Residents of Gracia, in Barcelona, live in a neighbourhood virtually free of traffic, where
the areas once occupied by cars have been turned over to people and playgrounds.
The area is part of the bustling city’s radical superblocks scheme, which could save hundreds of lives and cut air pollution by a quarter if fully implemented.
Superblocks are small clusters of inner-city streets measuring approximately 400 by 400 metres, which form mini neighbourhoods. Closed to motorised vehicles and above-ground parking, these urban oases are designated as “citizen spaces” to be used for culture, leisure and community.
Through traffic is routed around the blocks on perimeter city roads, although residents, services and emergency vehicles can use the inner roads, provided they abide by the 10 km/r speed restriction.
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Clear the air
Like many of the world’s major cities, Barcelona’s air pollution regularly exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) recommended levels. Nine in every 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, and exposure to a toxic atmosphere causes 7 million deaths every year.
For city dwellers around the globe, four-fifths live with air quality that exceeds WHO recommended pollution levels.
Removing traffic from the streets of superblocks cuts exhaust emissions, with positive repercussions for the health of local residents. With cars no longer dominant, noise pollution and heat levels are also lower and there are fewer injuries from road traffic accidents.
The scheme is being trialled in six neighbourhoods, but looks set to expand across the city. If the original plan of creating 503 blocks is implemented, Barcelona could become the blueprint for a new approach to urban planning.
What's the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?
Cities represent humanity's greatest achievements - and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.
The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.
These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities. To shed light on the housing crisis, the Forum has produced the report Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities.
A recent study estimates, that fully implemented, the ground-breaking superblock scheme could prevent 667 premature deaths in the city each year, and increase the average life expectancy of residents by almost 200 days.
But the benefits of encouraging traffic-free city streets go beyond cleaner air and lower noise levels. Reclaiming city streets fosters more green spaces and promotes active mobility.
Residents have a strong incentive to swap their private vehicles for public transport or adopt more active ways of getting around the city, such as walking or cycling, which have obvious health benefits.
The study estimates car use for short journeys would fall by 230,000 trips each week across the 503 superblocks.
Walk this way
Barcelona’s superblock scheme has attracted attention from other cities, both within Spain, such as Vitoria-Gasteiz, and in other countries.
A similar scheme is planned for Seattle, with the city council proposing to reroute traffic from a six-block area of Capitol Hill. The move would build on the existing Homes Zone Program, a recent traffic calming scheme being piloted, which aims to make Seattle more “walkable”.
Cities devote up to 70% of public space to cars, but experts say a quarter of the space available is the limit for sustainable design. Superblocks provide a way for cities to reclaim areas previously dominated by cars and create a more people-powered future.