Barcelona’s New, Huge “Superblocks” Are Designed To Stop Traffic, Fight Pollution

The nine-square-block areas are closed to everything but local traffic, filled with parks and pedestrian spaces, and change the way people interact with the city.

In 2017, Barcelona will start converting itself into a pedestrian city: Inside grids of “superblocks,” non-resident cars will be banned, and what used to be heavily trafficked intersections will turn into pedestrian-friendly city squares. Throughout the city, most traffic will be eliminated from 60% of roads.


“The superblocks are intended to put an end to the predominance of the car in the streets, taking away road space and returning it to pedestrians,” says Irene Capdevila from the city’s environmental agency. “They lead to a decrease in traffic that will certainly be visible in terms of air pollution or noise.”

Ajuntament de Barcelona

In a superblock, several city blocks are joined together, and traffic is re-routed around the outside. Inside, pedestrians and cyclists have priority on the road, while residents of the blocks can drive at a slow speed. Neighborhoods that once had little green space will be filled with mini-parks and gardens.

“Turning the streets into spaces for citizens enables new uses and rights in them: trade, culture and knowledge, expression and participation, and leisure, in addition to a passageway,” Capdevila says.

The city added its first superblocks in 2003 in the Gràcia neighborhood, but it’s only now that the concept is spreading broadly.

For several years, the air in Barcelona has been so polluted that it breaks WHO limits for safety; an estimated 3,500 people die early each year in the metropolitan area from breathing in the smog and particulate matter. In response, the city approved an urban mobility plan in 2015 that will spread pedestrian-friendly areas across the entire width of the city, and they plan to spend €10 million to implement it.

The first new neighborhood to get superblocks, Eixample, was originally designed in the mid-1800s to improve health and sanitation–but now is choked with traffic and pollution. Designed in a simple grid, the neighborhood can easily be sectioned off: nine blocks will become one pedestrianized superblock, with 160 intersections inside converted to city squares. The amount of usable public space will increase by amazing 268%.

Ajuntament de Barcelona

To help people get around without their cars, the city is expanding bike lanes (from 62 miles today to 186 miles). An existing network of public electric bikes helps with hills. The city also rearranged bus stops, so every resident is no more than 250 meters from a stop.

The new bus network is also faster to ride. “By circulating only on basic roads, the speed can be higher,” says Capdevila. “The bus lines are divided into horizontal, vertical and diagonal, and the idea is that you can reach any point of the city with only [one] change of buses at most, so that the bus network can be perceived just as the subway network.”

The city has advised others–like Quito, Ecuador–to implement superblocks of their own. Capdevila says the idea could work anywhere. “While the plot of Eixample, in a grid, makes it ideal for deployment, superblocks can be adapted to any urban fabric.”

All Images: via Ajuntament de Barcelona

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.