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Radical Changes In Urban And Transport Planning Are Needed For A Healthier Barcelona: The New Plan Cerdà For 21st Century

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Photo: Edu Bayer / Barcelona city council - Children and families play in the pacified area of the Sant Antoni superblock, Barcelona.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Barcelona very hard, with the most noticeable visible impacts on the lack of tourists, shop closures, underused public transport and the use of face masks. During the severe lockdown, car and motorbike traffic fell dramatically resulting in a drop of air pollution and noise levels. Before the pandemic Barcelona had some of the highest traffic density and air pollution and noise levels in Europe -the suboptimal urban and transport planning in the city has led to an estimated 3,000 premature deaths per year.

Barcelona is a compact city and it forms part of a large metropolitan area. Even though only around one out of four trips in Barcelona is by car, car traffic dominates the city because of its large demand for space and infrastructure. Furthermore, there is a lack of green space in the city with only a few parks.

Even though only around one out of four trips in Barcelona is taken by car, car traffic dominates the city because of its large demand for space and infrastructure

The city council is trying to address these issues by reducing space for cars and increasing space for pedestrians and cyclists, for example by creating so-called "superblocks" and by increasing dramatically cycling lanes, but the progress is slow. A large part of the problem is traffic coming from the metropolitan area with around 500,000 cars entering and leaving Barcelona city every day.

Photo: Edu Bayer /Barcelona City Council. A man is riding a bicycle on Carrer Rocafort with the widened sidewalk for pedestrians.

Furthermore, there are other underlying trends such as the online buying of products that requires delivery of millions of packages per year and leads to the death of local shops. During the pandemic, online buying has doubled to around an estimated 20% of products sold online now. In addition, Barcelona has lost the initiative it once held and now visibly falls behind cities like Madrid and Seville in terms of maintaining and improving housing, urban and transport planning and.

Dramatic and urgent action is needed to stop the decline, improve urban and transport planning and make Barcelona more sustainable, liveable and healthier by reducing air pollution and noise levels, heat island effects and increasing green space and physical activity. It is time for a radical rethink to revitalise the city and make it a city for people, rather than for cars, which is the case for the moment.

It is time for a radical rethink to revitalise the city and make it a city for people, rather than for cars, which it seems at the moment

Janet Sanz, responsible for Ecology, Urbanism and Mobility in the Barcelona city council wants a Pla Cerdà for the 21st Century and asked the chief architect, Xavier Matilla, to organise a competitive call to get a team together and come up with a plan. Here are some of the changes that I believe should be considered and made. The list is not inclusive and detailed but provides some overall ideas.

Urban and transport planning principles and actions for changes in Barcelona:

  1. Improve and enlarge sustainable and healthy public transport connecting Barcelona better with the rest of the metropolitan area, or, alternatively, spread work places and jobs throughout the metropolitan area, reducing the need for extensive mobility. Mobility is strongly related to land use and the great influx of cars from the Metropolitan area into Barcelona city.
  2. Accelerate the superblocks/superilles programme and create over 500 superblocks or something equivalent in Barcelona, which will reduce air pollution and noise levels, heat island effects and increase green space and physical activity. This could prevent nearly 700 premature deaths each year in Barcelona.
  3. Move towards a 15-minute city as proposed for Paris, where work, school, entertainment and other activities are reachable within a 15-minute walk from home. This will require mixing different population groups rather than the current zoning by socioeconomic status, which would help reduce inequalities.
  4. Make any new urban development (e.g. the new Forum area) car-free and with easy access to active and public transportation. A successful example is Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, which is a neighbourhood without cars and with sustainable housing.
  5. Revitalise the old city and pedestrianise Via Laietana, Passeig de Colom and Carrer de Fontanella and connect them with the Ramblas to create a walking circle and use some of the space for things like new markets to promote local (Catalan) products. Furthermore, cover the Ronda Litoral along Passeig de Colon and create a large square opening up the space to the harbour for specific people's activities.
  6. Create a Rambla in each quarter in Barcelona like the Rambla del Poblenou, where people can walk and cycle and enjoy green space, and where car use is restricted. Then try to connect the Ramblas throughout the city to create a network of “ramblas”.
  7. Introduce and enforce 30 km/hr speed limit in all streets of Barcelona. Currently, we have highways running through Barcelona like Carrer Aragó, but lower speeds on the roads will lead to less air pollution and noise and less severe accidents. In a collision between a car and a pedestrian at 30 kilometers/hour, the pedestrian has a 90% chance of surviving, at 60 km/hr this is 10%. Car speed limits are already being reduced around schools in Barcelona to 20 km/hr but this is needed elsewhere too.
  8. Introduce a requirement to make all remaining motorized traffic electric within the next 10 years, which will greatly reduce local air pollution and noise levels and CO2 emissions. Particularly for motorbikes this should be fairly easy and there are already a large number of rentable electric ones around in the city. Use Shanghai as an example where all motorbikes are electric.
  9. Encourage and incentivise teleworking, for at least a few days per week, which will reduce the need for commuting and reduces air pollution and CO2 emissions. The pandemic has shown that, for many jobs,  teleworking is possible.
  10. Support the local economy. E-commerce (online buying) has been growing dramatically, but it leads to local shops closing and dead shopping streets in the long-term, as well as increased traffic and pollution in the short term because of all the (home) deliveries. Pedestrianizing streets and/or reducing car traffic are good ways to increase retail sales.
  11. Increase green space throughout the city, as it is important for people's mental health and reduces premature mortality. There is not only a need for new developments like the park in Plaça Glòries, but also more green in the streets. We need to dig up asphalt and plant more green, which will reduce heat island effects and contributes to CO2 sequestration.
  12. Increase the cycling network further as a way to reduce motorised traffic and increase activity mobility and therefore increase physical activity and people´s health. Great progress has been made to create cycling lanes, but there are still gaps in the network. A cycling lane in all streets should be the aim. It will provide people with the opportunity to build physical activity into their daily lives like daily commutes, because they often do not have enough time to go to the gym.

Finally, any proposals for a new Pla Cerdà should go through quantitative environmental, climate, health and equity assessments, and any changes should be monitored throughout and after the implementation in terms of environmental, climate, health and equity effects to optimize impacts.

Photo: Barcelona City Council. Ephemeral street furniture in Plaça de les Glòries.

In conclusion

Barcelona needs to rethink its urban and transport planning quickly and drastically to recapture the leading role in urban planning it once had. Ildefons Cerdà planned the Eixample with health in mind and Barcelona is one of the best examples of a city planned for health. His vision of wide open streets with fresh air became large highways running through the city, filling the air with health-threatening pollutants. We need to go back to his original vision.

Barcelona needs to rethink its urban and transport planning quickly and drastically to recapture the lead in urban planning that the city was renowned for worldwide

There is a lot of citizen support building up to improve the city, for example through grass root organisations like Recuperem la Ciutat, but also resistance from parts of society, and it is important to get everyone on board to make Barcelona more sustainable, liveable and healthier.