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Barcelona Superblocks for people centric cities – an interview with Salvador Rueda and Marco Amati
A radical approach to urban design has been adopted in Barcelona to shift the historic centre towards a more people-centred city. The ‘Superblocks’ initiative involves converting multiple smaller city blocks into single large superblocks, covering an area of around 400m by 400m. Within the superblocks, roads are transformed into spaces for walking and public activity, cycling is prioritised, green spaces created, and the maximum speed for cars is reduced to 10km/h.
The initiative recognises that reducing emissions is crucial and that shifting away from the dominance of cars in central city environments involves a range of deliberate and proactive interventions.
This model for post-car urban living was established by urban planner Salvador Rueda. We spoke to Salvador, former Director of Barcelona's Urban Ecology Agency and Territorial Foundation, and Marco Amati, RMIT Associate Professor in International Planning, about the significant environmental, public health and economic benefits delivered and the hurdles that must be overcome to implement transformative changes in our cities.
Where did the idea come from?
The superblock initiative started back in 1987 when I was the Environmental Director of the City Council of Barcelona and we studied noise in Barcelona city. We discovered that reducing car noise would have significant flow on effects for residents' health and wellbeing. But we found that noise levels, as a principle, is all or nothing. Meaning if we have cars in a street we will always have a noise level above 65 decibels. So if we don’t want to stay at this miserable and unhealthy noise level, then we need a city that doesn’t have cars. This would mean neighbourhood streets that are very calm and quiet, while maintaining the functionality and the organisation of the city.
What can it achieve?
As you only need to reduce 15 per cent of cars to achieve the desired noise levels, the benefits of such an initiative are all that you can imagine, with very limited negative consequences. If we implemented 500 superblocks in Barcelona we can reduce noise, reduce air pollution, and improve air quality so that the more than 50 per cent of people that are currently living in an environment with inadmissible pollution levels can be reduced to 6 per cent.
“The impact on public health is incredible. If we implement Superblocks in Barcelona, we can avoid around 500 premature deaths and more than 18,000 people won’t have asthma attacks and 12,000 people won’t have bronchitis.”
Our research is showing us that inside the superblocks there are less deaths due to accidents and very low levels of serious accidents, because inside the perimeter the maximum speed is 10 kilometres per hour. With this model we can also reduce about 40 per cent of greenhouse gases and a similar reduction in energy consumption. So, we are working to mitigate climate change by reducing the energy consumed in cities.
The impact on public health is also incredible. If we implement superblocks in Barcelona we can avoid around 500 premature deaths . It also means more than 18,000 people won’t have asthma attacks and 12,000 people won’t have bronchitis . The number of hospitalisation for cardiovascular disease will be reduced by more than 600 people . The savings from these public health costs will amount to 1.7 billion euros (approximately 2.6 billion AUD) every year . This is compared to the 300 million euro investment required to implement the 500 superblocks in Barcelona.
What are some of the challenges you face in convincing people to adopt the superblocks initiative?
There are a small percentage of people who are against this project because they don’t want to change their habits. The culture is, 'I want my car, the car is freedom, the car is status'. But we are not against cars, we just believe that we need to change the existing use and prioritisation of cars inside of city environments. With this initiative, cars can’t go through the superblocks, but they can travel via loops to connect with facilities and arrive at their destination.
We do need a critical mass to support such a transformation. There is always a percentage of people against the superblocks proposal initially, so mindset is really important. But in all cases after a few years they embrace it because their quality of life improves so much.
In what type of environments could the superblocks initiative best be used?
We do need a lot of things to implement the superblocks, and in the case of CBDs, all of these things are already there. In places like Melbourne where you have a very good public transport network and also bicycle networks, it's possible to develop this tomorrow. For example, in Swanston Street we could make a linear garden thirty metres wide. It would be an incredible green area, to connect different areas, and we would only have to reduce 15 per cent of cars. Essentially though, the superblock model could be implemented in all cities. There isn’t another model as efficient.
In Melbourne, implementing superblocks would mean you could more than double the area of pedestrian space without losing access to any of the buildings by cars in the CBD.
What are some of the governance challenges to implementing superblocks in Australia?
I think the challenges are really around the perspective in Australia, that anything which is not car based is automatically very left wing, very green. I'm Australian, and I think the key to me is to bring local businesses on board, and to demonstrate that if you have more pedestrian traffic, if you make the environment more pleasant, people will come to the CBD and businesses will flourish.
You have to counter the idea that the CBD grid is porous, and that cars can go from one end to the other or across the city. There has to be a sort of re-organisation of the way that car-based traffic moves through the city as a whole, and the grid as a whole. Other Anglo-Saxon car-based societies have achieved this.
While a somewhat flawed example, even London has achieved something similar with the congestion charging tax, which initially was extremely unpopular, but eventually has just become the new normal. The problem with the congestion charging tax is it didn't really offer anything in terms of extra public space, or any extra benefit. The advantage of the superblock is you have a slight reduction in car traffic but also a big increase in open space.
What’s interesting about superblocks, compared to the 15-Minute City or the Sponge City Model is that this is a retrofitting model. A lot of the models that have currency are about building more urban areas. And of course, economically those are popular because they are attaching a new model to development, which drives jobs and economies. Whereas the superblock model is there to retrofit onto existing infrastructure, which is a challenge as planning is usually linked to development and building more city areas.
You've talked about the opportunities that Melbourne offers, what is the core challenge to implementing superblocks as established planning policy in a city like Melbourne?
The problem in a way with Melbourne is it is already very green. There’s Treasury Gardens, Fitzroy Gardens, Royal Park, and the Botanical Gardens. So when you look at the statistics there is a lot of open space, but that open space is not necessarily accessible, or in the right location, or of the right kind. It’s a 19th century vision of open space. It's not flexible and it’s only suitable in certain weather conditions and at certain times of the year. It's also not necessarily urban, it’s more pastoral as an open space. So what is needed is a public conversation, for a debate to be had about bringing the commons and urban space into the 21st century.
How can we change our current behaviours and values to support more sustainable ways of living?
“Today the belief is that the car is the centre of the economy. But tomorrow that will not be true because of the climate emergency. If we don't change this belief, we don't have a future. ”
We can’t oppose the story of nostalgia, which is the one we’ve created. We actually need more stories, we need to fill the space with other stories that are not about triple car garages, 200 square metre houses on 700 square meter blocks. We need new stories to project a different kind of future. That’s one way of doing it. We do need the forces and skills for commerce to enable us to do it. Because these stories of aspiration and consumerism don’t come out of thin air, they’re manufactured. So we need another manufacturing facility to create a rival to that story. It’s not an insurmountable challenge. Stories are cheap, material possessions aren’t.
We are fighting the establishment and economic power. We need change and we need leaders that want to change something in the right direction.
We need to recognise that we are in a climate emergency and we need to act very quickly. We need equitable solutions for everybody. The superblocks initiative is an inexpensive, equitable and effective solution. If we need to maintain our organisations and the functionality of the city, then what is the best solution for this? Today the economy is based, above all, on the belief that the car is the centre of the economy. But tomorrow that will not be true because of the climate emergency. If we don't change this belief, we don't have a future.
For further information about superblocks see the following resources:
Changing the urban design of cities for health: the superblock model
Marco is an environmental scientist and urban planner. His work focuses on the mapping and values associated with urban forests and trees. He is passionate about how to develop biologically-relevant indicators for urban life that make cities a pivot in resolving the challenges of the Anthropocene. He has completed numerous funded projects on the urban forest and is the editor of three books and the author of a forthcoming publication: The City and the Superorganism (2021, Palgrave).
Salvador is an urban ecologist, biologist and psychologist with degrees in Environmental Engineering and Energy Management. He was the Director of the Urban Ecology Agency from 2000 until 2020 and, since 2021, is the founder and Director of the Urban and Territorial Ecology Foundation. He has conceived the Ecosystemic Urbanism and the “Superblock” concepts and developed research projects in the fields of urban planning, mobility, public space, urban metabolism, biodiversity, economic development and social cohesion. Salvador is also the author of several books on urbanism, urban planning and ecological cities.