Could Spanish “Superblocks” make Belfast Greener, Quieter and a Nicer Place to be?

So much of our modern city space is dedicated to cars, the needs of the automobile take priority in almost every city’s layout. This causes pedestrians and cyclists to be pushed to narrow pavements and cycles lanes, both having to navigate through traffic as they go. One alternative to this norm is the “Superblock” scheme currently being implemented across cities in Spain. You take an area of blocks and close off the inside to ‘through’ traffic i.e buses and big lorries or any vehicles that are trying to get from one side of town to the other. These vehicles then have to drive round the perimeter. Inside the superblock the speed limit is kept at 20 km/h and the junctions are closed off entirely. This leads to street space for markets and outdoor events where people can walk around without worrying about cars.

In the Spanish city of Vitoria-Gasteiz superblocks have been in place since 2008. In the main superblock in the centre of town noise levels dropped by the significant amount of 5.5 decibels. There was a 42 percent reduction in Nitrogen dioxide emissions and a 38 percent reduction in particle pollution in the air. Not only are the environmental benefits striking but these superblocks also seem to have a positive impact on the economy of the local area. As people walk through town rather than drive they are more likely to stop and spend money. This scheme has been so successful throughout many parts of Spain that the country’s second largest city, Barcelona, began widespread implementation of superblocks across the city.

So is this project something that we could import to Belfast and what are the potential advantages and disadvantages of doing so? When asked about the case of Belfast and how possible it would be to implement superblocks in a city without a strict grid system Salvador Rueda, Director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, the organization responsible for the superblock scheme in that city said:, “Its true that in the case of Barcelona, the existence of a regular urban grid allows superblocks to be implemented more systematically and simply.” However, he went on to say that “superblocks can be adapted to any urban fabric. The shape of the superblock is irrelevant, as can be seen in some of the sites in where they have already been implemented, such as the case of the city of Vitoria or the two existing ones in the Barcelonan neighbourhood of Gràcia and the one in the district of La Ribera (Born), also in Barcelona.”

Rueda stated the advantages he believes superblocks could bring to Belfast; as well as the environmental benefits, he also explained how superblocks can contribute to what he describes as “the five rights that public space should guarantee.” These were are: “the right to leisure and habitation as they allow for sports practice, children’s games and celebrations, the right to exchange/commerce as they allow for installation of traveling markets, terraces, exchange of collectibles, the right to culture and knowledge as they allow for theatre, music, dance and art exhibitions to take place and the right to expression and participation for example debates and meetings of neighbours and, of course, also the right to movement.”

At the time that the superblock scheme was announced in Barcelona there was some opposition and protest from local residents. The main argument of opposition being that closing off some roads will only create more congestion in others. Rueda responded to this saying that in time as people came to adapt to the new system and learn to use their cars less many people realised that the superblocks had in fact caused an improvement despite their original reservations. He said, “In the case of Barcelona, in order to maintain a level of service similar to the current one after the implantation of superblocks throughout the city, it is necessary to reduce the number of vehicles circulating by only 13% and this is achieved thanks to several factors. On the one hand, the promotion of means of transport such as walking and cycling. Also with the implementation of a public transport network that is a truly valid alternative to the use of the private vehicle. It is possible that superblocks hinder the transit of some private vehicles, but in the end this is a positive if we want to reduce the number of vehicles circulating in the city. The residents who complain at the start, soon will not want to hear about the fact that the silence they enjoy now on their streets can be broken so they can circulate cars at a faster rate in front of their doors. In a place where the streets were empty, without life, there are nowadays people who eat their lunch outdoors in the installed picnic tables and benches, and children who can play ball, ride safely on skateboards or bicycles. In a city so dense and with so little green in some neighbourhoods like Barcelona, for too long a child could not go down the street to play with their neighbours because of the cars. Who would want to return to the previous situation when something like that has been achieved?”

As a map produced by the Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs shows, large parts of Belfast city centre have noise levels over 65 decibels. Unsurprisingly the highest noise levels are recorded on the roads. If the previously stated example of Vitoria-Gasteiz where in the central superblock noise levels dropped from 66.5 decibels to 61 decibels is a good indicator, then the evidence would suggest that implementation of superblocks could drastically reduce noise pollution in Belfast.
As for the potential for air pollution reductions in Belfast several areas around the city such as Stockman’s lane, Short Strand and the areas surrounding both the Albert Clock and Victoria Square were recorded in to 2015 to have exceeded EU guidelines for air quality with regards to concentration of Nitrogen Dioxide. The EU air quality target is 40 µg/m3 for Nitrogen Dioxide and in the survey carried out by Belfast City Council seven different areas around Belfast exceeded this number with another seven falling into the range of 38-40 µg/m3.

Prof. Geraint Ellis of the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University, Belfast points out that “Belfast is one of the most car dependent cities in Europe and it will take a very bold policy initiative to shift this car-centric culture”. Crucial here is the attitude of Belfast businesses “The current support for facilitating more cars is clearly contrary to their long term interests of having a vibrant city centre’.

Finn Purdy is an A-level politics student in Belfast with a particular interest in local issues. Twitter – @FinnPurdy