Changing the urban design of cities for health: The superblock model

Changing the urban design of cities for health: The superblock model

By Kendall Morgan, PhD - March 12, 2020  10 mins
Sant Antoni superblock

Atlas trophy and logo Each month, the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world. The January 2020 award goes to Natalie Mueller et al. for their January 2020 article in Environment International: Changing the urban design of cities for health: The superblock model.

If one looks at today’s cities objectively from afar, it’d be fair to wonder whether they were built for cars or for people. In fact, modern cities devote up to 70 percent of the public space to roads and cars. The Barcelona Superblock model intends to reverse that trend, cutting off parts of the city from cars in favor of more green space and more people.

According to an Atlas Award-winning study reported online in the journal Environment International, among other benefits, such a move would have important impacts on improving health. The researchers estimate that the full implementation of the model in Barcelona—including 503 Superblocks across the whole city—could prevent almost 700 premature deaths each year. The findings have implications for rethinking cities around the world.

“Many cities are realizing they have way too many cars. It’s causing high air pollution levels, lots of noise, low physical activity levels, and cars are occupying valuable space that could be used in different ways, such as green space, that would be more beneficial to citizens’ health and wellbeing,” said Natalie Mueller of ISGlobal in Barcelona, Spain. “So, I think this model can be applied to any city realizing they need fewer cars.”

The Superblock model was developed by the Urban Ecology Agency, a public consortium integrated into Barcelona’s City Council. The plan was to transform the city into sustainable and interconnected neighborhoods with plenty of space for plants and people and a lot less space for cars.

As of last year, the Barcelona City Council had implemented three Superblocks in the neighborhoods of Poblenou, Sant Antoni, and Horta. The council has committed to at least six more. But researchers led by Mueller and Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, also of ISGlobal, wanted to know what full implementation of the plan across the city could mean for the health of city residents.

They took into account expected changes in physical activity as more people took to walking or cycling to get around. They also considered other expected benefits related to changes in air pollution, noise, heat, and green space. Their analyses suggest that the full implementation of the Superblock model would result in 667 fewer premature deaths amongst Barcelona’s more than 1.3 million adults each year.

The most significant effects in their model come from reduced air pollution, a leading risk factor for poor health in urban environments. Overall, they suggest that the Superblock model has the potential to increase the average life expectancy of adults living in Barcelona by almost 200 days, by simultaneously reducing harmful exposures and increasing physical activity and access to park-like green spaces.

The Superblock model concept pre-dates the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Nieuwenhuijsen noted. Nevertheless, the researchers note that it fits well with several of those goals, including making cities more sustainable (Goal 11) and combatting climate change (Goal 13).

Their new findings suggest that the model’s implementation also is a step toward SDG 3: to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” They say that the magnitude of the health impacts they’ve uncovered “help to make the case for the rapid implementation in Barcelona and the scale-up to other cities, where similar health benefits can be expected.”

To ensure such benefits are equitable, it will be important to keep the city as a whole in mind. “If you only do this in certain neighborhoods, then you might only replace the problems,” Mueller said. “If it’s only one or a few neighborhoods, then you might just move the traffic to other neighborhoods. There’s also the risk of gentrification. So, we like the idea of the model in having the entire city and all neighborhoods in mind—to improve the quality of life of all citizens in the city.”


Another view of the Sant Antoni superblock

A Conversation with Natalie Mueller and Mark Nieuwenhuijsen

We spoke with Natalie Mueller and Mark Nieuwenhuijsen about the superblock model and how changing the urban design of cities may impact health, climate, and more. podcastListen now.

First, what is the superblock model?

Natalie Mueller: The Barcelona superblock model is an idea developed by the Urban Ecology Agency to create a total of 503 Superblocks stretching over the city of Barcelona. The idea is to reclaim the space occupied by cars and give it back to citizens. This will come with a reduction of motorized traffic, promotion of active transport and community activities; also urban greening is a component. All of this is then hopefully supposed to result in improved air quality, reduced noise levels, among other benefits.

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen: What’s great for Barcelona that it’s built on a grid system. You also see this in many American cities. The idea in superblock is to unite nine blocks together by cutting four junctions. Cars can’t go through anymore, but have to go around and that makes the superblock. The space you’ve freed up is given back to citizens and, as Natalie said, for green space. This is public space used for other purposes than for cars.

This obviously sounds appealing in many ways. What are some of the things that have inspired this now in Barcelona?

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen: The main idea is quite appealing. Still, for the first superblock, there was a lot of resistance among citizens in the area. There were signs up against the superblock. At the same time, others were in favor of it and city council went ahead. As of last year, the city had implemented three superblocks and committed to six more. The idea is that there will be more superblocks, about 500. There’s still a question if it is really going to be the superblock model or some variation of the superblock model. One problem being that inside the superblock it’s very nice. But, perhaps on the outside you may get more cars and it may not be so nice. So, people all want to be on the inside. Now the city council is making it less clearly defined. That’s one of the ways forward. So, it may not be the original model as envisioned by the architect Salvador Rueda, but some variation on it.

Your paper explores the impacts of such a model of the city on health. To what extent was health a motivation for the superblock model?

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen: In the original thinking, it was not really health that was the overriding purpose. The idea was what Natalie mentioned that you get more public space for citizens, not cars. Cars account for 24 percent of the transport mode and take up 60 percent of public space. Barcelona is a walking city and so the city council and organizations working with them wanted more space for people. They also saw advantages in terms of less air pollution. Ten years ago, a study showed many deaths are due to air pollution in Barcelona. But, health wasn’t the ultimate goal of it.

We took the opportunity to see what would be the health benefit of implementing superblocks throughout the whole of Barcelona. Our focus was on reduced air pollution, noise, heat, increased physical activity and green space. We tried to model this and its impact on mortality. What we found is there was reduced premature mortality if we would implement all the superblocks in Barcelona.

How did you carry out this assessment and try to model the health impacts?

Natalie Mueller: We knew we wanted to look at five exposures. We knew baseline levels of exposure in Barcelona and had projections of how these would change with the superblock model. With this, we could estimate the associated health impacts using epidemiological evidence we have for these exposures and their influence on mortality.

Your paper talks about the superblock model in the context of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Were SDGs part of the motivation behind these improvements in the city?

Natalie Mueller: Our thinking was that we understand the Superblock model as a model that works toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and especially SDG 11, to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. It fits well with this goal. The superblock model also relates to overcoming challenges of climate change and environmental degradation. These are all issues we can link to the Superblock model.

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen: One thing you have to realize is that the SDG goals didn’t exist when the architects began thinking about superblocks. The superblock idea has been around for 10-15 years. The SDGs are new by comparison. But in our paper, we tried to put these things together.

You mentioned there was resistance to the idea at least from some people early on. Now that implementation has begun, what is your sense about the feeling now? Does it seem to be working in practice?

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen: It depends who you talk to, and it may work better in some areas than others. You know, it’s very difficult to separate people from their car or to say you can’t use your car here. People are quite attached to it. So, there’s a lot of talking involved with the new superblocks and it’s a very big participatory process. I think the city council wants to go ahead with it, keep going on it, and often people are reluctant to change and later say, “Why didn’t you do it earlier?”

Is there a move to do this in other parts of the world?

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen: Yes, I think there’s more interest outside Barcelona than inside Barcelona. I know Salvador Rueda is traveling around the world to talk about this. I don’t know of any specific place where they’ve been implemented. There may be some variations.

Are there other things about what you found or the concept you’d like readers to know or consider?

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen: In addition to health, the climate benefits for the superblock model through reduction of cars are also quite important. We think about that as well. The move away from the use of the car to other modes of transport, like walking and cycling has great benefits. That’s an important aspect that wasn’t taken into account at the time the superblocks began, but now is. The Barcelona city council just called for a climate emergency and plan to address it and now superblocks have become part of that discussion as well.

Natalie Mueller: We would like to see this model being implemented now. It’s an important thing to consider that this is now a model. Implementation is a whole other process. I hope we’ve shown the benefits this model has and that will help in encouraging the implementation of this model in Barcelona and upscale to other cities as well.

What’s next for you?

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen: We’re doing quite a bit of health impact assessment modeling. We’re doing further studies trying to estimate this in other cities. At the same time, we’re looking at cities where they’ve introduced interventions to make changes or reverse impacts and we’re trying to measure what are the impacts on the environment and health. Particularly in Europe, there’s a lot of effort trying to get cars out of the city center, get people to cycle or walk, or introduce green spaces, partly for health but mainly for climate. So, what we’re trying to do is before and after studies to quantify the health benefits or impacts generally.

About Environment International

Beginning in 2019, Environment International became an open access journal and further expanded its scope into new areas of research to become a multi-disciplinary journal publishing high quality and novel information within the broad field of 'Environmental Sciences'. Coverage includes, but is not limited to, the following research topics: Public Health and Health Impact Assessment, Environmental Chemistry, Environmental Monitoring and Processes and Environmental Technology.

Written by

Kendall Morgan, PhD

Written by

Kendall Morgan, PhD

Kendall Morgan, PhD, is a scientist turned science writer via the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work has been featured in publications including Big Science Media's Genome, Cancer Today, The Scientist, Science News, Science Now, and by organizations including Addgene and the Life Sciences Foundation. She lives in Durham, NC.

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