“Barcelona has begun a path towards the transformation of its urban model, quite late when compared to other cities, but there is no way back now”

At the beginning of March, Barcelona City Council announced the winning projects of the two ideas competitions, one for city squares and the other for the green zones, which will lay the foundations for the progressive transformation of the Eixample into a big ‘superblock’ from the summer of 2022. This change in scale from Cerdà’s initial blocks to the ‘superblock’ model, in the district of the city that, to this day, has the greatest deficit of public space and green areas in Barcelona, has now begun. This area also has a higher population density and higher environmental pollution rates.

We spoke with lecturers from the UIC Barcelona School of Architecture, Álvaro Cuéllar and Iñaki Baquero winners of the project for the urbanisation of the square located at the crossroads between Carrer de Girona and Carrer de Consell de Cent, in Dreta de l’Eixample. Their proposal, entitled “Superescocell”, (super tree pit) was the winning project out of the other 17 projects presented and it represents a radical commitment to achieving a more permeable city, improving environmental quality and “providing a shelter for neighbourhood residents.” The climate and health emergencies forced us to take action in Barcelona, they stressed, and the road toward a new urban paradigm means that “there is no way back.”

1.     What is your proposal and why do you think it won?

The proposal is based on two premises which, although they seem obvious with regard to the current dynamics of a reduction in traffic in the city, define our project very well. As its title, “Superescocell,” shows, our proposal aims to change the city’s current waterproofing situation. We propose that squares become a large tree pit with only absolutely necessary paved areas, to reverse the current situation, in which the whole area is paved and the only contact we have with nature is the few square meters provided by tree pits.

The second idea is dialogue. We will place ourselves at the service of the ideas that were contributed by the winners of the green zones, who will make this square possible. They will define parameters such as pedestrian movement, vehicle traffic, pavements or green bus lines, and our project will incorporate these parametres into the layout. 

Although we put forward an ad-hoc proposal, responding to the specific conditions of the square, we also respected the systemic nature that underlies the original approach to the corners set out by Ildefons Cerdà. In that sense, beyond just one form, we propose this large tree pit concept which, in turn, can be replicated in the other crossroads in the Eixample district.  It is a paradigm shift: from crossing via an interchange in the 19th-20th centuries to the “Superescocell” of the 21st century.

Superescocell

2.    Added to the “superblocks”, Barcelona City Council has now added new green zones or “axes”. What does this change mean?

They are two models to reduce traffic in the city and mechanisms to return to pedestrians what belongs to them and does not belong to cars.  It could be said that the green zones or “axes” are intrinsic to the inner streets of the “superblocks”. They share characteristics such as priority for pedestrians, single platform roads, discontinued traffic circulation, etc. The squares, which are the result of the intersection between these two green zones or “axes”, are common to the two models.

What may be important to the future of the city is the complementarity of and coexistence between the two approaches. Neither by itself is the solution for everything. The difference lies in the management of the two models. While the implementation of the “superblocks” has been complicated because each change has an impact on a large area, the idea of working on certain zones or “axes” has been easier in terms of management because operations can be divided into smaller sections. In addition, the idea of reducing traffic in the streets has already been accepted by citizens. 

3.    Does this new model represent a leap forward in terms of “tactical urbanism” so far? 

Of course it represents a leap forward and, above all, it consolidates a process of change toward a new model for public space. Tactical urbanism, which has been highly criticised since its implementation, must be understood as a provisional state, pending definitive projects that require greater investment. It has an impact on a problem that needs to be resolved urgently, which is the need for a reduction in traffic around school exits, for the extension of pavements for pedestrians and terraces and for an overall reduction in traffic volume. These are issues that require functional modification and cannot wait for definitive urban intervention. 

Thus, once we admit that a functional change to mobility is necessary, projects like the one we presented aim to improve environmental quality through an increase in green areas, improvement s to the permeability of the soil, a commitment to introduce diverse plant species, etc. Without a doubt, this experience, which is a prototype, marks the beginning of a new stage in the design of public space in Barcelona. Time will tell if it has lived up to the changes that took place in the 80s and 90s. 

4.    The Eixample has the same amount of traffic as the Ronda de Dalt and the Ronda Litoral put together. How can this problem be solved and what mobility alternatives have been planned?

The answer lies in the question. How long can we survive in a city where the streets have become motorways? The city cannot handle more cars. It is citizens who must change the way they move around the city and our relationship with cars. For the moment, we are talking about interventions based on four zones or “axes”, which have already reduced traffic volume to a large extent, and which are basically used for access by neighbourhood residents and services. This is the case of Carrer de Consell de Cent. The only thing the green axis functional parameters lacks is for road traffic to not experience longitudinal continuity.

We must act at the same time. When in the Eixample neighbourhood traffic is reduced and cars on certain roads are reduced, the use of public transport and bicycles will be further enhanced, this is in fact already happening.

In that sense, the quest for a greater rationalisation and efficiency of bus routes was a first step towards making the idea of “superblocks” and green zones or “axes” possible. We are moving toward an increasingly shared mobility model, which will result in reduced traffic throughout the Eixample neighbourhood. 

5.    The implementation of the green zones or “axes” in the Eixample involves moving from the current 113 lanes for private vehicles to 68, in other words, a 40% reduction.  How can the resistance of private vehicle users be overcome?

By using cars only if necessary. We are spoilt.  We want to move door to door with our own vehicle and that must become possible only for citizens who really need it, such as people with special needs. Future generations will not have the same needs in terms of moving around. Bicycles, public transport or shared vehicles will greatly reduce the need for private vehicles.

Another strong argument for discouraging the use of cars will be to see how the city gains green areas and substantially improves the environmental quality of the area in which we live. We will have to get used to comparing traffic figures (40% fewer lanes for private cars) with figures showing increased green areas per inhabitant or trees per inhabitant. 

6.    Indeed, the Eixample is also the district of the city with the most lack of urban green space, with an index of 1.85 m2 per inhabitant (the recommended standards are between 10-15m2/hab). Will this situation be overcome?

I hope so! That is the intention of this urban project. That is certainly one of the main objectives, but not just due to a matter of standards. The climate and health emergency forces us to act. The high impact of a lack of daily contact with nature in our lives has been demonstrated. It is more expensive to solve health problems in people than to maintain green areas. But also, quality and not just quantity must be provided. 

We tried to incorporate diverse tree and bush species into this project, even attempting to encourage a certain type of urban fauna, which is necessary to achieve a balanced ecosystem. Barcelona has embarked on a path to transform its urban model, late when compared with other cities, but there is now no way back. 

Axo

7.    The “Superblock” programme will be accompanied by drafting a Special Usages Plan, with the aim of guaranteeing a plurality of urban uses and promoting trade and local services. Is this model similar to that of the “15-minute city”?

It is not a similar model.  It is exactly the same as the 15- minute city. The administration must have regulatory mechanisms in place to generate diversity and, in fact, they already exist for certain businesses and activities. 

Although they have different names, all of these ideas seek to recover neighbourhood life, which means ensuring proximity to basic services, green areas, and public transport. However, for these ideas to succeed, a systematic and widespread implementation in the city is required. One-off action will not make us achieve a “15-minute city.” 

In the specific case of the site we are working on, the transformation of the crossing promotes accessibility to ground floor commerce, creates a safe and healthy environment for the schools located on the perimeter (in line with the policies set out by the City Council) and it allows for a comfortable transfer journey for people who use the metro. Not only will the travel time change to achieve this, but also the environmental conditions in which people move.

8.    One of the so-called unwanted effects of the implementation of the plan could be the progressive gentrification of the Eixample and a change in its uses. How can this be prevented? Is there any real way to avoid increased prices?

Any improvement to the city leads to a rise in prices. The gentrification phenomenon that this project may generate must be controlled from a broader perspective. The process of urban renewal and improvements to public spaces cannot be abandoned because of the potential speculation that may take place. Instead, coordinated action must be taken through effective control of the price of housing, promoting public housing in central areas, regulating tourism activities, etc. 

This competition can be interpreted as the starting point for rethinking public social space, guaranteeing citizens’ right to the city. It is true that the decision to start with the Consell de Cent axis will increase market pressure on central areas. However, it is understood that this is the case because the administration seeks to send a message to the general public, which must happen in high-visibility areas such as this one.

9.    Some people are critical of the plan set out by the City Council for the Eixample neighbourhood because they consider that somehow it corrupts the original plan by Ildefons Cerdà. What is your opinion on this?

Every time we hear “if Cerdà were to see thjis” in reference to this transformation we realise that there is a lot of demagoguery. The Cerdà plan for the Eixample neighbourhood was distorted by speculation from the second it began to be built. The rules to preserve the interiors of the blocks that should have been green and public spaces were not respected. Despite all the efforts and achievements of the different city councils, it is very difficult to reverse this situation. There have been magnificent interventions in the interior of some of the blocks, but they are not sufficient to overcome the lack of urban greenery. Some streets may be equipped with the amount of greenery that is necessary to come close to the recommended standards. This is an issue that we discussed during the formulation of our proposal. 

As mentioned above, the proposal recognises the systemic nature of Cerdà’s plan and therefore we do not now advocate a specific form or design by a specific author. Instead, we propose the rules of the game (permeability and design) that can be adapted to each situation in the Eixample. From this more rational perspective, we believe that we respect the true spirit of the original plan and not simply the forms and the spaces that otherwise respond to outdated mobility parameters. We are sure that if Cerdà had to project the Eixample today and was aware of the environmental needs that exist, as an engineer, he would not hesitate to incorporate these factors. 

10.    Experts say that the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the need to make definite progress toward a new urban model. Do you think Barcelona is already a benchmark in this regard?

We believe that Barcelona is taking the steps it has to take to enjoy a more liveable city. Whether or not it is a benchmark is not important. You have to do the homework. If it becomes a benchmark later on, that’s perfect. In any case, the important thing is to start this transformation, which is absolutely necessary.

The pandemic has highlighted the difficulties faced in dense and compact cities such as Barcelona in comparison, for example, with the garden city model, in terms of dealing with the problems arising from the pandemic. The lack of open space and human overcrowding make it difficult to manage distance and worsen the psychological problems caused by lockdown. 

However, the pandemic has forced inhabitants to take unexpected action, such as occupying rooftop terraces, uncovering balconies or taking over parking space to extend outdoor space for bars. The transformation of public space plays a key role at this latter level. This means that the change to Consell de Cent and the crossings it connects with can be interpreted as progress along these lines and the new square we will work on will be a refuge for the neighbourhood residents in the Dreta district of l’Eixample.

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