BACK in 1970 Hunter S Thompson ran for the office of Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado which counts the plush skiing town of Aspen among its constituencies. The author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas composed a radical platform that pledged to “rip up all city streets with jackhammers,” and demanded “all public movement be by foot and a fleet of bicycles.”
Thompson lost marginally when a coalition of conservatives realised that they were on the verge of a spectacular defeat to a candidate who had suggested renaming the region’s prime moneymaker to ‘Fat City’ to “prevent greedheads, land-rapers and other human jackals from capitalising on the name ‘Aspen’.” A united front saw off the radical challenge but some of the campaign’s environmental ideas might be transplanted to modern day Barcelona.
City authorities in the Catalan capital have announced ambitious plans to reduce traffic by 21 per cent and transform the majority of city streets into ‘citizen spaces’. The basic idea would see the engineering of mini neighbourhoods that would have traffic flowing around them but not within. The interior streets would then be remodelled in a civic mould, allowing residents to move freely, decorate and ‘fill the city with life’.
Although there is certainly a creative ecological motivation behind the blueprints, Barcelona has essentially been forced into finding a way to dig itself out of an increasingly bleak situation.
Recent studies have suggested that air pollution alone accounts for 3,500 premature deaths a year within the city’s wider metropolitan area, while there are more than 9,000 road accidents. Somewhat shockingly, residents only wallow in an average of 6.6 sq metres of green space each, a surprising contrast to London, hardly renowned for its rolling wilderness, where locals bask in an average 27 sq metres.
Other ailments of civilised society, including childhood obesity, depression and anxiety, are thought to be vigorously antagonised by the lack of open breathing and green space. Barcelona has also been roundly condemned by various EU monitoring bodies for failing to live up to its minimum health standards.
Given their nature the plans will have to be implemented gradually and will begin with smaller neighbourhoods which already follow a grid pattern and can be easily transformed into blocks with specific traffic routes. The pattern will the spread slowly throughout the city, with car, scooter, lorry and bus traffic eventually being limited to residents or those serving a residential purpose.
Speed limits will also be dramatically reduced while ultimately the planners anticipate that nobody will be more than 300 metres from a bus stop. An additional 300km of cycling lanes will also be built and individual neighbourhood characteristic played up to embrace a sense of history.
City councillor for ecology, urbanism and mobility, Janet Sanz noted that although private vehicles represent just 20 per cent of city movements, they take up more than 60 per cent of total road space, a clearly unsustainable situation.
“Our objective is for Barcelona to be a city in which to live. Also, as a Mediterranean city, its residents spend a long time on the streets – those streets need to be second homes, or extensions of one’s residence, at all times… Public spaces need to be spaces to play, where green is not an anecdote – where the neighbourhood’s history and local life have a presence,” she said, explaining the philosophy behind the plan.
The rumblings from Barcelona are coming as the age of “new mobility” is finally coming into its own, with various pilot projects and grand schemes already occupying towns, boardrooms and imaginations.
Conceiving of future cities are more people centric, walkable, and integrated, the fundamental common denominator behind many of the projects, scattered from Japan to France, is that the dominion of private vehicles has come to an end.
Smart technology will play a huge role in the transport revolution with people able to summon electric vehicles using their phones and share a ride with others, essentially a 21st century model of car pooling.
Anyone with a passing interest in history and futurology will know that making assumptions of perfection is futile, but captains of industry, technology pioneers and Spanish residents alike will be keeping a close eye on how events unfold in Barcelona.