Barcelona’s Superblock Program: interview with Deputy Mayor Janet Sanz

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

The Superblock Program is a Barcelona version of area-wide traffic calming found in many Northern European cities, but here in Barcelona it has been tailored to the grid street layout introduced by Cerda in the nineteenth century. Janet Sanz, Deputy Mayor for Ecology, Urbanism and Mobility, will be a keynote speaker on Improving Barcelona’s Physical and Social Health through the Superblock Program at the 54th IMCL Conference in Santa Fe in October. She will also receive the IMCL City of Vision Award on behalf of Mayor Ada Colau and Barcelona City Council for their work on the Superblocks.

Cerda's grid plan, Barcelona

Fifteen years ago the principles were introduced in two areas in the Gràcia neighborhood, and in two areas of the old city. These have been well accepted: in the Gràcia neighborhood because it helps considerably to ease everyday life in the community plaças and narrow streets; in the old city because it facilitated the development of tourism (though one can debate the advantage of this for Barcelona citizens).

Gràcia and the old city are both unique in Barcelona – Gràcia because the streets and squares dated from the 17th century small town of Vila de Gràcia; the old city because the network of narrow alleys and plaças date back to Roman times.

In the 19th century Barcelona grew exponentially on a 300-meter grid plan designed by Cerda. The internal area of these large blocks was intended to provide semi-private green open space for the building owners, but over the last century these areas have mostly been filled in with buildings.

The streets are wide (35 meters), for the purpose of bringing light, air, and green into the city. At every intersection the corners of the buildings are chamfered, creating large octagonal spaces. Today, however, streets are dominated by vehicles. Despite Cerda’s vision, the city has ended up with a lack of green space. The Superblock program aims to reestablish the balance, if not to greatly supersede Cerda’s original plan by transforming 2 out of 3 streets into pedestrian and traffic calmed areas.

Since their election in 2015, Mayor Ada Colau and her “Citizens Movement” administration is moving forward with an ambitious program of expanding the Superblock program across the entire city.

On my recent trip to Barcelona I interviewed Janet Sanz, Deputy Mayor for Ecology, Urbanism and Mobility, who oversees the Superblock program.

Suzanne: Please tell me about the Superblock program: Why is it so important to you, what are the values behind the Superblock program? It is more than just a transportation planning solution, isn’t it?

Janet: Yes, we want Barcelona to be a sustainable city, to be a livable city. And we understand that today in our public spaces, we have a lot of social and community activities, but they are dominated by private transportation, both moving cars and parked cars.

Therefore, we want to change this vision of our public space because we don’t have a lot of extra space. Our city is limited by two rivers and a natural park and the sea. So we want to achieve a city where public space serves more than just transport. But transport is very important, and we want to prioritize pedestrians, bicycles, and public transport over other transport modes like cars or motorbikes.

So, where there are conflicting uses we are trying a different configuration of public spaces. For example now we are starting a Superblock program in Sant’ Antoni, a neighborhood at the center of the city with a dense residential population. We have a very beautiful historic public market there, [Mercat de Sant’Antoni, now restored].

And the first, the pilot Superblock project was in Poblenou because in Poblenou there are a lot of new uses, [this is an old industrial area now in transition] but tourist activities are having a very strong impact on the area. This is why we chose that space for a Superblock.

And now, people recognize how different these streets are and use them differently. I think it’s like a return to the essence of the streets because the streets are ours again.

Poblenou new square. Photo: Salvador Rueda

Suzanne: Can you say a little bit more about why this might be important for children and for elders especially, to make the streets greener?

Janet: I think the quality of life in our city must be generated around green spaces, spaces without pollution, for example, because now pollution is a very high problem in Barcelona. And therefore we need to protect the most vulnerable groups like children or elderly people. This is why we start this project, to protect our citizens.

Poblenou new square. Photo: Salvador Rueda

Suzanne: And I understand that the Superblock program is planned to be citywide. Are you finding a lot of resistance?

Janet: I think all changes, structural changes, are difficult and complicated. We know it. This is why we start in different areas to develop a participatory process because we think that these projects or programs are successful if we can involve the citizens. I think this is very important. Yes, there is resistance, both from those in the area being changed, and those outside the area. For me the problem is that a lot of citizens feel, “why not me, why not my street?” And this is- “Okay, don’t worry! You’ll be next, and then it’s your turn” but we need to start someplace. But in general I think that with a listening and participatory process we can slowly diminish the resistance. We struggle with this resistance but in general I’m very optimistic.

Poblenou community participation. Photo: Salvador Rueda

Suzanne: Gentrification often becomes an issue when improvements are made to a neighborhood. If you are making these improvements across the whole city, does this help prevent gentrification in certain neighborhoods, or does it increase housing prices across the whole city? Or are there other causes of increased housing prices in Barcelona?

Janet: For us, gentrification is a very big problem and we want to be part of a solution to solve gentrification in our neighborhoods. Now we start a program of different policies and different projects, but for me the most important project is to build a lot of public and social housing. This is the main way of changing the market and changing housing prices. I don’t want to change the way we are rehabilitating the streets or creating green streets or green spaces. But these green spaces can generate high prices of housing. And for this we need to link green spaces and public intervention in the streets or in the neighborhoods with public social housing to compensate.

Suzanne: So, the control of housing prices, and ensuring that poorer people are not moved out of the neighborhoods that are being improved is very important to you?

Janet: Yes, it’s very important because a lot of people leave their neighborhoods, a lot of people have to move to other places, to other cities around Barcelona. The issue that generates this displacement is tourism. Tourism is a very big problem now.

Suzanne: I understand. I have seen this problem in Venice since 1973 becoming worse and worse every year. The tourist problem there is horrible now, horrendous. The Venetian population is now one third of what it used to be. There are mechanisms for controlling tourism but they are difficult to implement.

Janet: I think that the risk in Barcelona, like Venice or other cities, is that you become like a thematic park. Now we have a lot of projects but the most important is a special plan to regulate all our ways of housing tourism, hotels, etc., and we regulate and say, “Okay, no more. In this part of the city, no more.”

Suzanne: You will have a strong opposition from the tourist industry. But yes, you have to do it! IMCL wishes you great success with your Superblock program, ensuring affordable housing as you improve your neighborhoods, and preventing tourism from destroying Barcelona’s livability for your own citizens.