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What’s in a Name? “Superblocks” in Barcelona and China

The other day, I came across an announcement about the recent commitment in Barcelona, Spain, to “superblocks”—cohesive, people-friendly neighborhoods created from existing residential areas of the city. The expectation is that changes to a few city rules, along with modest financial investments, will be powerful enough to elevate the livability and appeal of these micro-neighborhoods.

Author and urban designer Peter Calthorpe describes the superblock as a “weapon of mass urban destruction.”

But a chapter in Worldwatch Institute’s latest State of the World book, Can a City Be Sustainable?, uses the term “superblocks” quite differently—and critically—in the context of Chinese urban development. There, author and urban designer Peter Calthorpe describes the superblock as a “weapon of mass urban destruction.”

These conflicting concepts of “superblocks” can be confusing. But they also can be constructive, offering hints of what is sustainable and what is not in urban planning today.

First, let’s be clear what a superblock is.

First, let’s be clear what a superblock is. In Chinese cities, they are city blocks several hundred meters long (imagine 4–5 football fields laid end to end), whose several thousand residents live in densely packed high-rise apartments, often far from residents’ jobs. The blocks are surrounded by large arterials, stretching many lanes across, that are meant to whisk residents off to work and to stores.

Chinese high rise superblocks

Chinese high-rise superblocks. (Source: CNU)

Barcelona’s superblocks are quite different in character. In five pilot neighborhoods, the city has lassoed units of nine square blocks of mixed-use buildings into designated superblock zones with new rules for transportation, environmental health, and governance. In contrast to the single mega-block structure used in Chinese cities, Barcelona’s superblock is criss-crossed with small streets; from the air, it looks almost like a tic-tac-toe game. They are full of restaurants, markets, pharmacies, and other small retail outlets, in addition to housing. Streets surrounding the superblocks are designated as throughways (as in China), but Barcelona’s throughways are much smaller and have slower traffic. And they are subject to a series of traffic calming measures.

Barcelona’s superblock is criss-crossed with small streets; from the air, it looks almost like a tic-tac-toe game.

Superblocks in Barcelona

Image credit: Daily Mail

The driving purpose behind Barcelona’s superblocks is to enhance citizenship and increase the quality of life. Indeed, “To fill our city with life” is the tagline of the city’s superblock initiative. Salvador Rueda of Barcelona’s urban ecology agency has said of the superblocks, “We want these public spaces to be areas where one can exercise all citizen rights: exchange, expression and participation, culture and knowledge, the right to leisure.” Cars are perhaps the biggest obstacle to realizing this vision, so Barcelona’s superblocks clearly subordinate the private car to other, people-centered priorities.

“We want these public spaces to be areas where one can exercise all citizen rights.”

Transportation: A Key Variable for Superblocks

Like many American urban planners of the last century, Chinese engineers who designed superblocks were motivated by the effort to move cars quickly across the urban landscape. Cars have had pride of place in China’s transportation planning for several decades—in part because the automobile industry is a key element of the country’s industrial development strategy, but also because cars are widely viewed as important for a middle-class life. Superblocks fit nicely into a car-centered urban vision as a natural complement to wide arterials: masses of people from large housing blocks can feed directly onto the wide streets surrounding the superblocks.

Crosswalks superblock China

Crosswalks on a massive arterial in Kumming, China. (Source: CNU)

Whatever the logic of such an approach, it could not succeed as long as the blocks were single-purpose (for housing), with transportation built around a single, space-devouring mode (the automobile). Such a strategy requires that people climb into cars to do almost anything outside the home, from working to shopping to recreation, leading to massive congestion. The World Bank’s Sustainable Cities blog reports that large blocks tend to promote greater car use, and, in the Chinese case, they subvert the original promise of speedy throughways. Meanwhile, options to walk or bike become dangerous or difficult, and buses are stuck in the same traffic jams that stymie private cars.

Large blocks tend to promote greater car use, and, in the Chinese case,  they subvert the original promise of speedy throughways.

In Barcelona, the superblock experiment is being implemented in conjunction with a new mobility plan that aims to reduce traffic by 21 percent across the city. Superblocks convert nearly 60 percent of streets into areas with limited automobile access: cars cannot park on the internal streets and must be stored in garages within the superblock instead. The speed limit on the internal streets is set at 10 kilometers per hour. And cars are limited to one-way loops around individual blocks, which cleverly feeds them to the superblock’s peripheral throughway streets.

Superblocks aerial view Barcelona

Image credit: BCNecologia

Barcelona’s mobility plan envisions a tripling of the network of bicycle lanes, making the lanes accessible to 98 percent of residents, compared with 72 percent today. The bus system is redesigned to operate on the arterials, putting every citizen within 300 meters of a bus stop and reducing waiting times from the current average of 14 minutes to 5 minutes, anywhere in the city. Rueda promises that in 95 percent of cases, a person could go between any two points in the city by bus with no more than one transfer.

Improvements in Environment and Health

In Barcelona, environmental improvement is a deliberate part of the superblock strategy. The city plans to increase tree coverage and to extend and improve microhabitat, especially for birds. The strategy also envisions promoting more rational use of natural resources, by reducing consumption, producing renewable energy, decreasing demand for drinking water, and reusing graywater and river water. The car-reduction strategy alone should yield clear environmental and health benefits: Rueda’s agency predicts that 94 percent of citizens should enjoy cleaner air with the changes, up from 57 percent today, and the share exposed to acceptable levels of noise pollution will increase to 74 percent from 58 percent today.

In China, the environment appears not to have been a major consideration in the development of superblocks.

In China, the environment appears not to have been a major consideration in the development of superblocks. On the contrary: the central place of automobiles in China’s superblock model largely worsens air pollution, which has become a serious environmental and public health challenge in the country’s sprawling cities. Nationwide, some 31 percent of China’s notorious air pollution comes from vehicle traffic, according to China Daily. Ecosystem functions such as habitat and natural water conveyance are not given priority in Chinese superblock planning.

Popular Governance

Another feature of Barcelona’s superblocks are the new measures of self-governance they promise, as citizens help to define and implement projects in the new micro-neighborhoods. The potential for citizen involvement would seem to be great: by limiting automobile access to each superblock’s internal streets, the amount of usable public space in the city is expected to increase by some 268 percent, especially as many internal intersections become mini-plazas. Local residents could have a great deal to say about how these spaces are transformed into public places.

Local residents could have a great deal to say about how these spaces are transformed into public places.

Best Practice: Local and Connected

The changes in Barcelona are not expensive—about €10 million ($11.2 million) in the first phase—because they largely involve changes to traffic patterns. Later phases may require more investment as streets are remade to support citizen activities.

Meanwhile, Chinese political leaders have laid the policy groundwork for a shift away from superblocks—and in the direction of traditional Chinese neighborhoods (hutongs) that were dominated by pedestrians and bicycles. In March of this year, the Communist Party’s Central Committee released a new set of guidelines covering urban planning and development that prioritizes walking and transit over car use, a major shift in urban development emphasis. And experimental projects in China spearheaded by The Energy Foundation have aimed to create a return to traditional, smaller blocks and transit-oriented development that meets people’s mobility needs.

What’s in a name?  A great deal, it seems, in the case of superblocks.

What’s in a name?  A great deal, it seems, in the case of superblocks. Fortunately, the tension inherent in the Chinese and Barcelonan uses of the term can help to highlight better ways to build cities this century.


Gary Gardner is co-director of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World: Can a City Be Sustainable? He has written on a broad range of sustainability issues, from cropland loss and water scarcity to malnutrition and bicycle use.

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