The Barcelona Superblock of Poblenou

Where once traffic roared you can now hear the pleasant sound of children laughing and playing. The Superblock of Poblenou is a pilot project to show what the city of Barcelona will be like when the plans of the superblocks become a reality. The difference in sound and atmosphere between the streets inside the superblock and the traditional streets in the rest of the city is amazing. It should convince the sceptics that the city streets of the future should not be designed for motor traffic, but for people.

Late October 2017, relaxing on what used to be road space in the Superblock or Superilla del Poblenou.

I visited Barcelona late October to be part of an Urban Thinkers Campus (UTC) “focused on how to achieve more liveable cities, which are more sustainable, healthier and safer, through the implementation of new models of urban mobility.” The congress was organised by the Federación Iberoamericana de Urbanistas (FIU) and sponsored by the City Council of Barcelona and the World Urban Campaign (UN-HABITAT). I spoke in a session called “Disputant l’hegemonia cultural al Cotxe” (Contesting the cultural hegemony of the car). Not that the objective would be to get rid of the car completely, but its role in the cities of the future should be completely revised. This congress was not just about Barcelona, but having a living lab so close to the venue meant most delegates got to visit the Superilla del Poblenou as the name of the superblock is in Catalan. This superblock is showing us what cities can be like when you do not design first and foremost for the private car.

The Superblock model explained (From the Urban Mobility Plan of Barcelona 2013-2018).
The location of the Superilla del Poblenou (the 9 green squares) in the fabric of the urban design of Barcelona. The arrows indicate the driving directions for motor traffic. (Picture from the Urban Mobility Plan of Barcelona 2013-2018)

I must mention that this was an interesting time to visit Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. There was a noticeable political tension, especially when all the delegates were invited to a reception at city hall, right opposite the parliament building. The plane from Eindhoven to Barcelona was practically empty and so were many restaurants on the boulevard on the Mediterranean Sea, meaning many tourists must have postponed their trip. But while there were a lot of people waving flags and you could see banners on buildings, it didn’t really feel unsafe. The moment that independence was declared, on Friday 27 October, I was already in a taxi to the airport for my flight back.

The typical 19th century street pattern design in the expansions (for instance in the one named Eixample) of Barcelona creates octagonal spaces on every corner of a block. These octagonal squares are almost as large as a traditional square in the older parts of the city. They must have had the same function in the past: a place for people to meet. This is exactly how the space is to be used again inside the superblocks.
The new functions inside the superblock of Poblenou in four categories. Public space, play zones, sport zones and urban renewal locations. (From the Urban Mobility Plan of Barcelona 2013-2018)

Barcelona is a city of 1.6 million people; totally different from any city in the Netherlands and yet there are similarities. The city wants to be more for people than for cars. Cars pose the same space issues to Barcelona as they do to any city, simply because cars are so terribly space inefficient. This universal problem leads to a universal search for solutions. Barcelona has a very specific street pattern. A straight street grid with the corner of every block ‘cut off’. This leads to octagonal spaces between the blocks that are as big as a town’s square. This grid was designed in the mid-19th century, before the car existed. These spaces between the blocks were meant as neighbourhood squares where people could meet each other. All that space is now used for motor vehicles, which means a staggering 85% of the city’s space is dedicated to the car.

Google Streetview shows the former situation of the Carrer de Roc Boronat, now inside the Superilla del Poblenou.
A picture at the same location in the Carrer de Roc Boronat in October 2017, with the new design as an interiour street of a Superblock.

The city would like to bring back the original purpose of the city space by dedicating some of the octagonal intersections to people again. This is the core of the Superblock plan from the Urban Mobility Plan of Barcelona for 2013-2018. (in English PDF)

A slide from my presentation comparing a traffic calmed residential area of Utrecht to that of a Superblock in Barcelona. The Utrecht “block” is more than three times as large as the block in Barcelona, but the idea of making through traffic go around residential areas to improve the quality of life for the people living there is very similar.

I see similarities to the superblock plan and what cities in the Netherlands are doing with parts of their urban areas. You introduce a hierarchy to the city streets. Some are for through traffic and some are only for residential traffic. Through traffic is forced to go around the areas where people live their lives. The difference being that the Dutch areas of the city around which motor traffic is led are much bigger than the superblocks are. With through traffic gone you have a lot less noise and pollution and there is a lot more space to give to people for active travel, recreation and other activities.

Google StreetView of the Carrer de la Ciutat de Granada as an ordinary street in 2016. Note the protected bike lane that used to be in this street.
The Carrer de la Ciutat de Granada after the redesign. Note that in a traffic calmed area with low volumes of motor traffic at low speeds a protected bike lane is no longer necessary.

This is how Barcelona describes the Superblocks in just a few sentences:

Through the Superblocks program, Barcelona is redesigning the city’s streets to limit traffic and increase the amount of green and recreational spaces available to citizens. The new program changes traditional city blocks into clusters of “superblocks,” where perimeter streets allow through traffic, but inner streets are reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. So far, the city has created Superblocks in four pilot neighborhoods, and by 2019, it expects the program will achieve CO2 emissions reductions of between 20% and 75%. The Superblocks program does not involve major physical changes, which allows for experimentation and reversibility. The project is part of a larger Urban Mobility Plan, a strategic measure of Barcelona’s Climate Commitment, expected to decrease traffic by 21% while extending car-free spaces by more than 23 hectares and adding 300 km of bike lanes. This measure will reduce CO2 emissions by 159,100 metric tons per year.

Already on the 11th October the little ones in the Superilla del Poblenou were really impatient to play in the children’s playground under construction. “Hurry up people” they seem to think. From the Twitter account of this Superblock.

From the four pilot superblocks I visited the Superilla del Poblenou. It was opened in September 2016. The first measures were cheap and would have been reversible: painted lines, plants in pots and simple seating. But from fall 2017 the city would be building more permanent features here, and I could clearly see that was happening. As you will also see in my video, two children’s playgrounds were almost finished. Indeed, last weekend the children finally got to play in these playgrounds for the very first time. That is really filling the streets with life, as the motto on the banners is “omplim de vida els carrers”, something that not everybody is convinced about. One opponent said the city area is deserted after 9pm and because there are no cars she feels socially unsafe. Apparently, she needs cars to feel safe in the street, an upside-down world view. Another spokesperson of a group opposing the superblocks claims a simple trip became much longer: from 900 metres it increased to 2,700 metres. The poor fellow… But if the superblocks make 900 metre car trips more difficult, forcing people to use alternatives, they serve a good purpose in my opinion.

On Friday 3rd November 2017 the festive opening took finally place. “The two new playgrounds of the Superilla del Poblenou – in the place where cars used to pass – so full, they’re overflowing!” From the Twitter account of this Superblock.

I think the Superilla del Poblenou already looks very attractive. I have spoken with residents who are very happy with it. They were so proud of their new neighbourhood that they invited a number of delegates into their homes to look at the revived city space from above. Other pilot projects have proven; the more permanent they become the more the resistance wears of. In response to a protest councillor Janet Sanz said: “we will continue to work on your goal, which is to make a more liveable city, the superblocks are the guarantee to having a more human city, traffic calmed and less polluted”.

My video about my trip to Barcelona and the Superblock of Poblenou in particular.

21 thoughts on “The Barcelona Superblock of Poblenou

  1. Thank you for the very interesting blog of yours. I have a question: what about people with special needs (third age people, disabled people, etc.) that need a door-to-door transportation. Is there a prediction for exceptional use of vehicles (f.e of their closed ones) inside the “perimeter”?

  2. Excellent text! It would be awesome if it was updated every year with the current state of the superblocks. =D
    Like… Is it still being used? Are they planning more blocks? Are they reversing or changing anything?

  3. Hi, I live in Barcelona although I don’t live near the area where this first superblock has been implemented. I don’t own a car since I prefer to move using public transport, cycling and walking, therefore the idea of the superblocks is very appealing to me and I really wish it spreads around the city soon. I have seen this first superblock (I also know that part of the city from other times I have passed through before it was built so I can’t compare the current situation and the former one) and I think it is a great idea. Despite the fact that some neighbours are happy with it I must say that there is also people who really despise it. As usual those are usually heavy car users who cannot go everywhere they go with the car as they please, people who have to walk 100 more meters to go to the bus stop (some stops had to be moved) and other people who simply don’t like change.

    1. Thank you. Is it so controversial that there is some danger of having it reversed?
      Can you also give us an answer to Roberts question: What happend to the private cars of the residents?

      1. There is some controversy, but it does not look like it is going to be reversed unless there is a change in the city council government in the next elections and some party in the opposition takes over, which seems unlikely so far. Even if there is a change maybe they won’t reverse it. The opposition has been quite vocal against this idea, but do that with all the ideas of the current major, that does not mean they really think so, politics as usual. The current plan is to keep implementing it in other parts of the city so at this time it looks like the pilot is successfull.

        As for Roberts’s questions:

        – Neighbours’s cars, the neighbours can still access their parkings and circulate in these streets, maybe they cannot use routes as direct as before, but they can still come and go everywhere on their cars. The concept of the superblock is not to forbid circulation of cars, specially of neighbours, but to disuade passing-by cars to go through these streets and use other routes. They have lost parking space in the street, but most neighbours have their own underground parking slots anyway.
        – Business: as far as I remember one of the reasons this particular area was chosen was because there were not many business within the blocks affected. At least compared with other parts of the district. Anyway, some restaurants complained that they were losing customers because they could not park in front of the restaurant as they could before, although some others said that business went as usual. There was another business, a van rental one, which complained also strongly, but according to other neighbours, the real reason was that it was using public parking space as its own, to park its vans, and it had lost this possibility with the superblock. All of this happened in the beginning, I haven’t heard much lately so I think they have adjusted to the situation.

        1. Thank you very much for your detailed answer. I was wondering to what extend the idea can be transfered to my city. Now I know: It can’t. (Maybe it can, but I have no idea how).

          “The concept of the superblock is not to forbid circulation of cars, specially of neighbours, but to disuade passing-by cars to go through these streets and use other routes.”

          That is the easy part. In some areas it is already like that. In others, there would be complaints, but probably manageable.

          “They have lost parking space in the street, but most neighbours have their own underground parking slots anyway.”

          That is where the problems start. Without underground parking, we are lost. I have done the maths for some densely populated areas with old buildings in my city. Hardly any private parking slots, up to 95% street parking (for free!). As a result, up to 80% of public space is used for driving and parking. Remove street parking, and the riots start.

          1. This is how things are in inner San Diego, California neighborhoods. The streets are jammed with cars parking for free. One can only dream about removing street parking and doing projects like these. We have such incredibly ugly streets in this city and very, very little is changing unfortunately.

  4. Interessting and likeable concept. Thanks for sharing!
    When I’m thinking of devolving this concept to Berlin two questions coming to my mind:
    1) What happend to the private cars of the residents?
    2) Is there any protest by shop owners or restaurants losing parking space for customers (a problem in Berlin creating shared space)?

    Thanks a lot

  5. I wonder if there are demographics that link the rate of cycling to either wanting to leave Spain or being willing to allow a vote on doing that. You can draw many theories as to why or why they might not do that depending on whether they cycle or not, but if this system of cycling continues and Catalonia experiences a booming economy from it and most other autonomous communities don’t, oh boy are interesting times a coming for Christmas.

  6. Thank you for this interesting overview of what is taking place in Barcelona. Clearly, the balance between green space and traffic space has to be creatively managed. The Dutch are so good at that. Geweldig!

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