Healthy Urban Design for the Future

In the mid-1980s, Salvador Rueda, head of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, conducted an investigation of noise levels in the city whilst directing environmental work. He found that 42.5% of the population was exposed to noise levels exceeding the 65 dB suggested as acceptable by the World Health Organisation. Much of this was caused by ‘through traffic’, rather than vehicles stopping in neighbourhoods, such as deliveries or residents.

To resolve the issue, Rueda turned to considerations of urban planning, envisioning the ‘superblock’. This would be an area roughly comprised of a three-by-three block as a ‘shared-use’ space, for pedestrians, cyclists, as well as an outdoor space for the use of the residents of the superblock. Non-resident traffic would be excluded from passing through the space within the block, and instead of being limited to the space around the edge of this.

It was due to the rapid growth of the port city that Barcelona was successfully able to implement these superblocks. In the mid-1850s demolition work of the city began, allowing for this to be replaced by a more organised layout allowing for the increased population. Outside of the small area of the city walls, it was Catalan engineer, or a modern-day urban planner, Ildefons Cerdà, who designed the influential grid layout, called ‘Eixample’. Much like the superblocks more recently, the plan was not met with an entirely positive reception.

Returning to Rueda in the modern-day, he found that if his suggested superblocks design was implemented, it would reduce the percentage of the population exposed to noise levels exceeding 65 dB to 26.5%. However, it took until 1993 for the first of these to be carried out in the neighbourhood of El Born, with two further blocks created in 2003. Much like Cerdà’s Eixample, the two later superblocks in the Gràcia neighbourhood were met with resistance from residents.

There were concerns surrounding parking issues, as well as concerns that the proposed measures would damage businesses. Yet, since their introduction, they have largely been considered a success, reflected in plans to continue their implementation. In late 2020, plans were announced to convert 21 streets into what has been described as a ‘super-superblock’, with more trees being planted in an attempt to create shade to reduce summer temperatures, and there are intentions to expand the superblock format across the Eixample district of Barcelona.

Superblocks address a number of issues currently being questioned surrounding the quality of life in cities. One of these, as was intended by Rueda, is noise pollution. This has been linked to an increased risk of early death due to its influence on the central nervous system as well as many cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure and greater predisposition to suffer from a heart attack, and equally, more obviously, it can vastly damage hearing.

By limiting where the majority of traffic has access to, the areas which are affected by higher levels of noise pollution are significantly reduced. With regard to air pollution, this is undoubtedly a far greater problem in cities than in more rural areas. As outlined in research by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, the smaller amount of traffic on roads would also reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide released, allowing this to sit closer to the levels suggested by the World Health Organisation. The projected improvement to urban life suggests that preventable premature mortality is reduced and the related infrastructure, and safety measures, increase the use of public transport and cycling and reduce private car use.

This leads to the question as to whether such planning measures could be introduced in Britain. If there is a risk, it is that urban planning has historically had a rather chequered career. There have been successes such as the ‘Garden Cities’, of Welwyn and Letchworth, built as a reaction to the failings of nineteenth-century industrial cities. The superblocks built in the twenty-first century owe a certain debt to the layout of streets and green spaces incorporated these plans. Another example is the 19th century Port Sunlight development on the banks of the Mersey by the Lever Brothers with its groups of cottages and axial street plans. In contrast, the Post-War rebuilding of bombed city centres in Britain has hardly been considered a success story. Often built to accommodate motor cars at the expense of public transport, many are considered to be urban planning at its worst, with some already demolished. Public sentiment seems to be more in tune with the older, more random, low rise street layouts. It can easily be challenged as to whether existing urban areas can be redeveloped along superblock lines. To incorporate greater green space in such places would necessitate a reduction in housing density, and to avoid depopulation this would suggest that the building of superblocks on a semi-high-rise basis would be the trade-off.

Whilst there are plans in place for the development of superblocks in cities such as Seattle, which has already experimented with similar ‘Home Zone’ planning, the older street layouts in Britain do not lend themselves to such schemes without widespread demolition and redevelopment. At present, this appears unlikely, but going forward consideration will have to be given to an ageing housing stock that will be very expensive, if not almost impossible, to insulate to a sufficiently high standard for newer forms of central heating, amongst many other concerns. Some urban areas might be considered to be of architectural significance, but many of the poor-quality Victorian houses, and Post-War housing estates are not. It would, however, require central government initiatives to promote change on the scale needed. This might be in the form of a renewal of publicly owned housing, in much the same way that the central government had promoted the building of public housing in the aftermaths of two world wars.

The risk is, that if the schemes were successful, the properties would attract higher values if left on the open market, consequently driving poorer sections of the community out of such areas. The alternative possibility is that the design of the superblocks with their slightly monolithic standard appearance might provoke the opposite effect and the areas decay in the same way that much Post-War high-rise housing has done; high ideals and initial enthusiasm decay into derelict and unwanted accommodation with its attendant social problems. At some point in the not-too-distant future, urban development will again become a ‘hot topic’, the existing ageing property stock, environmental demands, and limited availability of affordable housing will make this almost inevitable. Superblocks may be the solution, but a suspicious public will require some convincing.


Written by Frances Rigby

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