Can America Replicate Barcelona’s Plan to Transform Busy Streets Into Beautiful Parks?

The Spanish city's "superblocks" program aims to make the urban experience as pedestrian-friendly as possible

April 13, 2022 7:08 am
Can America Replicate Barcelona’s Plan to Transform Busy Streets Into Beautiful Parks?
SW Photography/Getty Images

There are some startling photos online of old Olympic stadiums and villages that have fallen into disuse and disarray over the decades. It’s a familiar, unfortunate story for both former summer and winter host cities: billions are spent on elaborate new structures, the planet watches them on TV for all of two weeks and that’s that. Mere years later, vegetation sprouting between bleachers, the once-proud sites can look downright apocalyptic.

One city, though, treated the Olympics as an opportunity for urban regeneration. When Barcelona hosted the 1992 Games, the city neglected to carve out an entirely new section of Catalonia for development; rather, it reinvested in areas that already existed and were in desperate need of a hand — from the Port of Barcelona, to the train station at Estacio del Nord, to the Pavello de l’Espanya Industrial buildings. The initiative helped catalyze the economy, created housing and parks for future generations and conceived a more sustainable blueprint for host cities thereafter.

Has the rest of the world dutifully observed the so-called “Barcelona Model” since its inception? Not really. But the city itself hasn’t looked back since, continuing to its invest time, resources and political capital into offbeat projects that prize sustainability, livability and the happiness of pedestrians, as opposed to carbon-emitting cars. A couple years back, Barcelona made headlines for its pledge to introduce 500 superillas throughout the city, also known as “superblocks,” which are three-block by three-block sections designated for mixed-use public space, where car traffic is all but banned.

As Freethink noted in a recent profile, these areas have the potential to become “their own independent communities… which [allow] residents to easily walk to local shops, schools, and restaurants, without dodging traffic or queueing at corner crosswalks.” Superblocks reduce a reliance on automotive travel, encourage use of bikes, create room for greenspace and reduce heat and noise pollution, essentially creating a mini “campuses” of sorts, where locals can live better and (according to studies) legitimately live longer.

It sounds pretty great. Could it happen elsewhere? A recent study conducted by a Swiss researcher named Sven Eggimann suggests that some cities might be better suited to “miniblocks” (areas that don’t quite meet the three-by-three standard), which aren’t necessarily worse — they just take up a bit less space, in an effort to insure sure that a big city’s main arterial thoroughfares aren’t completely crippled by disruptions in the route.

No matter how many blocks are in play, though, it’s clear that cities not named Barcelona, and especially those on this side of the pond, could benefit from this sort of creativity. To understand what it will take to bring programs like this to the States, we caught up with Jackson Chabot, an urban planner who works as Director of Space Advocacy at OpenPlans, a New York-based nonprofit that champions “civic engagement for livable streets.”

Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

InsideHook: Could Barcelona’s “superblocks” plan be a blueprint for American cities? What challenges stand in the way?

Jackson Chabot: Absolutely, especially in American cities that are laid out in grid patterns such as parts of New York City, Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Savannah, GA, among others. The biggest challenge is building the political will for elected officials to support this type of plan and secure buy-in from agencies. This challenge includes a commitment to prioritizing space for people walking and bicycling over space for vehicles. Land-use patterns and a lack of density in most American cities are the other challenges in implementing superblocks in the United States. American cities must think about housing, transportation, public space, jobs, and more in overlapping and holistic ways. 

Why do European cities always seem to be ahead of us on these initiatives?

Part of it is cultural and inherent to how Europeans view the role of the city as a place to be with other people, not just a concentration for jobs. Plus, mayors of European cities are using these types of plans to take concrete action against climate change. In American cities, we need to use strategies like superblocks to reduce the urban heat island effect, catch stormwater runoff and get people into sustainable modes of transportation by allocating space for these tools, even if they might be unpopular in the short term. Barcelona, London, Milan, Paris, and others are all doing this. We should too.

Is a certain type of American city better suited to this sort of plan than another?

As I mentioned above, I think cities or neighborhoods laid out on a grid would be best suited for a literal application of superblocks. It lowers the complexity of implementation. That said, superblocks could be implemented in many American cities with the level of ambition and creativity to try. Especially coming out of the pandemic, American cities and their residents are reorienting how they live. Now is the time to continue to try things to make places as livable as possible.

Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

Are there any projects similar to this currently underway in America? Has New York made any progress lately?

The Open Streets program in New York City has started to move the needle in this direction and has exciting opportunities. The next step is to ensure there’s a plan to manage and take care of this newly created space and lay out a network of connected Open Streets. For example, 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, could be connected with additional Open Streets to allow someone to walk, cycle or scoot beyond the current space. As a city, let’s think big. Let’s use the Weekend Walks program to create a vast network of Open Streets all summer long to connect all the major parks. Imagine being able to safely walk or bike from Van Cortlandt Park to Coney Island, or from Central Park to Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

As an urban planner, how do you personally feel about an initiative like superblocks?

The superblocks concept embodies the future all cities should aspire to, and precisely the type of city where I want to live. Contextually, this might look a little different in American cities or other parts of the world, but superblocks create space for people. All neighborhoods should have access to clean air, space for children to play, and neighbors to socialize. Superblocks demonstrate a tool that cities can use to transform into genuinely livable ones. I’m less caught up on the nuances between superblocks vs. mini-blocks because any additional space allocated to people over vehicles is a win.

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