ViewPoints: How can the Superblocks help with the challenge of transforming Barcelona into a sustainable human speed city?
Superblocks: We have started by consulting people. We wanted to brainstorm with all the citizens, in workshops and meetings from each of the districts we had chosen for a pilot test. The five superblocks are in Glòries, Sanz, Les Corts, Poblenou and a big one in the Eixample. We explained what a superblock is: it is a new way of organizing the city on a human scale, not for cars or big infrastructures but for people. It’s a plan for a city that consists of a group of little villages, the idea of living in a little town where you know your neighbor.
Once people had been told that, we asked them what they thought was needed. And we gave them some examples: transport, public space, biodiversity — animals and green areas —, the social network, their own participation — how they could be part of the actions —, and issues of energy and sustainability. The main question in our workshops and meetings was, “What news article would you like to read, about how the part of the city where you live has developed, and the aim to reduce its ecological impact and to improve the quality of life?” Many things came up, for example, “I imagine that the news would say that we have birds in our part of the city again”; “…that pollution has decreased by 50%”; “…that there isn’t any more noise”; “… that we all have affordable homes”; “… that our house is sustainable because we have elements that give us electricity, water…”.
We collected all this and we brainstormed with the city hall as well. We discussed what project they considered might work. They said, “Put solar panels on all the public buildings so that they are as sustainable as possible and they reduce power consumption”; for the waste sector, “Create waste collection points to get closer to the citizens and raise awareness”; for the green areas sector, “Plant more vegetation so that more animals and birds come to the areas,” etc. We also took ideas from experts such as universities and the Urban Ecology Agency. With all that, we as the technical office arranged all the opinions and noted where there was a consensus — things that were demanded by the citizens and also seen as viable by the city hall, and a good idea to make the city grow. Because we must not forget that, in spite of the idea of living in villages, we are a city and we must be coordinated. In addition, we wanted to raise the tone a little bit, which the experts have helped us to do.
So with all that we had a list for each superblock, with the projects and their estimated cost, and we called it, “List of proposed actions to be considered”, because we have to take each one of these proposals and turn it into a real project. We have had to ask ourselves what it really means, how much it would cost, what resources we would need and how long it would take to carry it out.
Our project is a four-year one. The first year, already over, was for collecting the proposals. The next two years — or more — define what we must do to reach our aims and what projects we will implement. The final year is for evaluating results. We have designed indicators to measure whether things get better or worse. We looked at these indicators at the beginning and then after each stage we will look at them again to see if we are going in the right direction.
VP: How do you measure how people live together?
SB: We are using indicators: some just indicate for example how many trees there were and how many there are now, and others measure with formulas that we have made with the Urban Ecology Agency that tell us whether coexistence is better now. For instance, they tell us how many people have attended awareness courses in the civic centers; how many people have volunteered on various projects; how many people have participated in the Superblocks program itself. All this can tell us if coexistence and participation have improved.
VP: The various superblocks are in very different areas of the city, each one with its own characteristics. In the Eixample it’s perhaps more challenging because of the number of cars, while in Poblenou the area is more like a small town.
SB: Yes, two of the five sectors are very different. One is Glòries, where we haven’t even followed the same procedure. It’s the superblock that is more city-like than town-like. The other is the Eixample. The other three are quite similar, because they are parts of the old towns that were there, with little lanes and more community life. In the Eixample it’s complicated, because there’s not so much awareness of identity; the problem with cars is really important, because if we make streets pedestrian, it will be a radical change. Anyway we have followed the same process as elsewhere. There is more political concern in the Eixample too, but there’s the same will among the citizens.
VP: How has citizen participation been?
SB: We have set up a decision-making group in each part of each superblock — note that in each sector there are several superblocks, so in the Eixample there might be about twenty of them. This group consists of people from citizen bodies, the district and the other areas of the city hall. They are the ones that will finally decide which actions will be implemented. We did not want these decisions to be taken by the city hall alone.
As far as participation goes, I think people have said the same in every district: they want to live better, without pollution, without noise, with more green areas and a better level of coexistence. However, there are superblocks where the level of participation is more rudimentary and others, like in the Eixample, where the level is higher, because there are people in public associations who are experts. They are more reluctant to believe us. In the other Superblocks the participation was more about the man on the street.
VP: I imagine participation is like democracy; not everyone can give their opinion on certain topics, can they?
SB: We have listened to everybody, and then in the second phase we made cuts and chose what was to be implemented. We warned people that all the proposals would be filtered afterwards and that it wasn’t a definitive list. But as the citizens are represented in the body which makes the final decision, they have the last word.
VP: Are you satisfied or surprised with participation?
SB: There was little participation online, because it was complicated to register; and you had to register before you could suggest your proposal, so people didn’t really use the online platform. On the other hand, we’ve had about 100 people in the workshops, even more in the Eixample. People were happy to participate as they wanted the city to change. But there was also a minority of worried people.
Nobody is really against the general concept of the Superblocks, as no one is against better living; though there may be people opposed to specific proposals, for example one that could affect access to their garage.
VP: Citizen’s participation must be fomented at all ages, from childhood up, right?
SB: Yes, there are activities for children in the different workshops. And in Poblenou there’s a project that we do with La Llacuna school, so that children help to define the superblock.
There’s been an effort to encourage participation at fairs, schools and other events, not only workshops. We have just finished a project in Les Corts — we’ve turned a piece of land into a pedestrian area — and we can take photos of what we did; so that people can see that it’s not only an idea about building more green areas, but it can become a reality. In Glòries we can show what we are doing while the building is going on, until the final park is finished. Pictures can be more persuasive than words.
VP: Most projects in Barcelona are based on public-private entities to make them possible. Is this the case of the Superblocks?
SB: It’s being considered, because one of our themes was “What you can do to help”. Remodeling a street or changing the streetlights can only be done by the city hall but citizens can carry out campaigns, create a group of volunteers in a superblock, or paint windows. We’ve managed to get all these actions carried out by private companies, with our support but their management. The idea is that the city hall is an enabler, an intermediary between the final clients and the owner of some premises, so that these premises have a social use.
Collaboration from the private sector is essential, because the city hall can suggest things and give money but they can’t get into private buildings or force them to make changes. What they can do is have facilities in public buildings, and prompt private entities to get things done. Then there are the economic subsidies, which are sometimes 50% of the total expenses, and this is already working: these subsidies went down for a bit but this year they have increased again. They are used for the installation of solar panels, the reusing of greywater, thermal insulation, green covers, “living roofs” — turning one’s terrace into a useful place, and so on. The city hall can also give technical advice, in training courses on how to ecologically improve your house — they lend you some tools so you can check your water and electrical consumption and you can work out how to reduce it.
VP: What are the aims of and the potential problems for the Superblocks?
SB: Transport is where we are finding the most obstacles; we are all aware that vehicles take up a lot of space, pollute and cause accidents. Yet we wouldn’t live without them, we wouldn’t swap them for only public transport in the city. This is the biggest challenge, and it also needs a lot of investment.
The “green area” policies (parking restrictions) were so radical that many workers who came by car every day now find it difficult to park their vehicles. So I think that parking policies make a big difference. Other cities are split into offices and green areas, but here it’s more complicated to make radical changes.
Citizens who live on the main traffic routes are the ones who suffer the most and want the city to be quieter; but they are also afraid that the roads might be closed to traffic completely. That won’t happen: everyone has to be able to get to their houses by car, and emergency vehicles need to be able to reach them; but then we would all like our children to be able to play on the street as well. I think Barcelona is one of the densest cities in Europe. New bikeways and bus lanes are being built, but it’s true that maybe we are being to act whereas in other cities the change is more drastic.
VP: How has the measure of closing streets with bollards been important for the city?
SB: We are not in favor of them. There are other systems, like working on the direction of the traffic, so that for example you can’t turn wherever you want. Any mechanical device on the streets, such as these bollards, can fail at any moment. And there’s also the system of cameras that read your number plate, and if you aren’t allow to drive in the area you get fined. One of the aims of the Superblocks is to find new ways to improve things.