BARCELONA — When city officials decided they had to act to reduce unacceptably high levels of noise and air pollution, they reached an inescapable conclusion: Get rid of the cars.
One of the key proposals, first put forward in the 1980s, is now becoming a reality: the so-called superblocks.
Much of Barcelona is built on a grid system. What the superblock scheme does is group together nine city blocks and close them to through-traffic with plant pots and benches, introduce cycle lanes, play areas and green spaces and replace many of the parking spaces with seating areas. While cars aren’t banned, the superblocks are car-unfriendly.
There are six so far, with as many as 11 more planned over the next few years — and more than 500 if the plan is carried out in its entirety.
Ever since the 1950s, urban planning across the world has tended to focus increasingly on cars and less on people.
Cars dominate urban public space and in most cities, they are one of are the greatest threats to public health. The vast majority burn fossil fuels and pump out pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, which causes lung disease and respiratory problems, with children and the elderly especially vulnerable. An MIT study from 2013 found that road transport emissions caused 53,000 Americans to die prematurely each year.
Then there are crashes. Around 1.35 million people around the world die each year as a result of road traffic accidents. Plus, they’re inefficient. When cars are not stuck in standstill traffic, usually with just one occupant, they’re parked for more than 90% of the time.
Of course, they are also a climate villain. In 2018, transport became the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., with cars and trucks accounting for 80% of the total emissions.
But European cities like Barcelona are showing that we don’t have to design our lives around cars. A growing public awareness of health issues, as well the need to address climate change, is putting pressure on public authorities to begin to roll back the car’s dominant role in urban life.
A study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health earlier this year calculated that the city could prevent 667 premature deaths every year if it created all 503 superblocks envisaged in the plan.
The report claims ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a pollutant caused by traffic that can contribute to the development of asthma and cause respiratory infections, would fall by 24%, bringing Barcelona’s NO2 levels in line with the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum. The life expectancy of the average Barcelona resident could increase by almost 200 days and generate savings of 1.7 billion euros a year, according to the report.
The superblocks are the brainchild of Salvador Rueda, who heads the Barcelona Urban Ecology Agency. He first proposed the idea in 1987, although he said even Ildefons Cerdà, who designed the city’s grid system in the 19th century, proposed traffic-free areas.
The first car-free zone was created in the then run-down El Born district in 1993, with another in well-to-do Gràcia in 2006. But the first real superblock was created in Poblenou, in the north of the city, in 2017, after over two years of public consultation with more than 100 local interest groups.
Despite this consultation, the block faced a barrage of criticism from residents concerned about access and parking and local businesses worried that it would hit trade, as well as from the many political opponents of the newly elected left-wing mayor Ada Colau.
“After campaigning against it for more than a year, those who were most opposed are now among the most enthusiastic,” Rueda said. “Now they see how much it’s improved their quality of life, they want an even bigger block.”
The other five superblocks followed over the next two years. “People in general are very happy,” said Pep Sala, president of the local residents association in a superblock in the traditionally working-class neighborhood of Sant Antoni. “A lot of people who use the market now come to the superblock to relax. The benches are always full.”
“Local businesses say there are a lot more passersby, which is good news for them,” Sala said. “And, although we don’t have data, the air quality is clearly much better.”
“Life flourishes in these blocks, but first you have to get rid of cars,” Rueda said. “Everything else flows from that.”
Janet Sanz, Barcelona’s deputy mayor who is in charge of mobility, agreed. “In the Mediterranean, public space is an extension of our homes,” she said. “In the superblocks people sit, they chat, they play cards. We’re recovering the city that we used to have.”
Redesigning a city takes time though. Sanz said she understands people’s impatience, given the climate emergency, but insists that change has to be gradual. “We have to strike a balance between fighting to save the world and recognizing that people need to get on with their lives,” she said.
The main obstacle to changing the use of public space is nearly always political, not practical, said Dr. Rachel Aldred, a transport specialist at the University of Westminster in London.
“The problem is usually not really about physical space, it’s about political will (and often courage) to reallocate that space, whether it’s handing over one lane of an urban motorway, or closing narrow historic streets to through-traffic,” she said.
For Barcelona, the turning point came with the election of Ada Colau as mayor in 2015. Colau comes from Barcelona’s deep tradition of communitarian politics and was well known as a housing activist before she was elected. Prior to this, the city’s mayors — especially since the 1992 Olympic Games put Barcelona on the tourist map — have tended to treat the city as a commodity rather than a place to live, prioritizing tourism over residents’ needs.
Colau vowed to put citizens first and commissioned a report on air quality that revealed that pollution was worse in poorer areas, contributing to significant discrepancies in life expectancy within the city. The superblocks plan was already on the table and it was Colau who began to implement it in 2017.
“Public space is where we coexist, it’s where society is made.”
Barcelona is not the only city to try to end the dominance of cars. In cities with a tradition of cycling, for example, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, it has been relatively easy to prioritize bicycles over cars.
“Back in the 1950s, Copenhagen saw the risk of cars taking over so started taxing and restricting them to maintain the cycling status quo,” said Ole Thorson of the International Federation of Pedestrians. “It was easier because there was already a culture of cycling and the car still hadn’t taken over.”
Bikes are also prominent in Oslo, which in 2015 took drastic steps to reduce car traffic by eliminating on-street parking in the city center. The move was accompanied by improved public transport and a better cycle network. Amsterdam is another city that has tackled the problem by eliminating car parking spaces and replacing them with bike lanes and trees.
Some of the big successes are taking place in smaller cities, such as Pontevedra, a town of some 80,000 in northwest Spain. Within a month of being elected mayor in 1999, Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores pedestrianized all 300,000 square meters of the medieval town center, and soon extended the car-free zone into other parts of the city.
“Public space is where we coexist, it’s where society is made,” said Lores, whose philosophy is based on the principle that owning a car doesn’t give you the right to occupy public space. “Reclaiming public space for people, fighting pollution and climate change all go hand in hand.”
According to Pontevedra city hall, while 30 people died in traffic accidents in the city from 1996 to 2006, this dropped to three deaths over the subsequent decade, and none since 2009. CO2 emissions are down 70%, nearly three-quarters of all journeys previously made by car are now made on foot or by bicycle, and, while other towns in the region are shrinking, central Pontevedra has gained 12,000 new residents.
But could these policies translate to the U.S., where the roads are big, the gas is cheap and big cars are beloved?
It’s going to be difficult. Sprawling cities in the U.S. are very different to many European cities, which were designed and built well before the advent of the car. Americans also often lack access to adequate public transit, giving them little option but to rely on their cars. A report published last year found five U.S. cities with a population greater than 100,000 have virtually no public transit.
However, there are signs of a shift. A CityLab index measuring car dependency, published in September, found people in older, denser U.S. cities are becoming less car-dependent.
The index looked at four variables: car ownership, use of public transport, cycling and walking to work. Of cities with a population of over 1 million, the top three least car-dependent were San Francisco, Boston and New York, while down at the bottom were Birmingham, Nashville, and Raleigh.
Rueda believes the superblock plan could easily be applied to the more densely populated U.S. cities such as New York, but it’s less likely to work in urban sprawls such as Houston.
Recalibrating sprawling, car-based cities is a huge challenge, but perhaps not as great as breaking the cultural stranglehold the car has on the American imagination.
Back in Barcelona, in addition to the superblocks, steps are being taken to keep cars out altogether. According to Thorson, some 85% of car journeys are made by people entering or traversing the city from outside and only 15% by city residents.
In January 2020, a low-emissions zone encompassing all of Barcelona will come into force. Sanz said gasoline cars older than 2000 or diesels older than 2006 will be banned and will be fined €200 ($221) each time they enter the city.
She said they hope to reduce the number of cars in the city by 125,000 within three years, with air pollution down by 20% within four.
Depending on the success of the program, Sanz said they will consider introducing a London-style congestion charge, where all vehicles must pay for driving within the charging zone.
“It’s about the democracy of public space and public health,” she said. “It’s a combination of reducing pollution but reconfiguring public space so that everyone can enjoy it.”
Geographically compact, densely populated, with excellent and affordable public transport, Barcelona is an ideal candidate to become a car-free city.
So what will it look like 10 years from now? Will the scheme to create 500 superblocks be complete?
“We’ll have just one superblock,” Sanz said, laughing. “The entire city of Barcelona.”
CORRECTION: the piece was amended to correct the size of Pontevedra’s center, which is 300,000 square meters.
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