A few US cities, like Portland, Oregon, might have the infrastructure and civic will to follow in Barcelona’s footsteps.
This is part five in a five-part series about the comprehensive urban plan being implemented in Barcelona, Spain, which would reclaim more than half the streets now devoted to cars for mixed-use public spaces, or “superblocks.” This reporting project was supported by the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, where the author, David Roberts, is a senior fellow.
Barcelona’s ambitious urban plan is made possible by the city’s numerous advantages. Much of it was built before the era of automobiles. It is already dense and walkable. It boasts excellent public transit and improving bicycle infrastructure. And there is political consensus around the need to reduce the prevalence of private vehicles.
Most US cities do not share those advantages, certainly not all of them at once. Most were built after the advent of cars and are structured around interstates and freeways. Most are not dense, but feature instead small pockets of density surrounded by sprawling suburbs. Most do not have short, regular blocks, orthogonal streets, and mixed-use zoning. And most don’t have centuries’ worth of civic pride and familiarity with urban transformation.
Americans are so accustomed to lacking walkable, accessible public spaces that they are scarcely able to articulate what they’re missing.
Yet when they travel to cities built before the automobile, cities that take urban living seriously, when they see people chatting in sidewalk cafes, bikes and pedestrians and scooters covering the pavement, herds of children being walked to and from school, people of all ages and social classes mixing in public transit and on the street — when they see street life — they feel it. It moves them.
“When United States people come to Barcelona, they love it!” says Salvador Rueda, the urban visionary behind Barcelona’s superblocks. “Because they are human beings. We are a social species.”
Can that same sense of walkable community be captured in US cities or suburbs? Is density possible in places built to sprawl?
Suburbs drain public spaces and create drivers
Most US cities and towns built in the latter half of the 20th century — especially the midsize and smaller ones, on the periphery or between the better-known big cities — feature highways, strip malls, and chain stores surrounded by single-family homes on winding, curved streets ending in culs de sac. More than half of Americans describe the neighborhood they live in as suburban.
In the US, Rueda says, “people want to be living in dwellings separated.” But if every family gets their own mini estate, their own piece of land and private castle, then the benefits of urbanism become more difficult to achieve.
Without density, there is no walkability. Public transit becomes slower and less frequent, so almost everyone needs an automobile and begins thinking of themselves, in relation to urban spaces, primarily as drivers.
Drivers fight to defend space for cars and parking. When they hit traffic, they ask for more lanes. Drivers don’t want more people living near them, because that means more cars and more competition for parking, so they fight all efforts at density.
The imperatives of drivers make it more difficult to create active, vibrant public spaces. Even where urban public spaces are built, they don’t come alive without sufficient density around them. They become internal tourist destinations, places residents drive to visit.
Without public spaces, Rueda says, all the amenities of public space, including exposure to greenery and basic social mixing, must be recreated privately. “They need some garden,” Rueda says. “They need to make the barbecue to contact one between them.”
For people who live in single-family homes, mixing with other people requires planning. Spontaneous social mixing — “bumping into” friends and neighbors — has been designed out of the spaces most Americans inhabit most of the time.
The thing is, people need spontaneous mixing. Research shows it is the primary way humans form friendships (which is why so many professional-class Americans make lifelong friends in college, when they are forced into close proximity). The number and depth of social connections is a reliable indicator of physical health, psychological health, and longevity. Loneliness and isolation kill.
The best strategy in densifying suburbia is to “look for a big attractor,” Rueda says, like a rail station or a public market, and build up around it. “Make dense this limited area,” he says, “and make some centrality.” The attractor, the public space, is the seed out of which dense mixed-use development can grow.
But expanding out from that attractor must mean dense housing. The kind of humane, resilient urbanism Rueda envisions is simply not possible if everyone continues living in separated homes and low-density residential areas continue to resist densification. Bringing everyday public spaces to life requires people.
The prospects for superblocks in US cities
A few US cities might have the infrastructural bones and civic will to follow in Barcelona’s footsteps. The one I kept thinking of as I walked through Barcelona is Portland, Oregon. It also has lots of small, regular blocks, a progressive administration, and an appetite for urbanism.
When I got home, I asked Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability whether they had ever heard of superblocks or contemplated anything similar.
“Generally, Portland has not focused on creating car-free zones or superblocks,” said spokesperson Eden Dabbs. “Instead, we’ve emphasized citywide allocation of more space in the street to other modes, particularly transit and bikes.”
The idea is to achieve traffic-calming gradually, across the city. “Portland is moving toward a network of low-car neighborhoods, evolving organically as we improve transport options and build more apartment buildings without car parking,” Dabbs says. “It’s about transforming the nature of streets and public space in the whole city, rather than confining pedestrian activity to special districts.”
Another way of saying this is that Portland needs to do some catching up on density and transit accessibility before it feels empowered to create car-free spaces.
What about other cities? I asked Robin Ried of Bloomberg Associates (who was a Fulbright scholar in Barcelona in 2004 and now consults with city projects across the globe) whether superblocks are on her radar.
“Like most urban planners around the world,” she said, “we’re following this very closely and thinking very hard about whether it could work in other places.”
She thinks the superblock model, or something like it, could “absolutely” apply in places “like Washington, DC, New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago, that have a grid pattern and walkable blocks and suffer from noise and air pollution due to heavy car traffic.”
But she also thinks the model is flexible enough to work in smaller cities, which are legion in the US. The key is “long, linked corridors of public space that make it easy for pedestrians and bicyclists and people to come out and play and work and interact socially,” she says. That could be done even in “a city where the streets are a little less regular.”
It is probably impossible among the culs de sac of suburbia, but “just about every city or town has some central area with remnants of a block pattern,” Ried says. “That might be the place to start.”
Urban transformation on a Barcelona scale seems woefully unlikely in many US cities, even the purportedly progressive ones. When I was in Spain in October, I frequently joked with people that in Seattle, my home city, there was a vicious five-year running battle going over a single bike lane. In the time that battle was waged, Barcelona built two superblocks and is in the midst of implementing five more.
Last month, the battle in Seattle finally ended. The result? No bike lane.
Nonetheless, as difficult as it is, a confluence of forces — continued urbanization, a housing crisis, increasingly long commutes, the preferences of young urban professionals, the toll climate change will take on cities with far-flung, low-density infrastructure needs — is forcing the issues of density and urban resilience onto cities, whether they like it or not.
And not just American cities. There’s a reason Barcelona’s experiment is drawing international attention.
“The world is watching,” says Barcelona chief architect Ton Salvadó. “We’re being asked to explain what we’re learning everywhere: in Latin America, Vienna, Kuala Lumpur, and, recently, Brussels.”
Barcelona is trying to show the world that there is a way out for loud, polluted, congested, warming cities. There is a way to give land devoted to cars back to people and still thrive, socially and economically. There is a way to offer every urban citizen, regardless of age or income, access to humane conditions and a community of their own. It is not easy, or fast, but it is not impossible.
Around the world, hundreds of cities are looking on, waiting to see if it’s true.
Superblocks are for the people
There are parts of Barcelona where cars are an afterthought. Near where I stayed is the Poblenou Rambla, a long, wide pedestrian avenue filled with people walking, cycling, and zooming along on the newly ubiquitous electric scooters.
It is possible to sit at one of the dozens of sidewalk cafes on the rambla, sipping a coffee, taking in the constant low-level buzz of street life, watching as people walk their dogs, rest on benches, or chat in clusters, and imagine a whole city like it — a city where cars are the exception and spaces for people are the rule, where it’s easy to get around without a private vehicle, where every neighborhood’s unique character is imprinted on its streets and every district enjoys clean air and plenty of green and shade.
What’s more difficult is imagining the path between here and there. Rueda is nervous about the implementation of Barcelona’s urban plan, for obvious reasons. It’s not just the immediate political challenges, though they are plentiful, but the specter of Cerdà, whose own egalitarian vision was chipped away by greed, myopia, and the dictates of commerce — and remains unfulfilled to this day.
It’s not difficult to imagine how superblocks could be similarly compromised, how they might come to be divided along income lines, or allow more traffic than Rueda’s guidelines suggest, or simply amount to a series of pilot projects that never become a serious network.
But they could also, like Cerdà’s basic block pattern, prove resilient, not because of politicians but despite them.
Rueda doesn’t have much faith in politics. “I believe above all in the people,” he says simply. He sees superblocks as a way for politicians to hand over control of public space to something more like direct local democracy.
The process of collective placemaking might also serve to counteract the atomization and isolation that neoliberal capitalism and its financial crisis have fostered in the developed world. Cynthia Echave, a technical director at Rueda’s agency, believes that, with superblocks, “we can make a change of mind as well, to create a sense of empathy and equity.”
This is Rueda’s great hope and life goal: to unleash an explosion of democratic placemaking, whereby diverse communities shape public spaces to their own needs and aspirations, allowing every citizen to enjoy humane conditions and a community of mutual support.
That, ultimately, is the goal of superblocks, Barcelona’s urban mobility plan, and, in Rueda’s eyes, all of urban planning. And that is why all cities must, in the end, follow along in something like Barcelona’s footsteps, pushing back the tide of cars to make room for people.
Especially amid the quickly rising stresses of climate change, people need one another. The main goal of city planning is not the circulation of goods, or a particular level of GDP growth. It is not an optimal number of tourists or a particular modal share of transportation. Its focus should not be on the driver, the cyclist, or the pedestrian. Its focus should be more simple: residents. Citizens and their bonds with each other.
The core purpose of the city, around which all urban planning should be shaped?
“In the end, is living,” Rueda says, leaning forward and clapping his hands on his knees for emphasis. “Attention! Is living.”