‘Green Heart’ plan to drive cars out of Barcelona’s Eixample district

barcelona green heart superblock superilla eixample plan
Barcelona’s green heart plan for the Eixample district. Click to enlarge

Barcelona has enjoyed positive attention in the international media this week for a plan to turn the heart of the city into a pedestrian-friendly, car-hostile, green zone with clean air and lots of plant life over the next ten years. But the local press reports that early signs are far from promising, with traffic snarling up, and pedestrians shunning the new walkways. Perhaps the plan is still too green.

Barcelona City Hall, led by former squatter activist Ada Colau, has announced a plan to transform the entire central Eixample district of the city into a verdant green zone call a super-block with minimal traffic, and a speed limit of 10 km/h in a process of “urban transformation to update the Eixample to the XXI Century,” to quote Janet Sanz, head of urban planning.

The plan involves turning a third of all the district’s streets into what they call a “green axes” with no through-traffic, and ensuring that all residents have a vegetation-filled plaza or square within 200 meters of home. Pedestrians will rule the streets, and traffic will be limited to essential services.

The plan was unveiled at a press conference on Wednesday by Ada Colau, the current Mayoress of Barcelona, who leads the left-wing Barcelona en Comú party running the city council in coalition with the Socialists. “Think of the new city for the present and the future — with less pollution, new mobility and new public space,” said Colau.

The first stage of this decade-long transformation involves an investment of €37.8m and an international tender to develop the new urban plan, building on the traffic restrictions that have been put in place to “pacify” the streets, partly in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  

The plan got much positive international attention, which I suspect was one of the main objectives. Nothing wrong with that.

“Since the Spanish city of Barcelona introduced its first “superblock” in 2016, the concept of carving out islands of car-free space by routing traffic around multi-block areas has been influential in cities around the world,” says an article at Bloomberg. “Now the Catalan capital plans a major supersizing of the idea: Over the next decade, Barcelona will convert its entire central grid into a greener, pedestrian-friendly area almost totally cleared of cars.”

And, in The Times (of London), “Barcelona is putting pedestrians first in an ambitious scheme to banish cars and redesign the centre of the city. “A “Super-island” or Superilla was introduced in 2016 in the bustling district of Poblenou near the waterfront. Car lanes were narrowed across nine city blocks to free up roads for benches, squares and urban gardens that proved popular among residents.”

Barcelona ‘green heart’ plan for the Eixample is still too green to work

I live in the middle of the Eixample, and would love this plan to work. I can imagine the streets around me like fairways, with mini-parks on every corner, lots of well-tended verdant public spaces, and lungfuls of clean air. I also don’t run a retail business in the district, so I have nothing to lose. But sadly, I think this plan is too green (immature) to be taken seriously, for the following reasons.

First, without adequate public transport alternatives, this plan would make the traffic in the rest of the city a nightmare, and would lead to more, not less, pollution. Some 350,000 cars drive through the Eixample every day, in part because they have no public transport alternative. At least Colau recognises the plan is  contingent on improvements in the public transport infrastructure over which City Hall has no control. That’s planned and handled by regional and national authorities. Unless they are fully on board with the massive investment required, this plan will go nowhere good. 

Secondly, even if public transport can do the heavy lifting, it’s hard to see how enough local businesses (tax payers) can survive a car-free zone. The urban model forces the district’s entire ground floor to be commercial, with no chance of use conversion to residential, so you have a lot of commercial space to support. This plan would leave a lot of empty commercial space in the Eixample, which would decay without investment.

Third, the early signs are not good. Although pilot projects in Sant Antoni and the Poblenou have had some success (I hear), the local press reports that early measures to restrict traffic, and claim more space for pedestrians in the Eixample, has just led to bad traffic, and pedestrians shunning the new walkways on the road. I see it for myself every morning when I take the children to the school bus. I also see shops in the area closing down at an alarming rate, and shopkeepers complain bitterly about traffic restrictions.

barcelona eixample calle girona green space
Calle Girona, one of the green axes of the Eixample plan, where pedestrians shun the road and shops are closing down at an alarming rate

And finally, there’s the small matter of competence. A project this big would need great competence, not to mention consensus, to implement, and both are lacking in Barcelona City Hall. The city council is run by an uneasy coalition that will probably change at the next election.

It seems to me that Barcelona is getting dirtier and shabier as a result of bad management. Parks, playgrounds, and green areas are already badly maintained (see picture below). How are they going to turn the heart of Barcelona’s Eixample into some sort of urban Garden of Eden, if they can’t even run the municipal rubbish collection properly? 

barcelona eixample green space
Green space in the Eixample today

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