BARCELONA, Feb 23 (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
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
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.
MORE BIKES AND BUSES
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
“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
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.”
(Reporting by Sophie Davies; editing by Megan Rowling. Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change,
resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights.