Barcelona planners hope to create neighborhoods focused on public spaces and walkability. (Kevin Brass)

Sitting in his office along Barcelona’s redeveloped port, Salvador Rueda explains to a visitor the strategy for redesigning the center of the Spanish city. The famed L’Eixample, the district designed by Ildefons Cerdà in the 1850s, would be transformed into a network of so-called superblocks, says Rueda, the director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, a city-backed consultancy. Cars would be virtually eliminated from within the superblocks, “liberating” 70 percent of the city’s land for public use, he says.

Without demolishing buildings or undertaking massive redevelopment, superblocks—known as superilles in Catalan and superillas in Spanish—will create pedestrian-centric neighborhoods while addressing the health, sustainability, and pollution problems facing Barcelona, Rueda says. The issues “must be interconnected,” he says, looking to an assistant to help with the translation. “What is the best project to resolve the majority of the problems?” he asks. “In my opinion, it is the superilles.”

After years of debate, Barcelona is poised to turn the superblocks concept into a reality. The concept was adopted as a centerpiece of the city’s mobility plan in 2015, and a test case was instituted in the neighborhood of Poblenou in September 2016. City planners hope to reconfigure five or six neighborhoods in the next year.

“Our entire mobility plan is based on superblocks,” says Mercedes Vidal, the city’s councilor for mobility. “It is the way everything works together.”

But opposition remains strong. The Poblenou test case has been controversial. There is concern that critics—what Rueda calls the powerful pro-car lobby—will still scuttle the plan.

“This is the crucial moment,” Rueda says when asked about the criticism. But he is convinced the superblocks concept can provide a solution for the environmental problems facing Barcelona—and cities around the world. “Do we want more cars or less? Do we want to reduce pollution, yes or no?” he asks. “Every city has the same problems. We know this.”

Rethinking urban public space: moving from linear and single-purpose to dynamic spaces with diverse uses. (Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona)

Beginning with a Grid
Cerdà’s design for Barcelona is perhaps the most famous large-scale urban master plan in the world, and is often cited as a model for modern mixed-use neighborhoods.

Presented with the opportunity to design the expansion of Barcelona in the 1850s, after the city’s medieval walls were torn down, Cerdà laid out a distinctive grid system, with short blocks of low-rise buildings and wide sidewalks, crisscrossed by broad, tree-lined boulevards. The corners of each block are notched at 45-degree angles to allow more sunlight and air to flow through the streets.

But history was not kind to Cerda’s plan. Many of the fundamental elements were scrapped over the years. Instead of having blocks with buildings on only two or three sides, parks disappeared, height limits were ignored, and open space was taken over by development. Visitors rave about the sidewalk cafés and strollable neighborhoods, but many residents see congested streets, pollution that is above the European Union’s acceptable levels, and a shortage of places to walk their dogs.

“Cerdà’s original plan struggled with politics,” says Geoff Boeing, a PhD candidate in city planning at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied Barcelona. “A lot of green spaces were turned into parking lots.”

Rueda sees superblocks as an opportunity to revive and modernize Cerda’s original vision. As Cerdà did, Rueda sees health and livability issues at the core of planning decisions. When he started working on the superblock concept in 1987 as the city’s environmental director, Rueda focused on reducing noise levels. Later he was assigned to develop a better route network for buses. He untangled the “spaghetti bowl” of routes and replaced it with a grid pattern, a precursor to superblocks, launched in 2012.

The mechanics of superblocks are relatively simple. A typical superblock will consist of a three-by-three-block square made from nine existing blocks. Circulating traffic will be limited to the streets on its perimeter. Intersections at every 400 meters (1,300 ft) will maintain steady traffic flow and allow development of nodes to intersect with the bus and bicycle networks. Within the superblocks, cars will be limited to ten kilometers per hour (6 mph) and restricted to one-way lanes.

The city hopes to reduce auto traffic in the city by 21 percent in the next two years. “The idea is not to eliminate cars but [to] change the system of mobility,” says Vincente Guallart, founder of the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia and the former city architect for Barcelona. The superblock strategy moves the focus away from private cars and toward public systems, which can mean anything from buses to autonomous cars, supporters say. “The future of mobility is not having your private car,” Guallart says.

Rueda separates the superblocks plan into two distinct discussions—the functional aspects and urban development.

On the first level, the goal is simply to create better-functioning neighborhoods with improved traffic flow. Functionality can be addressed efficiently with little money: the main expense is signs and the rewiring of traffic lights, he says. The Poblenou test was implemented for €55,000 ($58,000). Barcelona’s entire traffic pattern could be reconfigured for a total of €50 million ($53 million)—less than the price to build “a little tunnel,” he says.

But the second step, repurposing the reclaimed space, is equally important and requires a separate and distinct planning process, Rueda argues. Finding new uses for the streets and intersections will provide an opportunity to rethink communities, including everything from cultural spaces to urban agriculture.

“Now you have to turn streets into places to stay,” says Sander Cornelius Laudy, director of studio for B01 Arquitectes, a Barcelona architecture and design firm. “That is a much more interesting technical jump.”

To Laudy, a member of the board of the Green Building Council España, the idea behind superblocks is “very much one of sustainability.” He describes it as “very low-tech urbanism.” Instead of commercial redevelopment, the superblock design process refocuses planning on livability and creating a better environment for the residents, Laudy says. “I think Cerdà would be delighted,” he says.

A superblocks test case was launched in the Poblenou neighborhood in 2016. (Kevin Brass)

Test at Poblenou
On a sunny December afternoon in the outlying neighborhood of Poblenou, the potential for the superblock concept is on display. Children play in what was once a four-way intersection. Park benches and trees in pots cover the streets. Bicyclists whiz by, riding in clearly defined, car-free lanes; bike-sharing racks are positioned on several corners.

The neighborhood, converted to a superblock in 2015, was promoted as the first test case for the plan. Streets were cut off to through-traffic, and four new public squares of 2,000 square meters (22,000 sq ft) each were created.

But the results have been controversial. Many residents expressed surprise when the streets were closed off. Businesses said their customers complained. Traffic in the area has become a nightmare, some residents say. Today, signs and posters proclaiming “No Superilla” hang from many windows in the neighborhood, and anti-superilla graffiti cover many of the city’s signs.

Even supporters of the superblock concept have been dismayed by the results. “Between ideas and practice is quite a gap,” Laudy says, when asked about Poblenou. Not enough money was spent to develop the public spaces, he argues. “You can’t do it so cheap,” he says. “You need to be a little more ambitious and spend more.”

There are many lessons to be learned from the Poblenou test case, says Guallart. “The big mistake done with the test was to build without a budget and without discourse with the citizens,” he says.

The approach to Poblenou was too dogmatic, he asserts. Planners need to make adjustments for each neighborhood, perhaps allowing traffic on some streets and not others. One-way streets are “very 19th century,” he says.

“In the streets of the future, flexibility will be one of the attributes,” Guallart adds. “The grid means flexibility.” The redeveloping Poblenou neighborhood, a former industrial area that has a higher ratio of businesses to residents than do many other areas of the city, was not the best choice as an experiment, he argues. “What we learned is if you want to do a revolution, you need to do it in the core” of the city, Guallart says. “Poblenou is not in the core.”

Hopes and Fears
The Poblenou controversy has fueled the opposition to superblocks, especially from the business community, which fears closed roads will hurt shops and restaurants. But that has not been the case in other neighborhoods that have banned cars, supporters say. “Historically, the idea is remove cars from the streets and people will not come,” Guallart says. “What we have found is exactly the other way around.”

Removing cars from streets often boosts property values in neighborhoods, says Luis Guardia, director of the Barcelona office for consultancy JLL.

“We have seen in the past that when streets are pedestrianized, more retailers want to take on leases,” he says. “Real estate becomes a more interesting proposition.” He says his reaction to superblocks is essentially positive. Superblocks would “lead to a more sustainable, greener environment with greater productivity within these communities,” he says.

Rueda is not worried about the opposition. Barcelona already has extensive experience removing cars from neighborhoods, he notes. The narrow streets around the Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar in El Born were converted to pedestrian-only spaces in 1993, and two areas of Gràcia were closed to cars in 2006. Both projects initially faced criticism but today are widely accepted as among the most popular neighborhoods in the city, he says.

Many of the complaints are unavoidable, he argues. Residents are upset that a bus stop has moved or that they may lose convenient parking spaces. “In every mobility project, at least 30 percent of the people will be naturally opposed,” he says.

But superblocks will require a special public relations campaign, especially in the wake of the Poblenou complaints, Rueda acknowledges. “Communication is the most important part,” he says.

“Second, it is very important to have agreement between all the parties.”

The superblocks plan supports a strong network of bike lanes as an alternative to cars. (Kevin Brass)

The functionality is the hardest part for people to understand, Rueda says. It is easier to explain the opportunities created by the public space, which will be a blank canvas for every community to fill. Ultimately, “all the neighborhoods will decide what is the best solution” for their community, he says.

Despite the controversies, there is “definitely, no doubt” that the superblocks plan is moving forward, says Vidal. Environmental issues are perceived as an urgent matter in the city, she says. The perception of the pollution has changed in recent years, and a recent poll found 80 percent of the city’s population agreed with the idea of restricting cars to deal with the problem. “This concept would have been unthinkable ten years ago,” Vidal says.

The superblocks plan is supported by the administration of Mayor Ada Colau, who was elected in 2015. Plans to implement the superblocks are moving forward in several neighborhoods, including Horta, Sant Andreu, and Sant Gervasi. The city hopes for widespread implementation by 2018. “We can’t move backward,” Vidal says.

But the city will not be transformed overnight, Guallart warns. Supporters need to adjust expectations and “agree it will take 25 years,” he says. Politics and changes in government might slow or delay the plan. However, he says he believes that superblocks have been embraced by the city. “In Barcelona, there is a very strong sense of continuity in the long-term vision,” Guallart says. “When we start something, we finish it.”

Thanks to Cerdà’s grid design, Barcelona offers a unique opportunity to implement the superblocks. But the ideas can be translated to any city, Rueda argues. “The shape of other cities is not the problem,” he says. “The dimensions of the superblock are similar.” Beyond reducing traffic, the concept allows cities to rethink their sewer, water, and trash systems. “We need to change, above all, the uses of public space,” Rueda says.

Rueda believes superblocks are a matter of life and death: pollution causes more than 3,500 premature deaths in the city a year, he says. He reels off a series of statistics to show how superblocks can change Barcelona’s livability.

In the Gràcia neighborhoods where cars were eliminated in 2006, cycling trips have increased by 30 percent and driving is down by 26 percent. Superblocks will increase the number of neighborhoods with acceptable air quality from 56 percent to 94 percent. The number of green districts within the city will increase by almost 300 percent.

“It’s incredible and it’s possible,” Rueda says. “After this, it is a very calm city, a very livable city.”

This article appeared in the fall issue of Urban Land on page 132.