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.

5 comments on “Superblocks And Spaghetti Streets”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Quite a bit would have to do with that electronically programmed parking. If you can persuade businesses and the delivery firms to co-operate there the rest would fall into place. There are all sorts of other things – “barn dance” corners for example where all traffic stops and all pedestrians can move in any direction, including diagonally. It clears people from all parts of the square and facilitates the movement of vehicles in the next stage. Even little things like that move ease in the right direction. That picture of Barcelona certainly does look desirable and it isn’t a function of a city’s age either, since Barcelona is scarcely new. We were assured that nobody would want to sit outside a cafe “in our climate” where it’s “always raining”. We all sit outside cafes now – and libraries and anywhere you can put a chair or a bench. Our new central branch library had a lawn attached to it with flower beds along the sides and some shallow steps at one end. People picnic on the lawns, read books on the benches and dance on the steps. We have free outdoor movies in the summer and presentation ceremonies at the top of the stairs. Too bad our city hall is on the other side of town because having the library on one side and the hall on the other would have been great. Worst case scenario you could get a book to read while waiting to pay your taxes.
    London didn’t listen to Christopher Wren nor to planners after The War but perhaps third time lucky.

  2. Brooke says:

    Adding to Helen’s excellent examples, It also has to do with 1) citizens’ sense of community; 2) leadership; 3) willingness to innovate and plan for the future’ and some investments. Not necessarily in that order. Fortunate is the city that has at least 2 of the four.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Brooke is absolutely correct.
    I am instructed by my in-house transportation specialist to ask for further details on the electronically programmed parking. We have shipper/receivers who give detailed times for vehicle arrivals and he is wondering if this is the sort of thing meant and if so how much co operation is required/attained by the various firms and truckers involved. You realize, Chris that we expect you to look into all the various socio-economic systems in place wherever you travel and to pass the same on to us.

  4. Brooke says:

    Helen. while we await Mr. Fowler’s answers, check out London’s Open University and other on-line forums where folks from around the world bring examples of how they’re trying to solve climate and other issues.

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    Houston, Texas, works, in spite of being famous for having almost no town planning, apart from requirements to provide enough parking for everyone who uses a building and something on road widths that makes roads wider than many streets are long. Public transport is decidedly amateur (by the standards of most cities), but any people who work in downtown use it for its convenience.

    Town planning, what is it? An opportunity for ego-tripping, power, making corrupt money. I’m sure there are decent, honest, competent town planners, but they are probably given projects on saving cash. Most of those beautiful boulevards were motivated by riot control, like Boris’s water canon, not aesthetics or public transport.

    Urban transport: why do I drive my car in the city? I don’t want. But neither do I want to break my back carrying a ton books from a shop on one side of town to where I buy a hundredweight apples on the other and then both to the bus stop to wait for 30 minutes… . My recipe: free buses (electric in the city centre), small buses (no bendy giants), that run frequently; organised transport of goods between shops and bus stations. Is it a lot to ask? The way forward is not to block the motor car; it’s to make public transport so good that we prefer to use it.

    Every city in Europe seems to have a street that claims to be the most polluted in Europe. We should try to be honest, deny the newspaper headlines and admit that city centre air pollution is actually low and falling. Still Euston Road-Marylebone Road is a horrible mess. Where are all those people going and who made the whole system so obstructive?

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