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Metro Cities: Barcelona's building blocks for a lively city

As cities across the world shift the focus of roads away from vehicles and back to citizens, Barcelona is taking its tactics to the next level.

Barcelona's superblock proposal for the grid neighbourhood of Exiample. Six are planned by the end of 2018.

iStock/Andres Plana illustration

Barcelona's superblock proposal for the grid neighbourhood of Exiample. Six are planned by the end of 2018.

The Spanish city of Barcelona was first settled thousands of years ago, but it’s a more recent resident that has made its mark: cars. The metropolitan area’s 3.2 million people deal with skyrocketing air and noise pollution, slow commutes and traffic accidents. As cities across the world shift the focus of roads away from vehicles and back to citizens, Barcelona is taking its tactics to the next level: building so-called superblocks and carving out space for street life.

A city plan calls for six new superblocks by 2018. More of a cultural shift than a building proposal, it merges nine blocks into one, relegating vehicles to the periphery, with some exceptions. Speed limits are lowered from 30-50 km/h to 10 km/h.

The goal is a 21 per cent reduction of traffic and the plan includes 300 km of new bike lanes.

A handful of existing superblocks are showing success: foot traffic was up by 10 per cent and cycling by 30 per cent, while driving was down 40 per cent.

With more than 3,500 deaths annually blamed on poor air quality, combatting pollution is a big motivator, but planners hope the superblocks will also combat the rise of sedentary lifestyles and create more community space.

The plan frees up 160 intersections for playgrounds and public squares. And despite initial concerns about services and businesses being impacted, the blocks lead to adaptations: In El Born, home to a superblock since 1993, garbage is collected by pneumatic tubes and the need for curbs and sidewalks has been eliminated.

With up to 6,000 people living in each superblock, planners liken it to a small town, and hope the new model can address the practical and social needs of residents.

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