Congestion, pollution, unsafe roads, and lack of green spaces are some of the problems cities are facing.
Some of us can still recall when we played on the streets or walked to school with our friends, which can bring enormous health benefits.
While some towns or cities still offer these experiences, others have become too risky for these and have become heavily reliant on cars to do their daily tasks and chores.
Cities like Barcelona have proposed a solution to reclaim the streets for human use and for kids to play safely in. They call them “superblocks. “
The approach pioneered by the Spanish city frees up public spaces to promote walking and cycling.
Recently published research in the Environment International journal finds that in Barcelona, Spain, where the study was conducted, these superblocks have prevented deaths due to exposure to air pollution, reduced noise and heat pollution, and encouraged green space development.
Creating these superblocks can also mitigate climate change impacts, reduce reliance on cars and motorized transport, increase the life expectancy of the city’s adult population by almost 200 days, and create an economic growth of nearly 2 billion EUR.
How do superblocks work?
The Conversation article explains:
- “Large “superblocks” covering an area of around 400m by 400m are created from residential blocks of 150m by 150m. Normal, busy streets currently surround these residential blocks.
- Outside the superblocks, the city’s normal through traffic is accommodated on streets with a maximum speed of 50km/h.
- Within the superblocks, cars are banned or restricted to 20km/h, walking and cycling are prioritized, and open space is reclaimed or created from parking.
Within the superblock, people experience a pleasant streetscape where they can walk and mingle without the constant fear of getting hit by cars.
The Urban Developer article notes that superblocks can also be designed for kids. These blocks are typically about a square kilometer area retrofitted to existing suburbs to create safer, quieter, and more play-friendly streets. Superblocks for kids should also be clustered together to provide secure access to local amenities and public transport.
Low-cost filters can be placed strategically to protect these superblocks for drivers to discourage motor traffic. These filters can include pocket parks or mall areas of community green space, gates or planters – they can deter cars from entering but have space for walkers and cyclists, diagonal filters for four-way intersections, end-of-street filters: open cul-de-sacs to walkers and cyclists, rising bollards to allow bus access, banned turns or one-way streets.
Would these superblocks work in other cities around the world?
Yes, it can. Some cities in the US have attempted car-minimizing approaches like this, but they are usually in wealthy cities with lots of existing businesses.
Zoning regulations like parking requirements could still encourage the presence of cars, and wide streets typical in the US can discourage walkability in some cities.
As the study demonstrates, superblocks encourage city growth. Residents become healthier and are motivated to have an active lifestyle. When people walk more, business sales increase, which they can’t do if roads are filled with cars.
Where to start?
The research highlights the importance of listening to communities and kids when designing neighborhoods. In some cases, the idea of superblocks can encounter initial pushback, but as soon as residents realize its benefits, their opposition will quickly melt away.
Watch the video from NBC News that will take you inside Barcelona’s superblocks:
Time to Reclaim the Streets for Humans. (2022, October 7). The Urban Developer. Retrieved from https://www.theurbandeveloper.com/articles/superblocks-urban-design-streets-for-kids
Love, P. & Stevenson, M. (2019, September 18). Superblocks are transforming Barcelona. They might work in Australian cities too. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/superblocks-are-transforming-barcelona-they-might-work-in-australian-cities-too-123354
Mueller, N., Rojas-Rueda, D., Khreis, H., Cirach, M., Andrés, D., Ballester, J., Bartoll, X., Daher, C., Deluca, A., Echave, C., Milà, C., Márquez, S., Palou, J., Pérez, K., Tonne, C., Stevenson, M., Rueda, S., & Nieuwenhuijsen, M. (2020, January). Changing the urban design of cities for health: The superblock model. Environment International. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019315223?via%3Dihub