If an alien were to land in any random North American city he would report back to his home planet that the earth is ruled by a single species – large four-wheeled creatures called “cars.” These cars enslave lesser two-legged creatures called “humans” and force them to move the cars from location to location. The earth’s “streets” prove this hierarchy – ninety per cent of the space is reserved solely for cars, with tiny narrow paths left to car-less humans (known as “pedestrians”). Cars are not the only species who enslave humans; four-legged furry creatures called “dogs” use them to bag their excrement.
It’s a bit of a stretch, perhaps, but we North Americans are so used to the car being king that the absurdity of the current situation is lost on us. In Europe, where cities matured before the arrival of the automobile, there is more action being taken to change the urban equation.
In Barcelona, for instance, urban planners are using “superblocks” as a means of reducing both air and noise pollution, while at the same time creating pedestrian-friendly areas where citizens can safely shop, socialize or get some fresh air. The concept is straightforward. Nine city blocks are requisitioned and turned into a superblock. The core is closed off to through traffic, though the superblock is accessible to residents’ automobiles. The maximum speed is 10 km/h and there is parking available underground. The streets are reclaimed, with the majority of the space dedicated to pedestrians.
Barcelona launched the first superblock in 2017. The city suffered from extreme air pollution and traffic congestion, and its politicians were willing to make radical changes. At first, the initiative “was met with opposition by car owners and also those who claimed it would be ruinous to local business,” reports Stephen Burgen in The Guardian. “However, opposition has faded as residents have begun to enjoy the benefits of a traffic-free neighbourhood. There are also 30 per cent more local businesses than previously and the area has seen a significant increase in the numbers of people making journeys on foot or cycling.”
There are now six superblocks in Barcelona. The city hopes to build many more. A recent report by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health claims that 667 premature deaths caused by air pollution and other traffic-related factors could be prevented each year if Barcelona built approximately 500 superblocks.
Superblocks turn roads into playgrounds, gardens and other green spaces. They feature plenty of seating, along with sculpture and other works of art. The din of the automobile has been replaced by the sound of birds chirping and children playing. Superblocks are so pleasant they can drive up rents and property values and lead to gentrification. The very first superblock in Barcelona was set in public housing, so property values and rents were fixed and the local population was not displaced.
Are North American cities ready for the superblock?
There have been attempts in urban centres such as New York City, but these involved turning parts of a tourist locale – such as Times Square – into a car-free zone. Seattle is considering experimenting with a superblock. In Toronto, Kensington Market has had “Pedestrian Sundays” for the last 16 years. The program runs May to October.
There are a number of factors that make European cities more suitable for superblocks. For starters, Barcelona has adequate public transit. It has 12 subway lines in a city of 1.7 million people. Compare that to Toronto, which has only two lines serving three million people. Barcelona was a metropolis long before the arrival of the automobile. North American cities, by contrast, grew alongside the rise of car culture. Winter in Barcelona is mild; the temperature rarely dips below 16 degrees Celsius. Winter in Canada is the opposite of mild and temperatures routinely dip below … you know, it’s still September and the weather is nice, so I’m not even going to provide a figure.
Then again, while Canadians complain about winter (and every other season for that matter) we also revel in it. I can imagine a Canadian winter wonderland superblock with an ice rink in the middle: residents could go for a skate, have a coffee at a pedestrian-friendly patio, pick up some groceries and get to know each other. What have we got to lose? If it turns out superblocks don’t work in Canada and are, in fact, a Spain-only phenomenon, then we knock them down and go back to gridlock.
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