Most recently in 2014, the city of Barcelona, Spain was faced with serious air and noise pollution problems. The major city and its thirty-five surrounding municipalities consistently failed to meet the European Union’s air quality targets. 44% of Barcelona residents are exposed to higher-than-recommended air pollution levels, and 46% higher-than-recommended noise levels. Direct exposure to air pollution in the region has tallied an astounding 3,500 premature deaths every year. Traffic in the city creates severe noise pollution which has also affected the health and well-being of residents living near crowded roads. A 2017 study from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health attempted to compare Barcelona’s performance against international standards of the World Health Organization. The study concluded that the impact of the city’s failure to reduce air and noise pollution and avoidance to designate individual green spaces has led to roughly 3,000 additional cases of premature mortality each year. With these statistics in mind, which unveil the lack of progress made in major cities in Spain to combat air and noise pollution, a question arises. Is there a way to both improve the quality of different forms of transport resulting in lower emission rates from cars and subsequently decreasing noise pollution? One of Barcelona’s Government employees believes he found the answer to this complex problem.
Salvador Rueda plans to accomplish his vision of a utopian city that no longer fully depends on automobile transportation. Starting the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, a public research consortium, in 2000, Rueda has been immersed in urban planning projects for almost forty years. Rueda believes his “Superilles” (Superblocks) can transform the current car dependency levels, lower noise pollution, and subsequently decrease air pollution. The basic idea of a superblock is to delineate a large area of roughly three-by-three blocks as shared-use space, with bicyclists, pedestrians, and people who simply want to sit and enjoy a meal. Safely congregating in mixed-use public spaces where nonresident automobile through traffic is excluded, allows for residents to traverse through superblocks to visit others without the need for, or fear of, motorized private vehicles. Rueda’s vision for a future city has achieved backing from the current municipal administration, but the project is only slowly being implemented. Although in its infancy regarding widespread and productive changes, the audacious goal of replicating Barcelona’s five existing superblocks 495 more times, is an assuring notion for future decreases in air and noise pollution.
In the northwest of Barcelona in a city called Vitoria-Gasteiz, one of the first superblocks was established. The main city center, which is included in the superblock, increased pedestrian space from 45% of the total surface area to 74%. With decreased through traffic of vehicles, noise levels dropped from 66.5 dBA to 61 dBA. Most impressively, there was a 42% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions and 38% reduction in particle pollution in the area. Although positive results in this Spanish city were relevant, not all cities where superblocks are implemented have the same rates of success.
In the nearby city of Poblenou, the initial implementation of superblocks resulted in local community push back and dissatisfaction. As the project was approved by City Hall, some efforts were made to let the neighbors know a superblock was coming, but they were not at all adequate and forthcoming. Small flyers were sent out in batches, and residents were unsure whether this project was going to be a permanent or temporary change. One of the residents of Poblenou explained his feelings about the information provided prior to the project’s implementation by stating, “It was basically an experiment, but the city didn’t want residents to feel like they lived in a laboratory, so they finally just said, okay, it’s one more of these pilot areas. But it was a little bit confusing and tense.” As a result of the somewhat rushed process, residents who lived in the neighborhood woke up unaware of the changes to traffic and bus routes to accommodate the new superblock. Losses in driving privileges also frustrated the public residents who commute to work on a daily basis. In response, the city placed signs and tires to designate specific areas in an attempt to establish a nine-block perimeter to halt through traffic.
Though initial temporary changes proved to be unsatisfactory, the cities’ injection of 50,000 euros towards building more structural changes such as picnic tables, playgrounds, and new sidewalks, muted the majority opposition and increased public support of superblock implementation. Finding more opportunities to connect with locals on the open streets and feeling safer without the presence of humming cars increased demand and satisfaction from the public. On top of this positive note, business went up. Prioritizing humans over cars was increasing economic activity and was growing the local market. Residents not only were satisfied, but increasingly demanded more connected superblocks around the cities of Spain. At a recent festival held in the Sarrià superblock neighborhood, residents sang city officials a song: “We want a superblock, we want a superblock!”
As the initial implementations of superblocks have displayed both positive and negative responses from the public, the major effect of abandoning established car culture is the reduction in harmful air and noise pollution for the betterment of overall air quality and health of communities in urban areas. Looking forward, Rueda and contributing urban planners could attempt to intensify the importance of resident satisfaction when introducing new superblocks into neighborhoods. By creating communal spaces with physical boundaries blocking incoming automobile traffic, neighborhoods can freely increase communal conversations, overall moral, financial gains, and the interconnectedness of community life. As of now, automobiles will continue to dominate archaic road and highway systems, but if surrounding cities take Barcelona’s success as any indication, the future of these interconnected communities is extremely hopeful.
Mueller, N., Rojas-Rueda, D., Basagaña, X., Cirach, M., Cole-Hunter, T., Dadvand, P., Donaire-Gonzalez, D., Foraster, M., Gascon, M., Martinez, D., Tonne, C., Triguero-Mas, M., Valentín, A., & Nieuwenhuijsen, M. (2017). Urban and Transport Planning Related Exposures and Mortality: A Health Impact Assessment for Cities. Environmental Health Perspectives, 125(1), 89–96. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp220
Rae, J., & Binder, A. (2007, July). Automotive industry – Highway development. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/automotive-industry/Highway-development
Roberts, D. (2019a, April 8). Barcelona, Spain urban planning: a remarkable history of rebirth and transformation. Vox. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/4/8/18266760/barcelona-spain-urban-planning-history
Roberts, D. (2019b, April 9). Barcelona, Spain, urban planning: what the city learned from the first superblocks. Vox. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/4/9/18273894/barcelona-urban-planning-superblocks-poblenou
Roberts, D. (2019c, September 11). Barcelona, Spain, urban planning: a city’s vision to dig out from cars. Vox. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/4/8/18273893/barcelona-spain-urban-planning-cars
Trumm, D. (2017, March 26). Sunday Video: Barcelona’s Superblocks. The Urbanist. https://www.theurbanist.org/2017/03/26/barcelona-superblocks/
Vox. (2016, September 27). Superblocks: How Barcelona is taking city streets back from cars [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZORzsubQA_M
Welcome to Superilles | Superilles. (2021). Ajuntament de Barcelona. https://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/superilles/en/