Revisiting Superblocks in Barcelona


When I read “Superblocks” in the title of this article from Cities of the Future I thought of this:

900x720_2049_1707

Plan Voisin. From foundationlecorbusier.fr.

This is Le Corbusier’s plan to tear down the left bank of Paris and replace it with highrise towers centered in 1,600 square meter superblocks separated by elevated highways. Although Paris was spared this fate, it was accomplished with varying degrees of delicacy and skill in public housing projects throughout the world and to a lesser degree in cities like Brasilia, Brazil; Milton Keynes, UK; and Irvine, California.

spectrum_office-aerial-oct2012-037

Highways separating superblocks in Irvine, CA. From irvinecompany.com.

Nearly everywhere they have been implemented, superblocks destroy walkability and kill urban streetscapes. And considering that Barcelona is one of the most beautiful cities in the world with the Eixample being one of the best implemented systems of urban design ever crafted, I was really worried that they were making a mistake that I thought we had all learned from nearly fifty years ago.

Turns out they were just using a word that had a lot of baggage for me to describe what is really a pretty good idea.

Barcelona recently started implementing its superilles (the Catalan form of superblocks, which sounds much better) in a few neighborhoods and will eventually expand it all the way throughout the city. The superilles are a group of nine blocks where through traffic would be pressed to the exterior streets, and the interior streets would be open only to local traffic. That local traffic would travel on a system of one-way streets that wouldn’t allow shortcuts through the block. Over time, speed limits would be lowered to 10 km/h (6 mph), and the space that had been devoted to cars would be turned over to the people.

This made me think of two of Christopher Alexander’s patterns, one which the superilles go against and one that it agrees with. The 15th pattern in Alexander’s A Pattern Language is the Neighborhood Boundary, where he says, “Form this boundary by closing down streets and limiting access to the neighborhood – cut the normal number of streets at least in half.” I don’t like this idea; it seems exclusionary, it limits the mobility of alternative forms of transportation, and it makes neighborhoods look more like suburban subdivisions. If the main idea is to make it seem like the space belongs to the residents and to keep people from driving through the middle of the neighborhood, the superilles have accomplished that without resorting to walling off neighborhoods.

And the main way that they accomplish it is by applying another Alexandrine pattern, number 49, Looped Local Roads. “Lay out local roads so that they form loops. A loop is defined as any stretch of road which makes it impossible for cars that don’t have destinations on it to use it as a shortcut.” Of course, when Alexander illustrated what this would look like, he drew this:

apl49diagram

From A Pattern Language.

But he also indicated that you could adapt a street grid to meet the requirements of this pattern:

apl49diagram3

From A Pattern Language.

Which of course bears a striking resemblance to the superilles model shown above.

If there is one thing I don’t agree with, it might be the approach to parking. Based on the current plan, the interior streets of the superilles would be closed down to parking. The cars that used to park on those streets would be relocated to newly built parking garages.

Existing-01

Prop by Barc-01

Now I’m not saying that there isn’t a right way to do a parking garage such that it fits into a neighborhood. What I’m saying is that parking garages are very expensive to build, that they eliminate what might be better used as a shop or residence, and depending on where they’re located (it wasn’t made clear in the article where the garages would be located or how far people would have to walk to get to them), it could be much less convenient for residents.

There are certainly different camps on the idea, but I generally believe that on-street parking is a good thing. It’s convenient, and it protects pedestrians on the sidewalk from moving vehicles, which despite being required to drive at about walking speed would still be present on the interior streets of the superilles. My thought would be to consolidate the on-street parking and use it to create a transition zone between the edge streets and the interiors.

Prop by me-01

This would be cheaper to implement than the garages, would provide an equal number of spots if the parking was marked as back-in perpendicular (back-in is generally safer because when it comes time to pull out of the spot you have a better view of the street, and perpendicular fits more cars in a given space than parallel or angled parking), and would create a transition space between the more car-oriented edges and the people-oriented interiors which would help drivers know that they’ve entered a new sort of place.

Implementation of this plan is beginning right now in just a few neighborhoods, but the plan is to implement it all across Barcelona. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if this will work out as planned. The Le Corbusian superblocks that were built didn’t create the sort of environment their architect expected, and even the Eixample didn’t do everything its designer had hoped. But if this implementation is rolled out slowly but surely and course corrections can be made as they go along, Barcelona’s planners may be on track to create another great people-oriented planning success.

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About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

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