Superblocks And Spaghetti Streets
London is a city that confounds the casual visitor because so many extreme opposites sit side by side. It’s partly the fault of geography; the roads still follow old riverbanks and hedgerows, and never adopted a grid pattern, although many were proposed. Sir Christopher Wren imagined a reconstructed capital full of wide boulevards and grand civic spaces, a city that would rival Paris for Baroque magnificence. Others like dreamed of a rational, navigable city in a precise, uniform grid.
But the spaghetti streets stayed, and despite endless promises Westminster Council failed to pedestrianise main shopping thoroughfares like Oxford Street. My nearest road is still the most polluted in Europe.
There have been a lot of articles in the UK lately about Barcelona’s superblock scheme – now already in effect in part of the city.
Superblocks really only work on a city with uniform streets. A large part of Barcelona conforms to an amazing tree-lined grid, with diamond corners at the end of every block. Superblocks value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over vehicles, which can still pass through the city, but use every other street.
A total of 503 superblocks are planned for the city, theoretically meaning journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling. The research suggests this would improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide would be reduced by a quarter. I’ve already walked the streets now free of vehicles and the difference is staggering; old people sitting and chatting, kids playing, free outdoor gyms and facilities, tables, flowerbeds, trees.
It couldn’t happen in London, sadly. After Mayor Boris Johnson’s ludicrous anti-pollution plans failed everything slid back, and now the air quality is appalling. Plans to free Soho from cars have been put forward for the last 40 years but councils have bowed to businesses, who say they’d be affected.
This is rubbish. I live in an entirely pedestrianised barrio but every business gets its deliveries on time thanks to electronically programmed parking arrangements. Entire squares are free of any signage, so that cars, babies, wheelchair users and delivery vans all cross them. How? By exercising common sense, giving way, taking things slow.
And that, I suspect, is why the scheme would not work in the UK. It’s simply not in our culture to take time and be a little gentler.