Designing Barcelona in Favor of Public Health

Economic prosperity in Barcelona, Spain during the mid-19th century encouraged the population to rise, but infrastructure constraints seemed to compel the decline of urban design and by extension public health. Presently, airborne pollutants with the greatest impact to Barcelona appear to come from motor vehicles. The city’s solution is to repurpose the existing grid layout in favor of environmentally- and pedestrian-friendly city streets with the application of superblocks.

By the mid-19th century, The Guardian details, the industrial revolution nearly caused Barcelona to collapse because the city’s surrounding walls could not healthily incorporate the rising population. For example, house fronts prevented air circulation by extending into the streets and proximity emboldened epidemics to disseminate.

The Guardian clarifies that after Barcelona’s walls were demolished, the city and the Spanish government were tasked with redesigning the city layout in support of efficient use of space and public health. Catalan engineer Ildefons Cerdà was hired to plan a grid-like district that would unite Barcelona with the peripheral villages, named Eixample. Cerdà contemplated efficient use of space through equally distributing services related to marketplaces, schools, and hospitals. He also recognized public health through calculating the amount of air required for one person to breathe.

The Guardian notes that through Cerdà’s urban design endeavor in Barcelona, he conceived the seminal word and discipline, “urbanization”. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines urbanization as, “The process by which towns and cities are formed and become larger as more and more people begin living and working in central areas.”

Today, Barcelona seems to develop an understanding of urbanization through evaluating the city’s impact on public health. The Ajuntament de Barcelona report, “Plan to Improve Air Quality in Barcelona 2015-2018”, includes strategies to reduce impacts to air quality. The plan focuses on pollutants previously recorded as exceeding the European Union’s designated limits, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter (PM10).

The California Air Resources Board explains that NO2 is an oxidizing gas emitted from motor vehicles that is detrimental to the respiratory tract. Some sources of PM10 include motor vehicles, dust from construction, wildfires, and industrial sources. It can also form from chemical reactions between motor vehicles and industry.

As of 2013, Barcelona’s air quality plan asserts that total pollutant emissions equaled 12,014.0 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and 1,165.91 tons of PM10. Sectors with the highest amounts of NOx were Port of Barcelona (46.16%), traffic (33.48%), and industrial sources (9.15%). Upon further research, traffic was deemed the human-produced agent most responsible for NO2 levels in Barcelona. Sectors with the highest amounts of PM10 were Port of Barcelona (51.74%), traffic (36.90%), and domestic (0.69%). Researchers found that over half of PM10 comes from external sources.

Barcelona seems to attribute declining public health to motor vehicle-produced airborne pollutants, which the city aims to remedy through superblocks. The city intends to utilize superblocks in favor of environmentally- and pedestrian-friendly city streets. Barcelona Metropolitan reports that superblocks plan to repurpose the existing grid layout within nine contiguous blocks. Motor vehicles are only allowed within superblock streets if driven by residents or serving local businesses. In addition, motor vehicles are restricted to traveling at 10km/h (about 6mph). Superblocks appear to reduce airborne pollutants by restricting street space available to motor vehicles, which may encourage utilizing modes of transportation favorable to the environment and citizen well-being.

As industry thrived in 19th century Barcelona, the population expanded within the confines of the residing urban design, which was considered a stimulus for the decline in public health. Currently, motor vehicles and subsequent airborne pollutants appear to be the latest stimulus affecting public health. Barcelona aims to limit motor vehicle usage by repurposing city streets with superblocks. Barcelona’s efforts seem to recognize a persistent conflict between urban design, the environment, and public health that is capable of yielding familiar impacts in new forms.

Matthew Pinsker is contributing author to this blog. He can be reached at or by email at

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