Guest post: Sustainable cities after COVID-19: are Barcelona-style green zones the answer?

Photo by Kaspars Upmanis on Unsplash

Guest post by Anupam Nanda, University of Manchester

The lockdowns and restrictions introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in huge changes to urban life. Previously bustling city centres remain empty, shunned in favour of suburban or rural areas where social distancing is easier and connections to the outdoors are abundant.

The roll out of vaccines provides hope for a partial restoration of normality in cities. However, the impact of COVID-19 could last much longer.

In particular, the pandemic has shown how damaging congestion, pollution and lack of green space can be – including how these factors have contributed to the severity of suffering for city dwellers. We have an opportunity to change city living for the better.

Barcelona offers an example of how city areas can be transformed to reduce pollution and increase access to green space.

The city pioneered the concept of superblocks, first introduced in 2016, as part of green urban planning. Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks. Traffic is restricted to major roads around the superblocks, leaving the streets inside for pedestrians and cyclists.

Recently, further plans have been announced to expand green zones in the city’s central district, Eixample. This is a major expansion of low-traffic zones, giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists to reduce pollution and provide green spaces.

The new plan will cover 21 streets and have space for 21 new pedestrian plazas at intersections. At least 80% of each street is to be shaded by trees in summer and 20% unpaved. A public competition in May 2021 will decide the final design.

The purpose of the plan is to ensure that no resident will be more than 200 metres from a green space.

There are many benefits to creating urban green spaces like these. They include an improvement in air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets, and a reduction in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) from road traffic. Exposure to high level of NO₂ can lead to a range of respiratory problems.

Green spaces have been shown to improve mental health, as well as lead to a reduction in risk of obesity and diabetes – conditions which significantly increase vulnerability to COVID-19.

COVID-19 has made the case for green urban planning even more compelling. However, these plans can come at a cost.

Barriers to green cities

A particular negative impact of green zones could be a high demand for housing, leading to subsequent rises in property prices. This can lead to gentrification and displacement of local residents and businesses. Care must be taken to make sure that homes remain affordable and urban green zones do not become rich enclaves.

The COVID-19 lockdowns highlighted the difference in living conditions faced by city dwellers. Green initiatives must work for all socio-economic groups, and must not exacerbate existing inequalities.

In addition, while city centres are the usual focus areas for greening initiatives, suburbs and other peripheral areas also need attention. The goal is to reduce carbon dependence in total – not shift it from one area to another, or one sector to another.

The plan should also include steps to make private and public transport completely green. This could include replacing carbon-producing transport system with zero-emission vehicles and providing ample infrastructure such as dedicated lanes and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Cities differ hugely in how they look, shape and operate. One size will not fit all. If other cities choose to follow Barcelona’s model, local issues must be carefully considered. Superblocks work really well in a neat grid system such as in central Barcelona. But many cities do not have a well-designed grid system.

However, the principles of green, environmentally friendly, car-free or restricted-traffic neighbourhoods can be adopted in any city. Examples of schemes include low-traffic neighbourhoods in London, the 15-minute city initiative in Paris, or Manchester’s plans for a zero-carbon city centre.

While adopting such interventions, it is important to keep citizens’ daily needs in mind to avoid adding extra burdens on them. If motor traffic is to be limited, the availability of public transport must be considered, safe infrastructure for walking and cycling as well as adequate road structure for essential services or deliveries.

Significant capital investment is needed to support these plans. The Barcelona plan is projected to cost €38 million (£34 million). Much more will be required if it is to roll out to more areas. Cities in the developing world and poorer countries cannot afford such huge sums. Moreover, COVID-19 has left several cities laden with a huge amount of debt.

Green city initiatives need to be long-term – and created with the support of local people. Recognition of the benefits of green living and informed support of developments will result in positive behaviour changes by the citizens.

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics & Real Estate, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more from our blog on tackling air pollution in cities:

 

Bristol is Open: case study of an innovative smart city

By Steven McGinty

In May, ‘Bristol is Open’ was named as a leading smart city, just behind London, in Huawei UK’s Smart Cities Index. In the same month, Bristol is Open was also announced as Smart City Innovator of the Year by TM Forum’s Digital World Awards.

Bristol is Open

The project is a joint venture between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council. Several other partners are involved, including national and European governments and commercial organisations, such as Japanese technology firm NEC. This collaborative project will act as a ‘laboratory’ for research and development initiatives and will help shape the development of smart cities and the ‘internet of things’.

Paul Wilson, Managing Director of Bristol Is Open, explains what’s so innovative about the project:

We use a software-defined network (SDN) to run the city in Bristol and then we apply network functions virtualization (NFV) into that network, which is allowing us to have an elastic and scalable network that we can slice to thousands of different users.”

In simple terms, the city is in the process of creating a world leading digital infrastructure. This includes: 144 core fibres in the ground; a mile-long stretch of wireless connectivity along the harbourside, which will include experimental wireless technology such as 5G mobile broadband; and a selection of internet of things sensors and technologies, including 1,500 lampposts. All of which, will be interconnected and controlled by software.

A key advantage of this new model is the ability to splice up the network for different users. This provides the opportunity for new partners to become involved, including community organisations and small start-up companies. Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Project Lead and Chief Technology Officer at Bristol is Open, also explains that the network is “open, agnostic and programmable”, ready to be adopted for the technologies of the future.

Interestingly, the core fibres were installed in a network of redundant ducts purchased by the council over ten years ago. Previously, they had provided cable television to homes in Bristol in the 1970s.

The Data Dome

Last November, the project launched ‘The Data Dome’ at Bristol’s Planetarium.

The 98-seat Bristol Data Dome is connected to a high-performance computer at the University of Bristol (via a 30Gb/s fibre link). The Data Dome, supported by the network and high-speed computer, provides an opportunity to visualise complex experiments, create virtual reality environments and give audience members their own unique perspective.

The dome has been used to show content from earth sciences, as well as real time sociological mapping in cities. Engineers, at corporate sponsor Rolls Royce, have also used the Dome to visualise engines and to inspire young people about engineering.

‘No grand visions’

In a recent TED talk, Stephen Hilton, Leader of Bristol City Council’s Futures Group, states that ‘he doesn’t like to spout grand visions’.  Instead, he explains that the Bristol is Open team prefers to focus on tangible targets and introduce measures that lay the groundwork for smart cities.

He highlights that the project aims to:

  • reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2020;
  • create 95,000 new jobs, particularly in high growth sectors such as the creative industries and green technology;
  • have Bristol recognised among the top 20 European cities by 2020.

 Smart Cities Index

Huawei’s Smart Cities Index highlights five important themes for creating successful smart city programmes. These include:

  • the importance of leadership and vision
  • a need to focus on local priorities and strengths
  • the importance of engagement with local communities
  • building local partnerships
  • understanding the way in which the data revolution can improve services and boost innovation

Privacy

George Ferguson, former Mayor of Bristol, recognised the challenges surrounding data privacy. He acknowledged that privacy can lead to heated debate and advised that cities should help shape the debate, rather than leave it to technology companies. For him, understanding how citizens want their data to be used is an important part of the Bristol is Open project.

However, this may not satisfy those concerned about lampposts with “acoustic detection sensors” capable of recording noise levels, possibly speech.

Final thoughts

Bristol’s commitment to becoming a truly smart city has led to its award winning status. In the future, it will be interesting to see if it’s ambitious, yet pragmatic, approach will help to address some of the city’s key challenges, such as reducing carbon emissions. More importantly, it will be interesting to see whether the lessons learnt in Bristol, will be introduced in other cities, and whether we move away from the idea of smart cities to a ‘smart nation.’


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