By Sophie Davies | February 24 2017
(Thomson Reuters Foundation) The daily life and work of Gabrielle Green, a language teacher in the Spanish city of Barcelona, just got that little bit easier – but not all her neighbours would agree.
Green resides in a part of the city where an innovative urban model called a superblock – “superilla” in Catalan – was introduced last September to try to reduce traffic levels.
Superblocks use the pattern of existing streets to create a bigger new block where cars are largely restricted and roads are re-purposed into public spaces.
Green, who lives in the middle of the new superblock in the district of Poblenou, said it has transformed her life. The 50-year-old, who runs a club for local children to play together and practice their English, said the superblock has freed up the streets for them.
“It gives us lots more space with the kids, who need somewhere to play,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Before we only had the nearest playground which is teeming with hundreds of kids,” she said, as the children in her group raced past on bikes and sketched with coloured chalk on a former road surface.
The road has now been closed off and sits at the epicentre of the superblock. A single park bench suggests the beginnings of a public space. Green hopes that in future the concrete will be replaced by grass – a rarity in Barcelona.
Each new superblock can contain as many as nine traditional blocks. Only residents and those serving local businesses can access the streets inside the superblock by vehicle, and speed limits are significantly lower than outside.
Despite its international reputation as a city with low carbon emissions per capita due its compact design, Barcelona has repeatedly failed to meet air quality limits set by the European Union and is trying to cut back on air pollution.
Experts blame air pollution in Spain’s second-largest city largely on car exhaust emissions.
But not everyone in Poblenou, a former industrial district to the north of Barcelona’s historic centre, is as pleased with the new road system as Green.
Alicia Avila, a 56-year-old lawyer who works just outside the superblock, said it had caused “chaos.” “It’s a disaster. They’ve cut off the streets, making it harder to access the area,” she said.
One common complaint is that inside the superblock, there are fewer cars but outside, the traffic has become heavier.
Posters protesting the superblock litter the streets on the periphery, but are few and far between once inside.
Critics also argue the new road system confuses drivers, because people don’t know how to navigate it, and say business in the area has suffered.
Barcelona’s City Hall is planning to create several additional superblocks across the city this year.
Mercedes Vidal, transport councillor at City Hall, described it as the model that “best adapts to the needs and requirements of public space in a city like Barcelona”.
The city is now stepping up efforts to clean up its air, which experts say can become impure very fast.
“The density of traffic is so high that, in a matter of hours, the air can become unbreathable in some of the busiest urban areas,” said Jeroni Lorente, emeritus professor in the physics department at the University of Barcelona.
Barcelona struggles with higher levels of air pollution at times of the year when particular weather patterns occur, he said.
When winds combine with high atmospheric pressure for a week or more – which tends to happen at the end of autumn, in winter or at the beginning of spring – air pollution is worse, he said.
When the weather is calmer, Barcelona’s geographical position between the sea and mountains makes it difficult to disperse air pollutants, he said.
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International studies have shown a correlation between levels of pollution and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Across Europe, 71,000 people died prematurely in 2013 because of nitrogen dioxide pollution, which comes mostly from diesel vehicles, the European Environment Agency said in a report published last October.
Barcelona, one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, has become a mecca for tourists since the 1992 Olympic Games put it firmly on the map.
In recent years, it has also become a popular home for start-ups, particularly technology companies, swelling its population and exerting additional pressure on its road systems.
In 2013, it launched a five-year plan aimed at reducing the use of motor vehicles in the city by around a fifth through expanding cycle paths, bus and tram networks.
The early years of the plan progressed “very slowly”, said Vidal. But it is now being accelerated to counter air pollution, which presents a significant challenge to the city, she said.
“We urgently need to reduce emission levels, and that invariably involves moving towards safer and more sustainable models,” she added.
But for some, adapting the existing transport network will not entirely solve Barcelona’s traffic and air pollution problems.
“My view is that these measures are only transitory, because in the long-term they are not a solution at all,” said Xavier Giménez Font, a chemistry professor at the University of Barcelona.
They may lead to a slight reduction in contamination levels, but they will also make the movement of people and goods less efficient, he cautioned.
New forms of transport like electric cars would offer a more permanent solution, he suggested.
For others, the superblocks are a good start. Ernesto Alonso, director of a local insurance company in Poblenou, said the streets are already quieter around his office.
“The effects have not properly been felt yet, but it will improve the area,” he said. “Cities really need to do something to reduce the number of cars and motorbikes.”
The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.