Our cities are transforming rapidly, the causes could be unaccountable developments due to changes in infrastructure, advancements in technology or changes in other planning policies due to any national or international event. These instances can create a better-developed place or can also ruin the existing scenario. The way our cities are planned and have developed over time has a great impact on public life.
In ancient cities, we always notice that the public spaces are carved out based on experiences, the life of people in the cities were treated as the wealth of the spaces. As the development grew, theories and ideologies replaced the traditional values. Now, urban growth with technological advancements became the main focus. As a result, cities became more technologically renowned and car-centric, sidelining the ‘publicness’ of city spaces.
Taking the case of Barcelona, Spain, it is one of the greatest examples of a city rich with culture and traditions. The city was completely transformed into a rigid grid modernist planning layout by Ildefons Cerda in the 1850s. Each block was designed as low-rise built mass with wide sidewalks, crisscrossed by broad, tree-lined boulevards. The corners of each block are notched at 45-degree angles to allow more sunlight and air to flow through the streets. As per many urban thinkers, Cerdà’s design for Barcelona was perhaps the most famous large-scale urban master plan in the world and is often cited as a model for modern mixed-use neighborhoods.
But the major development that was done during the Olympics held in 1992 had a great impact on the city in terms of world-class infrastructure as well as getting worldwide recognition as a “Global City” holding Barcelona as a popular tourist destination. Gradually, the city got overcrowded by tourists, real estate prices got high due to speculations, people were forced to move out of the city and the public areas were full of cars, noise, and air pollution.
The way the cities were planned by the urban planners and transport planners, neither of them could have imagined the actual effect of physical structures on human lives and behavior. Straight and wide roads not only allow cars to drive faster but also segregate or limit the adjacent neighborhood. Due to a hike in real estate, Gentrification becomes one of the major issues in cities. The lower-income groups find it a little difficult to stay in high rental properties and find it unaffordable to stay in cities. As a result, they are forced to move out of downtown and stay in the suburbs. Hence, they travel all throughout the city and get dependent on a private vehicle. As the use of cars grew, parking turned out to be one of the major issues in public places. Hence, most of the green spaces in the city got converted into parking lots killing the city’s public domain.
Similar characteristics were seen in Barcelona as well. Many of the fundamental elements of the city were scrapped over the years. Instead of having blocks with buildings on only two or three sides, the blocks got surrounded by built edges from all the four sides, parks disappeared and were used as parking arenas, height limits were ignored and open space was taken over by development. Many residents see congested, overcrowded streets and a shortage of places to walk their dogs. The domination of cars could easily be seen in the city. In 2014, the city faced a serious air pollution problem. According to studies conducted by vox, air pollution levels got above the European Union’s acceptable units and because of that about 3500 premature deaths happened.
So, how did the city tackle the situation?
Salvador Rueda, the director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, tried to incorporate a concept of “superilles or superblocks” without disturbing the existing built mass or destructing any infrastructure. The main focus of this scheme was to eliminate cars, carving out approximately 70 percent of the city’s space into the public places. The main vision of superblocks is to revive the environment of the city by enhancing the liveability quotient and health concerns.
The Workability of superblocks in Barcelona is based on a simple collaboration of blocks. It consists of nine existing blocks made into a three by three block square. The vehicular traffic will be restricted on the perimeter of the superblock and one-way lanes with a speed limit of ten kilometers per hour whereas the rest of the internal streets are pedestrianized. At the intersections, there will be a steady traffic flow to allow the public as well as bicycle networks. Also, surface parking was taken underground. So you are left with street spaces for the people to live, work and play, without any disturbance. The main agenda of this scheme is to emphasize on public transport and create better functioning traffic neighborhoods.
As this plan has already experimented in the city and reports showed that since 2007, pedestrian traffic has increased by 10 percent whereas cycling has gone up to 30 percent. Vehicular traffic in the city has reduced to 26 percent and 40 percent in the internal streets. This gives a positive sign towards the improvisation of the city towards a better environment as well as better living conditions for the inhabitant.
“Design cities for people, not cars” this statement by Jan Gehl gives a complete answer for city revival. To make a city work, urban planners must opt for sustainable measures for mobility networks, environment-friendly techniques and most importantly human experience. Everyone should have easy access to the city’s streets, squares, and parks. These spaces actually define and reflect the city’s culture, values and traditions and give an opportunity for its residents to get themselves involved for better living. Hence, it is rightly said that the spaces between buildings, holds the whole city together.