your destination isn’t in,” Rueda explains. This opens up the street space for other things: people walking and cycling, outdoor dining and more greenery.

The idea is to rebalance modes of transport and use of street space so that the focus is not solely on cars. “The city is like a paella. It is a system of relationships. But if you put so much salt in it, you can’t eat it. If you put that many cars, it’s not digestible,” says Rueda. “Cities should be for citizens, not for cars.”

Superblocks are possible even in cities that don’t have a grid structure – and they could be in New Zealand too: Rueda suggests Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter as an ideal place to start.

Barcelona’s superblocks pave the way

The Catalan city began pursuing the superblock concept in 2016 with the construction of Poblenou superilla in 2017. Since then, a handful more have been added, with plans to eventually transform the urban landscape with 503 superilles by 2030. So far the results are promising. In the Sant Antoni superblock, air quality improved and noise fell by 4 decibels. The well-being of the residents has also improved: people indicate that they experience more peace, safety and satisfaction.

And while traffic on the inner streets of the superblock decreased, it didn’t simply move to the perimeter — people chose not to use cars as often. “The most important network at our locations is not the road for cars. It is public transportation,” says Rueda. He has designed a more efficient bus network to match the superblocks and which, once implemented, aims for a five-minute wait time.

The shift in urban design is predicted to increase urban life expectancy by 200 days, avoid more than 600 deaths annually and reduce urban heat. It is predicted that hundreds of thousands of trips in private vehicles will shift to public and active modes of transportation such as buses, cycling and walking.

But city dwellers are so much more than the way they move: “A pedestrian is a means of transport. The burger is something more,” says Rueda. Entertainment, art, culture and public debate become possible when public space is reclaimed from cars. “We want to see children playing in the middle of the street – but safely.”