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Don’t blame the judge

Don’t blame the judge

Markus Appenzeller

Last week, a court in Barcelona rules that the city’s super block program is unlawful. The response was immediate. Many blamed ‘dirty games’, a battle between political parties and the incompetence of the judge to be responsible for the loss of the lovechild of many urbanists in the city and beyond. Doom scenarios were painted on the wall, arguing that Barcelona has been set back by 20 years.

Looking at the ruling reveals that most of this is overexaggerated or plain wrong. An association of local businesses had asked the court to verify if the way the program for the super blocks was set up was in accordance with planning legislation. They argued that their businesses were adversely affected by the downgrading of the street. The way this project was implemented was done not using the formal planning path – changing the city masterplans street type designation – but by securing the consent of the authority concerned with the city masterplan. This lawfulness of the latter was questioned by the court.

Why did they not simply change the masterplan then? Because it is more complicated and time-consuming. It involves formal processes that also include consultation processes and was deemed impossible to do. For the very same reason, in recent years, the practice of bypassing formal masterplan changes by consent by the masterplanning authority have become common practice. I find this a problem. Not only do these workarounds undermine the authority of statutory planning processes, they also exclude the local population of getting involved. Whether justified or not, I can understand the concerns of the local businesses and while some businesses might profit from a pedestrianized street, others might suffer by a decrease in vehicular access.

In the spring of this year, I have been visiting the first pilot for the super block. Like many others, I was impressed like many others by the initiative and the boldness Barcelona was showing when embracing this systemic change in its block city structure. But when seeing the first results, my enthusiasm vanished. The newly pedestrianized intersection and the neighbouring streets had turned into a tourism theme park: junk food and knickknack all over the place. And at night it had turned into one big bar. Judging some comments by local residents reveal, that there are people that would not mind getting the street with traffic back. One of the reasons for the hustle and bustle might be that as a pilot project is simply is one of a kind, and it is fair to assume that people would be more distributed if more of the super blocks would be established. But change in use of the street remains and is something that deserves a broader debate – another reason not to bypass statutory consultation processes.

Barcelona is not the only city where pedestrianization initiatives have been halted by courts. Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse that the former government wanted to transform into a pedestrian zone saw a similar fate – interestingly, with the same parties and the same mistakes by the planning authorities involved.

What we can learn from that is that great ideas need solid processes for their implementation. As urban planners and designers, we should avoid prioritizing seeing our lovechild materialize over going through the – at times tiring – planning and approval processes. They ensure legal safety, where public involvement is statutory they involve the public, the business community, and they ensure a degree of permanence since any change will also require another mandated process. We should not blame judges, but we should praise them for reminding us that we should stick to our own standards.

by Markus Appenzeller

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I really like the German term ‘Zeitenwende’ that can be translated as turning point but with the connotation that radical,

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