Barcelona capitalizes on its tactical experience to transform its public space

06 May 2022ContactLisa Gaucher, Maximilian Gawlik

For this fifth publication on tactical urbanism, the Paris Region Institute draws on an interview conducted in March 2021 with Sílvia Casorran Martos, Deputy Chief Architect of Barcelona City Council, and on discussions that followed.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Barcelona responded with one Europe’s most dynamic strategies on public space and mobility. Spain’s second largest city was quick to implement light and safe solutions, such as “safe itineraries”, bicycle lanes and “school streets”. The city was able to learn from its previous experiences with tactical urbanism, notably with the Superblock programme, which allowed for greater agility in adapting to crises, while still remaining committed to sustainability. 

The tactical approach, a tool increasingly mastered

In Barcelona, the tactical approach is not new. The first tactical experiments were launched by the city as early as 2014, when light and temporary installations on the Plaça de les Gloriès Catalanes1 (2015) were specifically designed to accompany the plaza’s redevelopment. In 2016, the Superblocks (Superilles) programme was launched in the Poblenou district. Thanks to the closure of certain streets to through traffic, the reduction of speed on others, and the maintenance of a 50 km/h speed limit on certain key roads, a new hierarchy of streets emerged in the target neighbourhoods. By calming down streets that had been used for motorised traffic and parking, space was freed up for other uses such as rest, recreation, walking and cycling. Instead of cars, active mobility and play now characterise the transformation of streets, which is progressively extending to the scale of the district. Following the experience of transforming Poblenou, in 2018, the municipality decided to apply the same model to the Sant Antoni neighbourhood.
Despite of critics for a lack of consultation and insufficient aesthetics, “tactical tools” have helped lever the transformation of these neighbourhoods, while maintaining the objective of sustainable and durable development. Lightweight features such as wooden furniture, planters and ground paint were initially designed and implemented to last for a certain duration. Later on, more durable development has been systematically carried out. In parallel with the Superblocks programme, other projects using tactical tools were realised, notably to make certain intersections and school zones safer. In all these examples, the tactical approach is thought of as a first step towards a structuring project with the goal of improving conditions for people by reducing the space dedicated to cars.

The health crisis: Cyclists ahead of pedestrians

In response to the health crisis, the municipality of Barcelona carried out a number of actions to make travel safer and free up more space for active modes of transport and leisure. Building on previous experience, the tactical approach was used to implement emergency actions (actuacions emergència). Of these many actions, only changes affecting daily mobility have persisted after the crisis, such as bicycle lanes, sidewalk widening and roadway narrowing at intersections. 
For cyclists, new cycle corridors (Corredors bici) were created throughout the city using street paint and plastic shock absorbers. Using materials similar to those that would be used for permanent cycle infrastructure, as soon as the corridors were installed, they were intended to last. Of the 25 kilometres completed (20 kilometres in 2020 and 5 in 2021), 100% are still operational today. It did not seem necessary to carry out any permanent improvements. The rollout of cycling amenities has thus accelerated in Barcelona and in some municipalities in the metropolitan area.

Towards a metropolitan bicycle network

In the Barcelona Metropolitan Area (Àrea Metropolitana de Barcelona, AMB), several municipalities wanted to strengthen the metropolitan cycle network during the crisis. The accelerated completion of 70 kilometres of bicycle infrastructure was announced in the metropolitan cycle plan for 2020, for this area of 3.2 million inhabitants (36 municipalities and area of 630 square kilometres). While the state of emergency made it possible to speed up public procurement procedures, many technical, financial and scheduling constraints slowed down the implementation of these developments within the AMB. By spring 2021, around 35 kilometres were completed, planned, or in construction, with the City of Barcelona in the lead. 

For pedestrians as well, several actuacions emergència were created during the pandemic. But in contrast to the bicycle facilities, most of them have been withdrawn since. Pedestrian infrastructure included new pedestrian streets and waiting areas, created as part of ‘safe itineraries’ (itineraris segurs). Through these schemes, the municipality aimed to reduce the numbers of pedestrians on narrow sidewalks to limit the transmission of the virus. Precautionary measures took the form of broadened sidewalks (more than 4 metres) and street closures to motorised vehicles and street calming. Once closed by devices such as information panels and safety barriers, these streets were also used for a variety of outdoor activities, such as play and sports. As part of the ’safe itineraries’’, Obrim Carrers, already imagined before the crisis, were also tested. Obrim Carrers are closures of corridors to traffic on every Saturday and Sunday. These closures encouraged the people of Barcelona to walk, cycle and play, similarly to on the Ciclovia in Bogotá. Today, most Obrim Carrers have been removed, some despite the voiced interests of residents. Currently only two Obrim Carrers still remain – the Gran de Gràcia and the Creu Coberta-Calle De Sants axis.

In the neighbouring municipality of L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, the population expressed in 2021 their wish to keep their Obrim Carrers, but without success. At the metropolitan level, few actions for pedestrians were carried out during the pandemic.

Due to the health crisis, actions were carried out in 2020. While some improvements remained (widening of pavements), others have disappeared (street closures as part of the Itineraris Segurs) (photos from 2020). Image credit: Mònica Moreno/City Council of Barcelona 

In the city of the Superblocks a near end to the tactical approach?

At the end of 2020, the city of Barcelona announced the launch of a new Superilles Barcelona plan in Eixample. The central district is known for main roads that are heavily impacted by noise, pollution, traffic accidents, vandalism, etc. Classic Superblocks manoeuvres, including hierarchisation and traffic calming in a grid pattern of streets, give way in the Eixample project to a logic of "green corridors"2. In addition to transforming long road arteries and their intersections into corridors for active mobility, areas of the roads will also be dedicated to leisure, relaxation, and to vegetation. The municipality envisages a much higher percentage of vegetation and trees and attractive street furniture for these streets. Motorised traffic will also be prohibited (except for residents, services and deliveries) along the selected roads. Calls for project proposals have been launched to design 4 of the 21 identified corridors and 4 of the 21 new squares3. This selection will be made by 2023, while the overall construction rollout is scheduled for 2030. A budget of approximately €60 million has been allocated for the new Superilles

In the Superilla Barcelona programme, for the first time, the permanent design of non or low-motorized corridors is being considered from the start, bypassing the temporary phase (the tactical approach). The reasons for this decision include maintenance and management issues during the temporary period, e.g., watering the planters takes time, temporary furniture gets damaged and quickly becomes a controversial issue. For a permanent project, a temporary stage can even be seen as an unnecessary expense. While the tactical approach has been perceived as one of the success factors of the Superblocks in Poblenou in the aftermath , some of Sant Antoni’s designs were durable from the start, without an intermediate project4. In the future, new "classic" Superblocks will probably be built, as the demand from different neighbourhoods is strong, but the use of a tactical approach to carry out these new projects remains uncertain. 

However, tactical approaches will not disappear from the Barcelona landscape. Within the framework of the programme Protecting Schools (Protegim les Escoles), air and noise pollution will be reduced in the vicinity of schools, through tactical urbanism. One hundred fifty of the 600 schools in Barcelona will soon have their streets transformed through tactical measures. For 100 of the schools, projects have already been carried out, while the other 50 are still to be finalised. Many of the projects incorporate light and inexpensive devices (about €75,000/school street), such as floor paint, removable furniture, and play devices. In streets that already have very low levels of traffic, projects mainly consist of removing private vehicles entirely from the street, or reducing the speed limit to 10 km/h. Where this is not possible, street corners are transformed to remove parking areas and reduce speed limits so that maximum speeds are limited to 20 km/h on local streets and 30 km/h on main streets. All these actions are identified with local actors – community based organisations, local associations, schools, and so on.

Less cars, more mobility and greenery for a better quality of life

Thanks to its urban grid (following the Cerdà plan5) and accessible public transport system (almost all bus, metro and tram stations and stops are universally accessible), Barcelona is already a very walkable city. In this very compact city (1.7 million inhabitants and an area of 100 square kilometres in the municipality) active mobility accounts for 63% of commuting, while trips by car account for approximately 20%6 of all trips. Despite these numbers, hundreds of thousands of cars7 cross the city every day, which is heavily impacted by pollution and lacks green spaces. Today, Barcelona sees its road dedicated to motorised vehicles as its greatest opportunity for the sustainable transformation of its public spaces.
With its Superblocks model, Barcelona has become a world reference in the radical but progressive change in the function of public space. Since 2015, a real culture of tactical urbanism has been established. The structural changes that followed the health crisis fit perfectly into this logic. Several of these installations have been retained, especially those that were created with a longer-term vision. Today, the municipality is adapting the use of the tactical approach. It remains a tool deliberately used to advance projects with the aim of making the city safer and more liveable, with better air quality and more green space8. In the future, better coordination with the surrounding municipalities will be crucial to achieve the objectives of improving air quality and combating climate change in metropolitan Barcelona.  

Multiple devices are used to protect areas around schools in the Protegim les Escoles programme. Tactical measures (e.g., planters, ground paint, playground furniture) are often accompanied by more sustainable protective barriers (photos from 2020 and 2021). Image credit: Òscar Giralt, Mònica Moreno and Sílvia Casorran Martos /City Council of Barcelona

Lisa Gaucher

Lisa is an architect who graduated from the École d'Architecture de la Ville & des Territoires Paris-Est. She has been project leader in the Planning, Development and Regions department at the Institut Paris Region since February 2020, and explores the benefits provided and issues raised by the tactical approach in the context of public space. She is also interested in energy-related issues in the Paris Region; infrastructure that will eventually become brownfield; the conversion of buildings; and the use of bio-and geo-sourced materials in the construction industry.

Maximilian Gawlik

Maximilian is a landscape architect and urban planner who graduated from Dresden Technical University and Sciences Po (Paris). After working in architecture, urban design and landscape architecture firms in Paris and Zurich, Maximilian joined the Institut Paris Region in 2019. His role is to support regional and metropolitan bike use policy and to study the energy-related, digital and spatial impacts of data centres. Since 2020 he has been working on the subject of temporary installations in public space. 

4. In the Poblenou district, the tactical approach received bad press for some months due to some delays to breaking ground of the Superblock. The name Superilla was therefore not used from the outset of the transformation in Sant Antoni district. It was only applied later, with more hindsight after the success of Poblenou’s Superilla.
5. Proposed in 1860 by Ildefons Cerdà, this plan has framed the reform, development and urban expansion of the city of Barcelona. Its quadrangular, regular and open structure still characterises the city of Barcelona.
7. Some corridors in Barcelona have a very high traffic volume of over 90,000 vehicles per day. Within the city, 350,000 vehicles are on the road every day, while the two ring roads see about 340,000 cars daily.
8. Barcelona has less than 7m² of green space per inhabitant. Some central areas have an even lower rate, such as the central district of Eixample, with 2m²/inhabitant (the World Health Organisation recommends at least 10m²/inhabitant).

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