Interview with Estanislau Roca, academic director associated with Urban Planning at CARNET and emeritus professor of the Department of Urbanism and Regional Planning of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC)

“COVID changed urban planning in Barcelona”

“We must make a commitment to a more hybrid city, which does not include exclusively residential areas”

“The pandemic could lead to clear support for the fifteen-minute city”

The urban planning of Barcelona is Estanislau Roca’s passion, to which he has dedicated much of his professional life. During his career, he has spent several decades as a lecturer at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), where he has been vice-rector for Infrastructure and Architecture. He also has a productive research career in the university that led to his activity in CARNET (Future Mobility Research Hub), the hub promoted by SEAT, Volkswagen Group Innovation and the UPC, bringing together industrial and academic members in research and innovation activities in the automotive and mobility sectors.

We are experiencing a paradigm shift, in which cities are becoming metropolises. How has this process been experienced in Barcelona?

The city has evolved considerably since Cerdà’s Plan (1859), which was followed by the Macià Plan (1934) and the Metropolitan Plan (1976). Its occupation by vehicles has increased in density, to the extent that there are now 5,582 vehicles per square kilometre; the highest density in Europe. In general, we have moved from a model of cities that functioned as isolated machines to a network of communication nodes that facilitate mobility in metropolises. Barcelona has made this transition.

Fifteen years ago, you started the subject ‘Caminar Barcelona’ (Walking Barcelona), in which you analysed urban development and architecture through walks with your students. How has the city evolved from the perspective of mobility?

Walking is the priority in mobility systems. A fairly flat city such as Barcelona is suitable for walking and has wide spaces for pedestrians. I like to quote The Swan, a poem by Charles Baudelaire in which he states:“The form of a city changes faster, alas, than the human heart”. Barcelona has changed a lot, particularly on the occasion of the Olympic Games in 1992, and now the focus is on its environmental transformation. The City Council is making a commitment to improve the condition for pedestrians in the city, which had been affected by bad occupation of spaces.

The pedestrianisation of major cities is advancing, but so is the number of pedestrians killed. From an urban planning perspective, what can be done to resolve this?

Pedestrianised areas tend to be safer. In any case, this is a cultural issue. We should be more considerate when we drive any kind of vehicle. We have to improve the regulations and, above all, make sure that they are met. This is one of the questions that is pending in this city. And of course we must boost public transport. Every day, 1.8 million vehicles move around Barcelona, of which one million enter or leave from surrounding towns and cities. As far as possible, we should prevent all these vehicles from entering, by promoting deterrent car parks connected to the metropolitan transport systems. In addition, at CARNET we are researching the potential of autonomous vehicles, which would be much safer than those driven by people. Their introduction would make pedestrians’ lives easier.

Is Barcelona prepared for the development of sustainable mobility and the large-scale introduction of electric cars and autonomous vehicles?

This is something that has to be organised through good programming. There will be a period of planning, studies and comparisons, and some stages in which people are encouraged to gradually move away from cars, for example, by promoting some more attractive versions of integrated ticketing for public transport. The example of the Brazilian city of Curitiba is interesting, whose mobility system was transformed by just a bus system and has become a global benchmark in sustainable mobility. I think that we need to make a commitment to a more hybrid city, which does not include exclusively residential areas. This means not concentrating economic activity in specific spaces. Teleworking will have a direct impact on this.

One factor of mobility that has grown rapidly is last-mile transport. Should urban design take this into account?

Of course, and it requires a logistic plan. Activities such as delivery and daily distribution should be organised at times that cause the least possible disruption. The road space is unique, limited and scarce, and must be managed in the smartest way possible. To gain efficiency, ICT play a key role, and particularly Big Data.

Another emerging phenomenon in urban mobility are scooters and bicycles. How should the next decade’s urban planning address this new transport system?

Its growth is positive, particularly that of bicycles, but it also has its hazards for users and pedestrians. We have a lot to learn from cities that resolved their mobility problems some time ago, such as the Swiss, who prioritised the organisation of transfers over an increase in speed. Or Stockholm, which proposed raising the cost of motorway tolls at rush hour to encourage public transport. With the amount raised from those who paid this high rate for their private vehicles, a significant change in mobility was funded. Another good example is Copenhagen, where a bike lane was designed using a budget based on how much would be saved in the health service due to use of the bike lane.

Cholera and tuberculosis contributed to changing the organisation of cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Will the same happen with COVID 19?

I think so.  COVID 19 changed urban planning in Barcelona. Some years ago, I worked on a project that related tuberculosis and chicken pox with urban spaces. I think we should make a commitment to a similar model to the super blocks and recover, for example, what was proposed in the Macià Plan to create one super block for each nine traditional blocks, not urbi et orbi but in strategic places and perhaps introducing variants, like that of the Mercat de Sant Antoni, or by proposing super blocks without traffic such as the Campus Sud Universitari or Gràcia as pedestrian priority areas. We are moving towards a model of relations between people of contact with distance, to avoid overcrowding. In fact, use of the public street for various economic activities could be studied. The pavements in the Eixample are five-metres wide. They could be resized to make more space for pedestrians, but to achieve this effective public transport should be boosted. This could create a friendly, healthy city that is as efficient as possible, in economic aspects as well.

Could the situation due to COVID 19 lead to clear support for the 15-minute city?

Yes, the pandemic could lead to clear support for the 15-minute city. In the United States, the transit-oriented development (TOD) model has been tested. These are new urban settlements that combine dwellings and employment, so that people’s journey from home to work takes no more than ten minutes. My ideal concept of the city is that which is committed to ecosystem, hybrid urban planning, with self-generation of energy and a polycentric model, where there is not one centre to which everyone has to go. To achieve this, the city must be well-connected and designed. In Barcelona, we have the talent for automobile technology and city design in the same institution, the UPC, as well as platforms such as CARNET that enable cross-cutting work to be carried out to achieve this.

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