Building “cities for people”: Barcelona Superilles.

In his book “Cities for People” the Danish Architect Jan Gehl tells us that if we want to build lively, sustainable, safe and healthy cities, we need to pay more attention to the human dimension, which in the last decades has been highly neglected. According to Gehl, urban planners need to observe the city at eye level, adopting the point of view of a pedestrian rather than thinking about the city only in abstract terms, as “the battle for quality is on a small scale”. Gehl’s view is deeply influenced by the seminal work of the American activist and journalist Jane Jacobs, the first strong voice who denounced the dominant urban planning ideology for having lost contact with real cities and with the needs of their communities.

Today, more and more cities are realizing the importance of going back to the human dimension as a starting point for dealing with the interconnected issues resulting from intense urbanization.

This appears particularly true when we turn to consider the question of traffic. Since the car’s advent, a great amount of time and energies have been devoted to the transformation of the urban environment required to accommodate the ever-growing traffic. This has often meant sacrificing common spaces in order to allow for car’s circulation and parking, which resulted in what could be defined as the “Tragedy of the urban roads” [1], that we discussed in this article.

The dramatic consequences of such approaches have become evident, and contemporary cities are focusing on finding ways to reduce traffic, re-appropriating public spaces and making their streets and neighborhoods more livable and sustainable. Different traffic-reducing measures have been experimented and implemented in the past years, ranging from investments in sustainable and accessible public transportation and bike sharing to measures aiming at discouraging cars’ usage, including car bans, no-cars zones, increases in parking prices combined with reduction of parking spots, and much more.

The city of Barcellona, picture under CC license (available here:

One innovative solution which is worth observing comes from the city of Barcelona, where the newly elected administration is not limiting itself to the introduction of traffic-reducing measures, but is instead completely rethinking the entire city structure, bringing it back to the human scale. Such transformation will take place through the creation of Superilles, macro-neighborhoods designed by adopting the point of view of the pedestrian, with the aim of making the city more livable and sustainable for its citizens. The program Superilles “Let’s fill streets with life” envisages the creation of nine macro-areas, within which car-circulation will be reduced at its minimum, favoring the development of sustainable mobility, green areas and new spaces for collective living. Car circulation will be limited to the perimeter roads of the neighborhoods and parking spots on the street-side will be greatly reduced, resulting in the re-appropriation of collective space. The project is ambitious in its objectives: the city aims at reducing its car use by 21% over the next 2 years, while at the same time increasing the amount of mobility by foot, bicycle and public transport. To facilitate this transformation in people’s habits, the creation of superilles will be complemented by the introduction of a stronger orthogonal bus network, limited to the main streets, and by the creation of 300 kilometers of cycling lines.

This innovative approach to traffic and urban development is only one of the novelties introduced by the new administration, which since its election in 2015 has been attempting to “win back the city”. The administration, guided by the ex-housing activist Ada Colau, who was elected on behalf of the citizens’ movement Barcelona en Comù, is strongly committed to the defense of the common good and to the improvement of people’s quality of life. Furthermore, it believes in the importance of bringing about a transformation by challenging the economic and political dominant paradigms from below, by involving as many people as possible in transparent and participatory decision-making processes. In this way, as explained in the How to win back the city en Comù guide, the city can go back to being the place of encounter, of innovation and of exchange of ideas that it should be, and can become the place where a true democracy is reconstructed.

As stated by Ada Colau, “We’re living in extraordinary times that demand brave and creative solutions. If we’re able to imagine a different city, we’ll have the power to transform it”. This is exactly what is being done in the Barcelona where, through the creation of the superilles, the human dimension is brought back to the center and we are reminded of the importance of creating “cities for people”.

[1] Christian Iaione, The Tragedy of Urban Roads: Saving Cities from Choking, Calling on Citizens to Combat Climate Change, 37 Fordham Urb. L.J. 889 (2009).


Una soluzione innovativa al problema del traffico (recentemente discusso in questo articolo), arriva dalla città di Barcellona, in cui la nuova amministrazione si propone di ripensare l’intera struttura a partire dal punto di vista dei pedoni, riconoscendo l’importanza di quella che l’architetto danese Jan Ghel descrive come la “dimensione umana”. Questo avverrà attraverso la creazione di Superilles, macro-aree al cui interno la circolazione dei veicoli sarà impedita, favorendo invece lo sviluppo di aree verdi e spazi comuni. Complementare alla riduzione del traffico sarà un forte investimento nello sviluppo di trasporti pubblici e piste ciclabili, volto a stimolare lo sviluppo di forme di mobilità sostenibili.