The project rethinks a city motorway to make a civic axis with crossroads transformed into squares. A new strategy for neighbourhood-based urban planning, in favour of transversal movement of local reside, based on focuses, methods and instruments that intelligently inform the urban project.
[...] in fact it is necessary to invert the process—of planning—starting out from life in society, from social relations, from individual experiences, continuing with the same hypothesis, from bedroom to living room, from school to office, from where I can park my car to where I go for a coffee, or go to see a play, or to a recreational club, it is certainly here where the city is reborn, starting from within, and is structured (woven from relations between things, not of things), recovering a lost personalisation by means of a contiguity of habitable spaces, channelled or extended, vertical or horizontal, internal, semi-exterior or exterior, private or public.
One of the areas of the city that stimulates most interest in urban-planning terms is the street, the urban public space par excellence. The street-space, thus called in order to endow it with a wider connotation as shaper of a network of places of socialisation and centrality of the city, as well as being a channel of flows of people, goods, and information, is a subject of tremendous scope for discussion with implications transcending the disciplinary focus of urban planning. And this is still more relevant when it comes to thinking about the phenomenon of urban mobility at a time when the need to resolve the hegemony of the automobile is becoming an urgent issue. The “car-centred” model that is been consolidating over a century has led us to this drastic conditioning of ways of understanding and conceiving urban life where, for a long time. the shaping of public spaces has been designed with the idea that they were merely surfaces for the circulation of private vehicles.
The question of recovery of street-space for citizens has been one of the main themes of the history of contemporary urban planning. Policies of restricting vehicles in central zones, areas of reverse priority, reconversion of fast lanes, efforts to mitigate the impact of infrastructure, planning geared to public transport networks, sustainable mobility plans, and designing superblocks and sectors are just a few examples of initiatives that have always had the same goal: humanising urban space, making streets qualitatively more interesting, and ensuring that the construction of infrastructure will not have such a determinant impact on urban territory and quality of life in neighbourhoods.
Present proposals like pedestrianising streets and “superblocks”, better public transport services, extended networks of lanes for bicycles and new electric personal transportation devices, and phasing out fast lanes must be strategic responses to socio-spatial inequality and an unstable urban environment. Environmentally speaking, it is increasingly necessary to push for more habitable urban settings and streets, and also to come up with political and technical solutions for bringing a better balance and spatial justice to the city. In other words, the aim is to provide citizens with improved accessibility, habitability, and centrality through effective, better quality public space, and more of it, in order to satisfy their right to the city.
Bearing these basic principles in mind, the Barcelona City Council has planned a total reform of one of the busiest streets in the city, Avinguda Meridiana which, with a length of 7.1 kilometres, is the third-longest road in the city, after Avinguda Diagonal and La Gran Via. These three avenues shape the basic structure for access to the city and its connections on the territorial scale, strategic functions which Avinguda Meridiana has fulfilled from its earliest days. Historically speaking, the road was conceived as a railway line in the 1859 Eixample Plan of Idelfons Cerdà but it eventually became a main thoroughfare serving a model of the city and mobility based on the motorised vehicle. Giving priority to criteria of traffic efficiency was imposed on real urban structuring and the avenue was incorporated as a main road of access to Barcelona, passing through the city and providing interconnection on the territorial scale. It is an urban barrier that has not met the needs of the surrounding neighbourhoods.
The project aimed at renovating the longitudinal section of Avinguda Meridiana (presently underway) has been complemented by a specific urban planning study concerned with its transversality (I). The project of modifying its longitudinal section entails more restricted use by cars with a reduction of the number of lanes in favour of public space and, as a corresponding project, more green spaces in order to reinforce transversal relations. In particular, in the study of transversal streets and crossings of the avenue, it has been proposed to transform it into a more humanised and accessible street-space by means of a participative technical study based on new focuses, methods and instruments for approaching projects, with the aim of improving conditions for crossing this major avenue and its habitability in general, as part of an overall idea of fostering a more walkable model of the city.
This means “stitching neighbourhoods together” and rethinking the existing thoroughfare, giving emphasis to improving the conditions of the roadway space and the transversal connections between neighbourhoods, understanding streets as civic axes, and intersections as crossroad-squares, places of renewed identity promoting urban quality. These axes, nodes, crossings, and “corners” of the city must guarantee the legibility and urban continuity of the neighbourhoods on the basis of transversal, pedestrian and everyday movement of local residents. Methodologically speaking, the project is a technical and, at the same time, participative substantiation, mixing the statistical with the testimonial and based on multi-criteria analysis of the conditions of the urban space, while also bearing in mind the experience and perceptions of local residents.
To this end, an “X-ray” or mapping of the area of the study was carried out by means of analysis taking into account interdependent urban thematic components—mobility, public space, activities, demography—and also using observation of relations on different scales, for example that of the street-space (pedestrian scale) and that of the neighbourhoods (urban scale). The study has shaped an operative cartographic atlas (by means of Geographic information Systems (GIS) and Big Data information) through which a series of parameters and indicators permitting identification of urban patterns and trends of spatial distribution were modelled and analysed.
The interesting aspect of this mapping was the series of questions it raised. Who are the people living in these places and where are they located? How do different social groups live in the city? What are the conditions for mobility and accessibility? What is the quality of public space? What are the activities and socioeconomic conditions of residents? And even the question: how vulnerable are they as a result of the processes of gentrification?
A “more agile” sort of urban planning is therefore opted for and—with the help of new technologies—of a kind that is concerned with street-space and neighbourhoods. It is not a “commercialised”, or “technocratic”, or “panoptic” kind of urban planning but one that is more dynamic and attentive to changes, events, behaviour, mutating and permanent aspects, the necessary and the superfluous, the certain and uncertain, the singular and the plural. It is technical, political, ethical, socially communicable, informed and participative urban planning, with a greater capacity for creating a cooperative spirit and proximity with residents within the continuous process of consensus and conflict which represents life in the city.
It is a new kind of urban planning that tends to foster walkability, combat contamination, favour public health, autonomy of children, freedom and security for people moving around, especially with regard to gender equality and also parity for different social groups. When the relationship between accessibility and quality of urban space is improved, social cohesion is also promoted and urban vulnerability resulting from the processes of gentrification is reduced.
To conclude, the hegemony and arrogance of the car have sidelined other, more sustainable means of transport which we must now start prioritising. This means changing the model of the city from one that exalts the car to one that gives priority to pedestrians, one that requires new focuses and methods of urban work. Before intervening in every street and neighbourhood, it is well worth thinking about who uses it, how they use it, the means used for moving, where they move, how people go along or cross the street, and why they do this. These are new strategies for neighbourhood-based urban planning—and in favour of neighbourhoods!—based on focuses, methods and instruments that intelligently inform the urban project.
Miguel Mayorga and M. Pia Fontana
(I) The study carried out in 2017 at the request of the Ecology Area of the Urban Planning Department of the Barcelona City Council, is titled “Procés de reflexió participada sobre els eixos transversals a la Meridiana” (Process of Joint Reflection on the Transversal Axes of the Meridiana) and has been done by an interdisciplinary group coordinated by Miguel Mayorga (urban planning architect), with Xavier Abadía (road engineer) as technical head, and Maria Pia Fontana (urban planning architect) working with Maria Ramos (forest engineer specialising in GIS), Toni López (geographer and demographer), Gloria Clavera (architect specialising in GIS), Laura Sepúlveda (architect) and Manuela Soto (architect).