Combining nine of the blocks proposed by Ildefons Cerdà in the 1859 plan (very different from those realised) they are meant to reduce car traffic in the streets and squares inside the superblock’s perimeter, confining it to the perimetral streets, in order to create a solution for the serious problems deriving from pollution, the near absence of green areas, 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 the intersections in areas mostly dedicated to pedestrians. This is a proposal that —if completely fulfilled— will radically change the city.
The central part of the issue is the following: are we facing a change that is going to confirm the elements of the neo-liberal city, limiting to correcting them with the introduction of – essential and very helpful – measures for the reduction of air and acoustic pollution and for the creation of pedestrian areas? Or is it an opportunity to criticise the neo-liberal economy through urbanism, its production structure, its voracity, its unfamiliarity with ethics, its inequality and its destruction of the environment?
The international attention towards the project has been accompanied by the recent —and predictable— anger of a 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 people that use cars for travelling around the city, in the perimetral streets and due to the absence of areas dedicated to (for) the sacred rite of parking. These criticisms should make us slow down and reflect.
Here we are not going to analyse technical issues, flows of cars, directions, signalling, number of parking areas. On the contrary, we want firstly to focus on the resistance and on the criticism towards the superblocks made by the inhabitants, then we are going to analyse the elements that could turn the “supermanzanas” into a feature for a significant change.
The opposition towards the project can be explained through 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 car reveals an underlying problem in the (mis)educational system, whose main prerogative is teaching to accept the “status quo” of the neo-liberal society without asking, without knowing its bases, silencing any search for different horizons?
The still sacred element of our times —the automobile— despite its obvious destructive action towards the 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— 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 treatments, to insurance companies, to the loans from banking institutions, among other things. It constrains freedom: as it has been known for decades —or as it should be known and taught during the compulsory education— 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 
The substitution of the automobile with the bicycle in the city has been an urgent need for decades.
The substitution of the automobile with the bicycle in the city is an urgent need since decades. The high energy efficiency of bicycle, its critical presence towards neo-liberal economy, its independence from fossil fuel —i.e. wars and environmental devastation— and from everything related to the automotive industry are fundamental elements for the boost of a radical change in the approach to the problems of our times. The issue of the veneration of the automobile could be solved with real educational action opposing the bombing from mass-medias in support of the automotive industry, insurance companies, etc. —who finance newspapers through advertising and content sponsored by brands— an educational action carried out in the streets, in parks, courts, social centres, truly independent and critical newspapers can help us understand the problems of our society, a process that requires time and effort. The disputed “supermanzana” could represent the beginning of the end of automobiles e 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 feeling of appropriation of the project by the people who live in that area, due to the insufficient 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 the insufficient participation in its creation and fulfillment, 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.
In order to convert “supermanzanas” in an instrument for a deep change, disrupting the structure of the neo-liberal city, 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, sap of 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
Urban agriculture can catalyse a slow and deep transformation of the city overall, on different grounds, from food sovereignty and environmental protection to the economy, from a proper education to the win-back of personal autonomy and mutual peer support, at one condition: that this would be proposed, organised, lived, and actively shared among the people who live the city.
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 literal meaning— of the Plan Cerdà during its implementation —speculation, certainly, was its 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 difficulties 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 an incredible number of positive effects on the short term and would be an impulse for change on the long term.
- It would offer free food to people – in the program of Barcelona en Comú the intention of “ensuring the right to basic feeding” is outlined.
- 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, it would attenuate noise, provide areas of shade, enrich wildlife in the urban perimeter, it would reduce the levels of carbon dioxide contributing to the fight against climate change and would naturally regulate the temperature on the microclimate level, additionally bringing beauty in 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 conquering 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 ease the energy problem, by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels to transport food between regions and countries —or even continents— as well as it would diminish traffic in the city due to the transportation of food.
- It would boost the vegetarian and vegan philosophy beyond fashion and commodification to reflect on the relationships between human beings and animals and the defense of the rights of the latter —who are not machines in the service of humanity, despite what Descartes thought; to reflect also on the ethical and environmental problems, contributing to the fight against climate change —being the production of meat and milk one of the main causes of global warming and of the processes of destruction of rainforests for the production of animal feed.
- It would contribute to boosting education in and through the city, outside of schools, transforming the city in 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 change the perverse 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 of some other person. The city programme “Huertos escolares” (‘School gardens’), no doubts 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 give to the city its 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 the neo-liberal society as it is.
- It would spread organic cultivation methods, the knowledge of the ecosystem, the understanding of the delicate natural balances, a new sensitivity towards life, nowadays unknown.
The city council would have the only role of presenting, through an honest, deep and detailed information 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.
In the context of a weakening of democracy, that we have been living over the past 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 as a parking, around this space we should think how to organise the city all together, without exclusions. It 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 without calculating. 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 the starting point to overcome the commodification of life and to go back to having a relationship with these natural elements in the urban context of the XXI century. Food and beauty for everyone, with no mediation, to take on a substantial slow and deep change.
It is necessary to stop any relationship between the city and the banks
In the symbolic space where the 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 banks. Having seen the collusion between banks and political powers, it is necessary to stop any relationship between the city and the banks. Until the “cooperation with the La Caixa Foundation” is on, whatever change will automatically convert itself into a simulacrum that will not really impact the organisation of the city— in this space for the democratic life, the act of taking away the asphalt and presenting soil and water as a common good represents another possibility for a radically different city, and gives both a symbolic meaning and crucial practical effect.
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 XX 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, education as a libertarian process of liberation.
The shopping mall Illa Diagonal, 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, a slow and deep 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 a seeds and a source of public water.
This substitution of elements would benefit the majority of people, except speculators. As Orwell said, “Journalism consists of printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” In the context of the neo-liberal city one can say: “Urbanism consists in doing together things someone does not want you to do: everything else is speculation.”
Massimo Paolini is an architecture theorist and author of the Blog Perspectivas anómalas around the issues of relationships between city, architecture, ideas (and freedom). He contributes to journals in the field of critical thinking and he is advisor of Art in Translation | University of Edinburgh for what concerns arts and architecture.