Barcelona, one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, is pioneering a new model of urban design: superblocks (Superilles in Catalan). It consists in pacifying several streets in a neighborhood, creating a more liveable public space, leading towards sustainable behavior change. The objective of the project “Teixint Superilles” – which translates as “weaving superblocks” in Catalan – is to approach superblocks from a bottom-up perspective, engaging citizens throughout the process. Viewing design as a tool for social transformation and environmental regeneration, this project aims to build a foundation to be replicated and scaled in other cities in Europe and the world.
Through a series of workshops, aquí has been experimenting with diverse methodologies for civic participation while confronting a wide range of participants focusing on topics such as gender, functional diversity, cross-generational inclusivity, and sustainability. Teixint Superilles activities took place in three different environments, thus reaching a wide range of participants: a public park, an arts and sustainability festival and a high school. The target group of these activities were neighbors and habitués of superblocks. To increase representation from younger citizens, aquí engaged students from a local school through a co-creation process to redesign their local plaza, inspired by the superblock model.
We articulated our activities around three pillars: inform & exchange, inspire & aspire and engage & co-create. The first two workshops informed citizens on the concepts of superblocks, the Decidim public participatory process, and the municipality’s plans for urban transformation. They created a space of exchange where neighbors could share their experiences of the superblock, their perspectives on recent and future changes, and sustainability related initiatives. The series of workshops we organized with a local high school fostered a deeper engagement of the students, from an urban diagnostic to ideation and co-creation. After identifying and prioritizing challenges together, the students designed concept ideas to address these challenges, and collaborated to propose a collective vision.
The first two workshops leveraged creative formats to foster two way communication with citizens. We produced pedagogical materials to inform them about the city’s urban transformation projects, and in particular on the superblock project. We also designed interactive activities to enable them to provide input on their neighborhood’s public space, on sustainable initiatives and share ideas on how to improve quality of life. Finally, we built a mobile research station inspired by this Placemaking Europe tool to increase citizens’ interest and engagement with questions of urban sustainability.
In our activities, we have sought to not only include residents of the neighborhood, but also all end-users of the space: workers of local businesses, municipal employees, school children, visitors, etc. All voices have to be represented in order to respond to the needs of all. The open events we held in public space reached a socio-demographically representative sample of people from the neighborhood and the city as a whole. However, we wanted to create deeper, more meaningful engagement with a particular target group that we could build a longer term relationship with. This is how we started collaborating with the school Institut Escola ARTS in Hostafrancs.
Stepping out of the classroom and onto the street was an opportunity to immerse ourselves into the daily environment of our target group: the 14-year old students of Institut Escola ARTS. The use of devices like colored frames and interviews helped the teenagers articulate challenges they wouldn’t have spontaneously thought of. Coming back to the school for a follow-up workshop with the students enabled us to build upon this initial diagnostic to co-create solutions for the key challenges they identified. Introducing the themes of gender, age and functional diversity bolstered their awareness of the need for inclusive urban design.
Our design philosophy resonates with Ezio Manzini’s “when everybody designs” – creating space to empower neighbors of all ages, origins and backgrounds to define challenges, exchange ideas and generate concepts to tackle complex urban issues. The most tangible outcome so far is open-source, modular furniture made from natural & up-cycled materials (wood, fishing nets) built and installed together with the neighbors. Yet, the longer term impact of urban regeneration goes far beyond this “urban acupuncture” intervention: it showed the neighbors that, together, they could begin to transform their city.
The role of designers-facilitators becomes holding space for exchange and facilitating activities: emotional mapping, street-canvas drawing, urban diagnostic, embodied and performative techniques, etc. We have developed a series of exercises to guide people through the design process, enabling them to generate concepts, build upon each others’ ideas, and consolidate them into concrete solutions that can be prototyped. Enabling children to participate has proven very rewarding: they bring in different perspectives, and remind us of aspects we take for granted. Our activities are designed to lead to sustainable behavior change in participants, and rippling towards society at large.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Cross-KIC New European Bauhaus Call for Citizen Engagement.