Are Barcelona’s ‘superblocks’ a radical challenge to the neoliberal city?

Barcelona – L’illa Diagonal (Rafael Moneo, 1993, Avinguda Diagonal, 579-585), 2016. Wikicommons/ Zarateman. Some rights reserved.Barcelona
has become the focus of international attention due to a proposal for urban
transformation in its Eixample district, through the creation of
“supermanzanas” (superblocks). Combining nine of the blocks proposed by
Ildefons Cerdà in the 1859 plan (very different from those realised) is meant
to reduce traffic in the streets and squares inside the superblock’s
perimeter, confining it to the perimetral streets, in order to solve
serious problems deriving from pollution, the near absence of green areas, and the
minimal space for pedestrians caused by the omnipresence of cars.

The “supermanzanas” (superblocks, literally ‘superapples’) project aims at creating four squares
in every superblock, converting the inner part of intersections in areas mostly
dedicated to pedestrians. This is a proposal that, if completely fulfilled, will
radically change the face of the city.

The central issue is the following: is this a change that is going
to confirm features of the neo-liberal city, limited to mitigating them with
the introduction of – essential and very helpful – measures for the reduction
of air and accoustic pollution and for the creation of pedestrian areas? Or is
this an opportunity to fundamentally challenge the neo-liberal economy in its urbanism,
its processes of production, its voracity, its unfamiliarity with ethics, its
inequality and its destruction of the environment? 

International attention towards the project has been accompanied
by recent, and predictable, anger on the part of the residents of the site of
the first superblock in Poble Nou, due to the concentration of traffic. This
has remained unchanged in its quantity and quality because of the habits of car–users
travelling around the city on the perimetral streets, due also to the absence
of areas dedicated to the sacred rite of parking. These criticisms should
oblige us to slow down and reflect.

Urban Mobility Plan of Barcelona / Public Domain

Here we are not
going to analyse technical issues, the flows of cars, directions, signalling,
number of parking areas. On the contrary, we want firstly to focus on the
resistance and criticism of the superblocks made by the inhabitants, only then going
on to analyse the elements that could turn the “supermanzanas” into a feature
for significant change.

The opposition
towards the project can be explained by two elements. The first one, with deep
roots, is the cultural educational problem: perhaps the blind rage caused by
the offence to the sacred nature of the car reveals an underlying problem in a
(mis)education system, whose main prerogative is teaching people to accept the status
quo in neo-liberal society without acknowledging or interrogating its
foundational premises, thereby silencing any quest for different horizons?

The still sacred
element of our times – the automobile – despite its obviously destructive impact
on city life, is the main issue. This strange God continues to be venerated by
the majority of people. Nevertheless, like every God, the automobile limits
freedom – even more than the city does – it increases air pollution, threatens
our peace with its hypnotic noise, threatens our lives with accidents and with
its support to the oil industry, to the pharmaceutical industry, to psychological
disorders, to insurance companies, to loans from banking institutions, among
other things. It constrains freedom: as has been known for decades – or as it
should be compulsory education to teach – the real speed of an automobile is 6
kilometres per hour.

The typical
American devotes more than 1600 hours per year to its automobile: sitting in
it, in motion or stationary, working for paying it, for paying fuel, tyres,
tolls, insurance, infringements and duties for federal highways and communal
parking. They devote four hours per day in which they use it, look after or
work for it […] But if we ask ourselves how these 1600 hours contribute to its
circulation, the situation changes. These 1600 hours serve up to make a 10 000
kilometres ride, that is to say 6 kilometres in one hour. It is the same
distance that people that live in countries without transport industry can
reach. But, while North Americans dedicate to circulation one quarter of their
available social time, in non-motorised societies time allocated for that
purpose is between 3 and 8 percent of the social time. What distinguishes the
circulation in a rich country and in a poor country is not a greater
efficiency, but the obligation to consume in high dose energies related to the
transport industry.
Ivan Illich, Energy and equity [1974]

Mural in Poble Nou / Photo by Isabel Rosero (Flickr.) Some rights reserved.The substitution in
cities of the automobile with the bicycle has been an urgent need for decades.
The high energy efficiency of a bicycle, its inbuilt critique of the
neo-liberal economy, its independence from fossil fuel – i.e. wars and
environmental devastation – and from everything related to the automotive
industry, are fundamental motivations boosting a radical change in approach to
the problems of our times. The issue of the veneration of the automobile could
be solved with real educational action opposing the mass-media onslaught in
support of the automotive industry, insurance companies, etc., who finance
newspapers through advertising and content sponsored by brands. The substitution in
cities of the automobile with the bicycle has been an urgent need for decades.

An educational
campaign carried out in streets, in parks, courts, social centres, truly
independent and critical newspapers could help us to understand many problems
of our society, albeit this is a process that requires time and effort. But the
 disputed “supermanzana” could represent
the beginning of the end of automobiles in the city, if it becomes the catalyst
of profound cultural change.

The second element
of the protests that we want to highlight is the inadequate sense of ‘taking
the project by the people who live in that area, due to the low levels of participation
throughout its genesis and realisation. In order to feel comfortable in a place
– public or private – it is necessary for this to be created, modified, lived,
penetrated. The feeling of being subjected to the imposition of a project, or
insufficient participation in its creation and fulfilment, will always create
direct or indirect opposition. Although there have been moments of conversation
with the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, apparently these have not been
sufficient, in quantity or in quality.

Urban agriculture

In order to convert
“supermanzanas” into an instrument for a deep change, disrupting the structure
of the neo-liberal city where people are schooled and submissive towards those
in power, and in order to contribute to the establishment of a city that is
human, cooperative, supportive, equal and respectful towards the delicate
natural equilibrium, we have to take into account a very important element:
urban agriculture.

We are not talking
about organising urban gardens to enhance the image of the city, which would
immediately become a sustainable model for other cities; we
are not talking about gardens so that “elderly people” – considered to be a
problem when it comes to production, instead of being respected and considered
repositories of wisdom and memory – keep themselves busy after a life of
subordinate employment. We are even less talking of creating a new empty and
commodified fashion to feed the neo-liberal economy which consumes everything.

We are saying
exactly the opposite. Urban agriculture can catalyse a slow and deep
transformation of the city overall, in different facets, from food sovereignty
and environmental protection to the economy, from a proper education to the retrieval
of personal autonomy and mutual peer support, on one condition: that this would
be proposed, organised, lived, and actively shared among the people who live
the city. The
lack of green areas in the Eixample district is serious and requires urgent and
energetic action.

Barcelona has 1076 hectares of parks and public gardens (without
counting the Collserola), which means an average of 6,64 m² of green areas per
inhabitant, much less than what other cities can offer. Prague, for example,
has 2650 hectares of urban parks – without counting natural parks and woods –
meaning an average of 21.34 m² per inhabitant). In the Eixample district
numbers are noticeably lower: 1.85 m² per inhabitant, due to – among other
factors – the distortion and denaturalisation, in its most literal sense, of
the Plan Cerdà during its implementation. To be sure, speculation was the main
cause. The lack of green areas in the Eixample district is serious and requires
urgent and energetic action so that people can live in a fair and healthy way.

In a city like Barcelona, in which – despite the many and laudable
initiatives adopted by the city council to address the problems of the city –
the number of people living in serious difficulty is high, the growing of food
in the city would, on the one hand, carry a high symbolic value and be an
opportunity to overcome the passive acceptance of a devastating system; on the
other hand, it would bring about an incredible number of positive effects in
the short term and represent an impulse for change in the longterm. 

Among other factors: 

– It would offer free food to people – in the program of Barcelona
en Comú the intention of “ensuring
the right to basic nutrition” 

– It would make the quality of air and
microclimate better. The presence of thousands of fruit-bearing trees would
clear the air – reducing the levels of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur
dioxide, particular matter PM10 – and would bring important benefits for
health, attenuating noise, providing areas of shade, enriching wildlife in the
urban perimeter, and reducing levels of carbon dioxide, thereby contributing to
the fight against climate change and naturally regulating temperature on the
microclimate level, additionally bringing beauty to each season.

– It would push for cooperation, social relations, mutual support
and peer dialogue in a society in which competition rules on every level, from
the cradle to the grave – in school, work, relationships, politics, university,
social activities, sport, etc. Using the words of Richard Sennet: “a city
obliging people to tell each other what they think and realising from this form
a condition of mutual compatibility.”

– It would enhance personal relationships through nature, its
understanding, the culture of biodiversity as opposed to the logic of
monoculture imposed by corporations and to the conquest and devastation of
nature for profit-making. 

– Together with the substitution of the car by the bicycle and the
commitment to degrowth, urban agriculture would contribute to easing the energy
problem, by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels in transporting food
between regions and countries – or even continents – as well as diminishing
traffic in the city due to the transportation of food.

– It would boost vegetarian and vegan philosophies beyond fashion
and commodification to reflect on the relationships between human beings and
animals and the defence of the rights of the latter – who are not machines in
the service of humanity, despite what Descartes thought; to reflect also on ethical
and environmental problems, contributing to the fight against climate change
–  since the production of meat and milk is
one of the main causes of global warming and of the processes of destruction of
rainforests for the production of animal feed. It
is necessary to accord the city its educational role.

– It would contribute to boosting education in and through the city, outside schools,
transforming the city into a learning place. The observation of the process of
food growing, from seed – defending biodiversity, using traditional patent-free
local seeds, recovering traditional wisdom on harvesting, would reverse the
strange idea of food as a good coming from a conveyor, packed by unknown
distant hands (often) with no rights, in a plastic bag with a barcode, sold by
some speculator who harvests the fruits of the work for some other person.

The city programme “Huertos escolares” (‘School gardens’), no
doubt useful and positive, would be no longer necessary as it would have become
part of the city life, without recourse to school. It is necessary to accord the
city its own educational role. The organisation of spaces for urban agriculture
in the Eixample district would be a catalyst for the de-schooling of the city,
for the collapse of a whole system of values that the so-called compulsory
education teaches – dressed up as freedom of choice – through the acceptance of
neo-liberal society as it is. 

– It would spread organic cultivation methods, the knowledge of
the ecosystem, the understanding of delicate natural balances, a new
sensitivity towards life, nowadays unknown.

– It would contribute to bringing the city closer to real
democracy, nowadays inexistent.

The city council would have only the role of presenting, through
an honest, deep and detailed briefing the problems, not only on the urban
level, but also on a larger scale, to discuss, propose and coordinate the
actions of people in a real participatory democracy. The
role of urbanism is to contribute to breaking the ties between the city and the

In the context of
the weakening democracy that we have been experiencing over recent decades we
are de facto living in an oligarchy – the role of urbanism is
to contribute to breaking the ties between the city and the markets and to act
in order to destabilise the current oppressive system towards the weakest by
offering individual and collective tools to realise a participatory democracy,
without excluding anyone.

The only work that
the city council would need to put in place, with a high symbolic value, would
be to draw a circle in the middle of each crossroad in the Eixample district
and remove the asphalt layer. Before an empty space, in the middle of each
crossroad, a place in which market and power are not present, a space that
nobody can sell, buy, exploit, rent or use for parking, around this space we
should think how to organise the city all together, without exclusion.

This would mean
taking away the asphalt layer that for decades kept us apart from the
land, waterproofing the entire city, waterproofing our sensitivity, and putting
at the centre a source of public free quality water, a common good outside of
the market, and around the source to grow vegetables and fruits for those who
need them, apples that feed indiscriminately. The apple is here, hanging on a
tree, a possibility to change into a new era. An apple that is a fruit of the
social economy, with no barcode, each apple with a different taste. The apple,
fruit of the land, redeemer of the metropolis, feeds people regardless of their
passports and bank accounts. This would be a starting point for overcoming the
commodification of life and retrieving a relationship with these natural
elements in the urban context of the XXI century. Food and beauty for everyone,
with no mediation, undertaking a substantial, slow and deepseated change. 

Vista de l’Illa Diagonal. Jordiferrer/Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

In the symbolic
space where power cannot enter, in the website of the city, one can
read that the urban gardens of the city are organised by the city council
in collaboration with the Fundació La Caixa, a foundation
managed by one of the best-known Spanish banksHaving seen the
collusion between banks and political powers, it is necessary to terminate
forthwith any relationship between the city and the banks. While the
“cooperation with the La Caixa Foundation” is in progress, whatever change is
made will automatically convert itself into a simulacrum that cannot really
impact on the organisation of the city. But in this space for democratic life,
the act of taking away the asphalt and presenting soil and water as a common
good represents quite another possibility for a
radically different city, endowing it both with symbolic meaning and a crucial
practical effect. Introducing
urban agriculture and putting at its centre water as a common good means
considering the past as a tool to change the present.

Far from being a step backwards – as if history was a linear
process and what comes after is unquestionably called progress – introducing
urban agriculture and putting at its centre water as a common good, means
considering the past as a tool to change the present.

From the errors and horrors of the vast majority of urban planning
in the XXth century that forgot life, we should quickly learn how to change the
fundamentals of the way to live the city, facing economic, feeding, climate,
social, environmental, cultural, aesthetic problems in the context of
participatory democracy among peers based on social and environmental justice,
non-commodified health, food production outside corporations, commons, popular
culture, memory, independent thinking, and education as a libertarian process
of liberation. 

The shopping mall Illa
, designed by Rafael Moneo and Manuel de Solà-Morales in 1993,
is located in the Eixample district. The first stone that was placed  as it is said on the
website of the mall  contains an insurance policy and a
certificate of deposit. The symbols of our era. Real progress, slow and deepseated
change, would start by taking away the asphalt layer, going back to the soil
and substituting, as symbolic elements of a new era, the insurance policy and
the certificate of deposit with seeds
and a source of public water. 

This substitution of elements would benefit the majority of
people, maybe everyone except speculators. Orwell once said, “Journalism
consists of printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else
is public relations.” Adapted to the neo-liberal city one might say: “Urbanism
consists in doing together things someone does not want you to do: everything
else is speculation.”


Thanks go to the translators, Gianmarco Lalli and Jamie Mackay.

This article was published thanks to the author and Political
where it appeared on July 3, 2017.

Also published in Seres Urbanos | El País and originally in Perspectivas anómalas.


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