Some of the largest cities in the world have a larger population and a larger economy even than whole countries. But as they grow in size and become increasingly complex, they also face major problems, daily threats to the health and well-being of their residents.
Overcrowding, pollution and lack of free space are some of the issues that are evolving into major problems in modern big cities, stigmatizing everyday life and living in the urban environment.
Response can be addressed, as cities can manage their resources and priorities in order to create a sustainable environment for visitors but especially for residents, while leaving room for innovation and development. And here’s the example of Barcelona, Spain, where this new urban design first introduced the ‘superblocks’ in 2016.
The “superblocks” are neighborhoods of nine blocks, where vehicles are allowed only on the roads around these blocks, making the rest more freely available for pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce the pollution caused by vehicles and to rid the public of the rather undestimated, but rather harmless, noise pollution. These neighborhoods are designed to create more free spaces where residents can meet, discuss, converse and do various activities.
Health and Wellbeing – The Barcelona example
Today there are six such superblocks, including the first one implemented in Eixample. The change it has brought seems to be largely accepted by residents while the long-term benefits are far from negligible. Within the “neighborhood” they form, only emergency vehicles are allowed while the parking for residents is underground.
“Vehicles occupy 60% of public spaces in the city,” Urban Development Deputy Mayor Janet Sanz explained in a recent interview with the BBC. “As soon as the space is redistributed and the situation is brought to a new balance, groups of citizens are supported, who until then had no access to these sites.”
After all, where did one imagine that he could find quiet corners in the bustling and vibrant capital of Catalonia? To hear only the laughter of the children playing in the playground and the peep of the birds. There should be no cars and traffic and the space that would occupy the cars has been turned over for play, green, and even a lane for running.
Obviously there are also objections from citizens who either want their cars out of the backyard of their home or have a business and are afraid that their jobs may be affected by restricting vehicle traffic.
But a recent Barcelona Institute of Public Health survey estimates that if planning for 503 superblocks in the city goes ahead as planned, traffic will be reduced by 230,000 cars a week as citizens will switch to public transport, walking or riding the bicycle.
The research notes that this could bring about significant improvements in air quality and noise levels on roads where traffic will be banned. Nitrogen dioxide levels are expected to fall by 25%, bringing the levels within the limits recommended.
The plan is expected to bring significant health benefits to residents. According to the study, 667 premature deaths could be prevented each year from air pollution, noise and heat. More green spaces will encourage citizens to go out more and adopt a more active lifestyle
This, in turn, helps reduce obesity and diabetes and relieves the workforce of health services. Researchers argue that Barcelona residents can live an extra 200 days only thanks to the cumulative health benefits of implementing the plan across the city.
The benefits relate to psychological and physical health. Access to open spaces can be an antidote to loneliness and isolation, especially for older people, as communities develop stronger bonds and become more resilient.
The idea of Salvador Rueda
The first idea for the “superblocks” came from Salvador Rueda, director of the Barcelona Department of Urban Ecology, who says it could be applied to any city. However, the authorities who are interested in superblocks in their city should take into account a number of issues.
Such changes require significant investment. Indeed, as the roads will be transformed with the right furniture and plenty of green, the remaining roads where traffic will be allowed will obviously need to take on a greater traffic load.
Further investment in infrastructure, such as the improvement of roads around each neighborhood, may also be required to meet the increased volume of vehicles and the installation of ‘smart’ traffic management systems, which may be necessary for avoiding traffic jams. And the question remains: How will such investments be financed, given that the increase in municipal fees or any taxation is not expected to be warmly welcomed?
One has to consider – and it has already been observed – that when a place becomes more desirable it leads to increased demand for real estate. Higher prices and increased rents can create neighborhoods inaccessible to citizens and possibly ‘ostracize’ residents.
It is also important that Barcelona is an old but well-designed European city. The challenges are different in cities that are now emerging in Asia, Africa or Latin America, but also in the newer cities in the US and Australia. There are large differences in scale, population density, urban form, development patterns and the industrial context. Many large cities in the developing world face serious problems of overcrowding, uncontrolled and unregulated development and weak regulatory frameworks.
However, Seattle authorities in the US, who are looking for a similar framework, are already considering the idea.
“Copying” what is happening in Barcelona can prove to be very difficult in such places and will require much greater changes. But it is also true that the basic principles of superblocks – the priority of pedestrians, cyclists and public spaces over vehicles – can be applied, with the necessary adjustments, to any city.
In any case, successful urban planning needs a clear vision for the future and a roadmap for how that vision can be realized. A vision that is achievable when it is shared with citizens, local businesses, private and public organizations. This can ensure that all stakeholders share ownership and responsibility for the success of local initiatives.