A photo of a man along a walkway near a beach in Barcelona.
A man walks along a sidewalk in Barcelona. The city's plan to implement more car-free areas and boost pedestrian space could have a major public health payoff, a new study says. Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

A new study estimates that a citywide plan to limit cars and capture nearly 70 percent of street space for bikes and pedestrians could save 667 lives per year.

When Barcelona officials installed a “superblock” in the working-class neighborhood of Poblenou in 2016, it was fiercely controversial. Closing off a three-square-block chunk of the city to vehicle traffic and reserving those streets for pedestrians and cyclists ticked off motorists, who felt attacked by the fast-and-cheap tactic to reduce car use.

But soon Poblenou residents appreciated the nearly doubled amount of space that they now had to walk, play, and socialize. The resistance soon faded, and five more superblocks have since been implemented around the city; Salvador Rueda, the head of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, envisions creating 503 in total. The ultimate goal is to turn nearly 70 percent of Barcelona’s street space over to people. It’s a project that has attracted a lot of international attention, and some efforts in the United States to replicate the idea.

Fully executing the superblock vision in Barcelona will no doubt face more challenges aplenty. But a new study published in the journal Environment International offers some new evidence supporting the idea: It can deliver vast improvements in urban health. That’s according to a team of Spanish and American scientists who developed a statistical model to measure the potential outcomes of Rueda’s proposed project.

Using the known exposure and mortality rates associated with health factors such as air pollution, traffic noise (which is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory issues), physical activity, green space, and air temperature, they determined that the city could prevent 667 premature deaths every year by realizing the full 503-block plan.

The greatest projected decrease came from the reduction in nitrous oxide, a harmful tailpipe emission, followed by cuts in noise pollution and heat—all three the result of the big drops in vehicle traffic. Measuring the citywide health benefits of upticks in exercise and exposure to greenery was more challenging, since those changes would be more localized.

In the paper, the authors acknowledge that the study has a number of limitations as a source of irrefutable data on the benefits of superblocks. Namely: It essentially imagines that all 503 blocks appear overnight, which is extremely unlikely to happen. “Unaccounted political, social, and cultural factors will influence the Superblock implementation process and therefore health impacts,” they write.

Still, as urban populations grow and densify, and vehicle emissions rise in many developed countries, the estimates offer a useful starting point for local leaders trying to clear more space for humans. New York City and Paris are just two of the global cities eyeing the Catalonian capital’s progress towards pedestrianization.

“Barcelona needs superblocks and other, complementary  interventions designed to improve air quality, promote physical activity and tackle climate change,” Natalie Mueller, a researcher at  Barcelona Institute for Global Health and one of the paper’s lead authors, said in a press release. “We urgently need a paradigm shift away from the car-centered urban planning model and towards a people-centered approach.”

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