Superblocks for everyone!
Less congestion, traffic noise and exhaust fumes; more space and more green areas for people… in order to improve the quality of life in the city for all residents, Barcelona has decided on a very special solution: The Superblocks. The idea dates back to the 1980s and is simple: up to nine housing blocks are combined to form a superblock. Within this superblock, pedestrians and cyclists have priority; motorized traffic is restricted to residents, delivery traffic and, of course, emergency vehicles. All streets in the superblock become one-way streets where the speed is limited to 10 to 20 km/h (except for emergency vehicles), and in the case of previously two-lane streets, cars are deprived of one lane, which can instead be used by pedestrians and bicycles. At each intersection, vehicles must turn - effectively avoiding through traffic in the streets of a superblock. Cycling traffic, on the other hand, is free in all directions: cyclists can cross the superblocks without restrictions. Flowing traffic and public transport circulate on the larger streets around the superblocks.
After initial attempts as early as 1993, Barcelona began to consistently implement the concept of superblocks in the Poble Nou district in 2017. Initially, there was a lot of resistance from motorists and businesses, and not all residents were enthusiastic either. But after some initial difficulties and modifications, the idea has developed into a genuine success model in Barcelona, and more and more superblocks are being built in the city. A total of 503 are planned, according to the city administration's ambitious target for sustainable mobility.
In Catalan, the Superblocks are called "Superilles", but in the meantime many other names have been added to this concept. This is because the idea works convincingly well in Barcelona and can be transferred to other cities relatively unproblematically. In the last two years alone, the city of Barcelona reports that it has been approached by more than 250 other city councils for information on its implementation, not without some pride. At the C40 summit of the mayors of the world's largest metropolises, Barcelona presented the concept of superblocks in detail in October 2022. Several cities are already following Barcelona's example, as reported by the Barcelona city council: Vienna launched the first "Suprgrätzl" in 2022; in Los Angeles "Park Blocks" are being discussed by the city administration; in Bogota the first four "Barrios Vitales" have been implemented; in Rotterdam the "Superbloc Oude Westen" is being built; in Berlin 64 "Kiezblocks" have either already been approved or initiatives and planning are currently underway. There are also projects in Darmstadt, Leipzig, Munich and Stuttgart. Superblocks have already been implemented in the Chinese cities of Xi'an and Nanjing, in Argentina's capital Buenos Aires and Ecuador's capital Quito - some of them not as large as in Barcelona, but it is precisely this scalability that makes the urban planning concept so attractive.
What’s the point of a Superblock?
The fact that the idea of superblocks is spreading so quickly worldwide is an indication of how well it can be implemented in other cities as well. Instead of turning an entire city upside down or implementing individual concepts for cycling, pedestrians or public transport in a laborious and (time-)consuming manner across the entire urban area, the superblocks can be implemented in many small steps. Each superblock works on as a stand-alone for the time being - and can then also provide evidence that the concept produces positive results. This was also necessary in Barcelona in order to overcome resistance and fears with convincing arguments, because at the beginning there was marked resistance, not only from motorists and businesses, but also from local residents. The reason: the city had failed to redesign and utilize the freed-up traffic areas. Barcelona has learned from this and is now consistently converting former traffic areas into playgrounds, providing lots of green space and setting up seating for residents. This approach has been well-received by the population, and today the public space in the superblocks is much livelier than in other neighborhoods.
Today, the superblocks in Barcelona provide many convincing arguments. The city council has extensively observed the effects on the residents in the first superblock, Poble Nou, since its establishment in 2017 and has documented these effects statistically. The World Health Organization (WHO) and other institutes have also studied the positive effects of the superblock. Some of the results:
- the life expectancy of residents in a superblock has increased by around 200 days (according to the study by the health institute BCNecologia Barcelona)
- Superblocks contribute to disease prevention, social well-being and the fight against global warming (according to WHO)
- public space has doubled (in Poble Nou)
- motorized traffic has more than halved, from 2218 to 932 trips per day
- the area occupied by cars has decreased by 48 per cent
- the area for pedestrians has increased by 80 per cent
- green spaces have almost doubled
- the number of shops has increased by 30, from 65 to 85
- traffic accidents are almost non-existent
So in a Superblock large parts of the public space change. Traffic becomes safer, cycling increases, the neighborhood becomes more liveable, residents spend time outside in the residential streets again - this can be seen particularly in the increase of shops and playgrounds in the superblocks, and the footfall on the streets.
The implementation of superblocks
In principle, a superblock can be implemented in almost any urban structure, even if the streets are not largely arranged in a geometric pattern as they are in Barcelona. This is also confirmed by studies by urban planners such as Sven Eggimann from ETH Zurich. However, for a superblock to work, a few points are crucial. The Barcelona city administration - having learned from its own mistakes - explains:
- residents must be involved from the planning stage, a group of supporters and skeptics must accompany the entire process and readjust if necessary
- parking spaces must be made available for residents on a priority basis; non-residents must pay parking fees
- the vacated parking spaces and traffic areas must be converted into cycle lanes and, possibly bus/cycle lanes
- road space must be converted into spaces for residents
- on the major streets on the edge of the superblock, public transport stops must be easily accessible, with a maximum of 500 meters walking distance
- cycle lanes from within the superblock must be safely continued outside of it
- along the main arteries, roads, cycle paths and footpaths must be consistently separated from each other
Why does Barcelona rely so consistently on this concept? With 1.6 million people, the urban area is densely populated with only 2.7 square meters of green space per inhabitant (the WHO recommends 9 m2 per capita). The motorized traffic of the approximately 5 million people in the metropolitan region around Barcelona also increased sharply in the urban area. As a result, the city suffered from a particularly strong heat island effect: temperatures have been measured to be at least 3 degrees - and sometimes up to 8 degrees - higher than in the surrounding area.
But it is not only the effect of the Superblocks on traffic, residents' health and the climate that is interesting. The holistic approach is another important factor in why the Superblocks are so popular with their residents. Because in the Superblock, public space is used in a fundamentally new way. Is public space only there to get around in a city, or do citizens have the right - and desire - to let culture, leisure and interaction take place in this public space? The active participation of residents is one of the most significant factors in the Superblock concept.