Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A short film reveals the inner workings of Barcelona’s celebrated—and controversial—street revamps.
Excess traffic, unmitigated pollution, a lack of green space: These problems aren’t unique to Barcelona. But the city’s answer is.
Superblocks—40-acre, tic-tac-toe sections of the street grid that the city has transformed into pedestrian-first environments—have shot the Catalonian capital to the cutting edge of urban design since Mayor Ada Colau took office in 2015. Drawing inspiration from the city’s historic plan, Colau centered her transportation policy platform around wide-scale pedestrianization of the city, with the goal of reducing private car and moped use by 21 percent.
A new short documentary from Streetfilms provides an intimate glimpse into the Poblenou superblock, the first of this new wave of street interventions, which opened in 2016. Just a few years ago, multiple lanes pushed vehicles down every block in this once-industrial neighborhood, now home to working-class families and artists. Now a single narrow lane without any grade separations winds cars slowly around the perimeter of the special three-block-by-three-block chunk of streetscape. The rest of the space is cleared for pedestrians, cyclists, and kids to move among bike lanes, open paths, trees, sculptures, street furniture, and playground equipment.
The visual effect of these long, linked corridors of public space with multiple uses is somewhat surreal. Unlike a small “pocket park” or even a pedestrian mall designed for shoppers, in which the surrounding grid still defers to automobile traffic, the logic of the superblock is that, while cars may enter, people come first. Other cities are watching Barcelona with great interest.
“That’s the kind of thing you just don’t think about when you are walking around a neighborhood, is that in the middle of these streets, you could be doing the same things you’d be doing in park space,” Mike Lydon, the author of the street design guide Tactical Urbanism, says in the film.
The superblock concept is not entirely new; the first large pedestrianized swath came to the city’s El Born district in 1993. But Colau’s plan is far more comprehensive, with a vision for some 500 superblocks that would cover virtually all of Barcelona. This won’t be easy—controversy has dogged the Poblenou project, with some residents protesting the traffic restrictions, and only a few new superblocks have opened since 2016. Some Barcelonans worry about the gentrifying baggage that “green” redevelopment projects can bring. (In Poblenau, the superblock is situated among towers of subsidized housing, which keeps displacement pressures low.)
Slow going it may be. But for bringing lasting, radical change to the built environment, shortcuts are hard to come by. One study of an older superblock area found walking increased by 10 percent and cycling by 30 percent, while driving fell by 26 percent, as Feargus O’Sullivan reported in 2017. And in Poblenou, the complaints from skeptical residents have largely died down, according to Sílvia Casorrán of the Poblenou Neighbors Association. “Many people that were against it in the beginning … are now happy with it,” she told CityLab via email.
Meanwhile, according to Carles Peña, a member of the superblock advocacy group Col.lectiu Superilla Poblenou, the neighborhood is transformed. “It’s a slower rhythm of life,” Peña says in the film. “You rediscover your area, and your neighbors.”