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Who owns the streets? Tactical urbanism in Barcelona and the use of public space

The streets of the Catalan capital have undergone a huge transformation in recent years, but who do these changes serve?


25 September 2021 08:01 AM


Cillian Shields | Barcelona

If you look around at the streets of Barcelona, there’s a lot going on. 

In many corners of the city, you can find different types of barriers, bollards, benches, bike lanes, vegetation and greenery, and even children’s play areas. In almost all cases, this large urban furniture is demarcated by colourful paint done in different designs and styles. 

Barcelona’s streets have changed considerably over the past five or so years, and even more dramatically since the outbreak of the pandemic. 

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The city council led by mayor Ada Colau has been invested in a process known as tactical urbanism, something that has had a huge impact on how people live and interact with their neighbourhoods.

Tactical urbanism is the umbrella term to describe functional changes made to a city to alter the use of public space. It is usually a cheap, fast, and even reversible way to alter the city’s usage, and Barcelona has been doing a lot of it in recent years. 

‘Superilles,’ or ‘superblocks,’ - pedestrianized squares, friendly to relax and socialize in where there was once heavy traffic - is a perfect example of this from before the pandemic. 

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, tactical urbanism has grown hugely in the plans of the local council, as they have aimed to create more open spaces in the city. 

Pathways have been enlargened, entire streets have been pedestrianized on certain days, and bars and restaurants have been allowed to open new terrace spaces, seeing as outdoor dining is a lot safer than indoor dining when it comes to the coronavirus. 

Locals that Catalan News spoke to were very much in favour of the superblocks project and in giving more space to pedestrians. 

Marta, from Germany but a resident of Barcelona, believes it’s “very important for a big city to have places like this where people hang out, also a lot of green spaces here, I really enjoy it.” 

Richard, who has resided in Barcelona for over twenty years, is of the opinion that superblocks should be put on all corners of the city. “I’m sitting here every day and just watching people, I really like to be here every day,” he says.

Emma, another resident of the city, says “It’s really nice to have the green around you, the trees, you can meet people there and you can chill.”

City councillors strongly back the superblock initiatives as well. 

Janet Sanz, the Barcelona councillor in charge of urban planning, cited a report carried out examining the effects superblocks have on cities that concludes that they “have positive effects on people’s lives, health, and wellbeing.”

Businesses against superblocks

However, not everybody is in agreement. Some business owners in the surrounding areas are strongly against the superblock project, arguing it has resulted in a “deterioration” of the Sant Antoni neighbourhood

Public space is a zero-sum game: by giving more space to pedestrians, you have to take it away from another road user, and in this case, that’s drivers. 

This has had an impact on customers of a local off-license, Wine Palace. Josep Lluís, an employee there, complains that customers “know they can't come by on the street [in cars], they have to go around a lot of blocks, it's all very awkward, so in the end, regular customers will come and take one or two bottles, but not as many as they would get in a shopping centre.” 

Josep Lluís spoke too about growing social problems in the area, a complaint that was expressed also by Rosario, who has run a clothes repair shop in the area for the past 23 years. 

She has seen Sant Antoni in many different iterations through the years and says that the superblock project has, on the whole, been “negative” for the neighbourhood. 

“[The neighbourhood] has deteriorated a lot. I’ve seen muggings, a lot of people begging, this kind of thing that I think wasn’t there years ago.”

Lack of perfect harmony

The whole concept of tactical urbanism has come under fire from some city residents who complain of noisy works done late at night, the ugliness of some of the alterations, and the confusion that arises with so many markings on the ground. 

Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell if a part of the road is designated for pedestrians, cyclists, scooter users, or vehicles, and this can lead to problems. 

Added to this is the fact that electric scooters are a relatively new technology that norms and regulations have still not yet fully caught up with, but nevertheless, the vehicles are very popular in the Catalan capital. 

Richard, who enjoys spending time rollerblading and relaxing in the superblock, says he has crashes with scooter users “every day, because they come from nowhere and cross with high velocity.”

“The scooter has a motor, they go faster than me or a walker, that is a problem to me, really.”

Recent figures show that there are around five times more bicycle users in the city, but yet there have been three times more accidents involving scooters than bikes in the Barcelona metropolitan area.

Emma agrees that the amount of road users and the lack of clear regulation can be “quite overwhelming sometimes.” 

“There’s a lot happening, you have to find your way on the bike,” she says. 

Edwin, one scooter user, says there is always conflict between different parties vying for space on roads or paths. “Sometimes on scooters, we don’t have space to move and we have to go into the pedestrian zone, well, always in a responsible way and carefully but we’re always going to have a sort of problem,” he says. 

The superblocks and tactical urbanism project as a whole are celebrated by those who spend time in their neighbourhoods but have not gone down well with businesses in the surrounding areas. 

As Barcelona plans to open more superblocks in new areas in the near future, it seems the city council has some way to go to solve issues of coexistence between everybody who shares roads and public space.


  • The Sant Antoni superblock at the crossroads between Carrer del Parlament and Carrer del Comte Borrell (by Quim Vallès)

  • The Sant Antoni superblock at the crossroads between Carrer del Parlament and Carrer del Comte Borrell (by Quim Vallès)