Resilient Cities and Urbanism: A Case of Barcelona

Urban planning, mobility and health in the city of Barcelona

Beyond the field or architecture and urbanism, the term “Resilience” has become increasingly popular. This term is generally used to describe the ability or strength a system has, to recover from a shock or impact and make it through any type of crisis, regardless of natural or human-made. Designing towards urban resilience has already affected nowadays obsolete planning policies, and it is likely to have a steady effect in urban design, to foresee and adapt to our changing environment. Take for instance the city of Barcelona. At the time Ildefonso Cerdá proposed the afterwards often-imitated urban plan for the ‘Eixample ‘(Catalan word for ‘Expansion district’) little could he certainly know about the future scenarios the city of Barcelona would be facing. However, his plan did pursue the aim of creating an urban environment, able to endlessly grow and furthermore integrate motorized mobility, already 30 years before cars were invented.

In this way, he succeeded in raising the cities adaptability to coming circumstances regarding mobility, as nowadays would be expected of an example of resilient city planning. Nowadays, however, another one of the main design principles described in the literature regarding this matter is the tendency to design a more environmentally friendly city. Although Cerdà’s plan also aimed to design a healthier city of Barcelona, the future impact of motorized mobility before cars were not even invented could not be foreseen to its whole extent and as it is currently the case in many cities, traffic inevitable hand in hand with loud noise and pollution became also characteristic of the streets of Barcelona.

113,33m side squared blocks and 20m wide streets. (Photo: Barcelona roofs by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash.)

This example accurately illustrates how resilience if conceived as a path, instead of a goal, is more likely to be successful. While urban measures to adapt cities for the use of cars are nowadays out-dated, resilient city planning therefore nowadays tends to prioritize walking as a main mode of travelling, among its key principles towards more health cities and ways of life.

Bike lanes along streets of Barcelona (Barcelona Street Grid Drone – Bike Lanes by Linus Ekenstam on Unsplash.)

Barcelona, in any case, is not likely to fall behind on this matter. In 2014, the city’s candidature to join the Rockefeller’s Foundation 100 Resilient Cities Network was accepted among more than 330 cities together with 34 other cities. The same year, the city established an Urban Resilience Department, being the first city worldwide to do so. Barcelona is hence committed to working with this Network to build resilience with the help of the tools provided, while adding to these at the same time thanks to its innovative approach to resilient Urbanism. One of the best-known initiatives the city has started in the field of Urban planning in order to pursue a healthier built environment is the creating of Pedestrian-First “Superblocks” composed of the former blocks created according to the plan drawn by Ildefonso Cerdá. The first superblock opened in 2016 in the district of Poblenou. It is composed of a 3×3 block street part of the original street grid of Barcelona inside which streets have become pedestrian friendly. This means, cars only circulate around the block, being the streets in-between the nine blocks forming the superblock destined to pedestrian and cyclist traffic only.

The existing road infrastructure structure designed by Cerdá seems to be therefore, adaptive enough to serve new purposes, beyond its initial aim of providing comfortable car traffic with the necessary infrastructure. It is often the case in the path towards urban resilience that measures implemented to reach a certain goal do not have a positive outcome in other lanes of urban resilience, or moreover have a negative effect in these. Among the different lanes, we can distinguish social resilience, ecological resilience, technological resilience, and infrastructural resilience. All these must be considered, although it is not always possible to do this simultaneously since building resilience into one of the fields can lead to decrease resilience in another. The key I assume resides in striking a far from being easy balance and prioritizing, towards which of the goals urban resilience should rather be oriented.

Plaza de la Sagrada Familia, Green Block in Barcelona (Photo: Barcelona building block by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash)

In the case of the superblock project of Barcelona, priority has been given to the users of the city and the field of social resilience. Rather than car friendly, as they were before the former 20m x111,33m road sections along the superblocks and the junctions of those in-between blocks have become user-friendly, freeing more than 8000sqm of public space for the citizens. These streets, now free of traffic beyond cyclists using the dedicated bike lanes to be found almost every street of Barcelona right now, have become kid friendly. In this way the city has added public spaces and playground equipment, together with street furniture, but furthermore also walkable paths surrounded by trees and vegetation.

It might at this point already be doubtful, whether urban planning involving foreseeing the impact of cars in cities around the time the urban plan for the city of Barcelona was developed could have been considered Resilient Urbanism. In any case, in no likely or possible scenario could this planning strategy be considered aimed towards sustainability.

Often, people mistake “Resilience” for “Sustainability”, since both concepts often come hand in hand with each other. It is however contrary to popular belief possible that, incompatibilities exist between both terms. In last year’s edition of the annual conference of the International Forum on Urbanism (IFoU) in Barcelona, however, Timon McPherson – Associate Professor of Urban Ecology & Director of the Urban Systems Lab in The New School University of New York -successfully clarifies the main difference between both concepts in board terms. A key concept to differentiate unambiguously between both terms relies upon the concept of “efficiency”. While this concept is considered a key factor in sustainability. On the contrary, redundancy and the existence of backup systems are key factors in most resilient urban design principles. Although this sometimes might mean going against sustainability, it seems to be a small price to pay in advance for all benefits, long-term resilience can bring.

References

Calabrese, Luisa & van Faassen, Wouter & Qu, Lei. (2015). Re-Framing Resilient Urbanism. A Smart Alternative to Generic New Towns Development in South-East Asia: The Case of Hanoi (Vietnam). 10.3390/ifou-C003.

Plan Cerdá ( n.d.) On Wikipedia. Retrieved on February 23rd 2019 from:
https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plan_Cerd%C3%A1Bliss L. (2018 August 7) Inside a Pedetrian-first ‘Superblock‘ Citylab

Retrieved from: https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/08/inside-a-pedestrian-firstsuperblock/566864/Bausells M. (2016 May 17) Superblocks to the rescue: Barcelona’s plan to give back to residents. The Guardian.

Retrieved from:https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/may/17/superblocks-rescue-barcelona-spain-plan-give-streets-back-residents

The Poblenou superblock fills with life. (n. d.) Info Barcelona. Retrieved from:https://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/qualitataire/en/noticia/the-poblenou-superblock-fills-with-life

Barcelona joins the world network of 100 Resilient Cities. (n. d.) Info Barcelona.

Retrieved from: https://www.barcelona.cat/infobarcelona/en/barcelona-joins-the-world-network-of-100-resilient-cities_122861.html

Alba Calabozo is an architect, design and arts enthusiast having recently graduated from the University of Navarra in Spain. She is specialized in the field of architectonic restoration and rehabilitation. Writing about architecture is her way to share some food for thought while looking for her next career step beyond a traditional career path of an architect.

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