Barcelona: Urban adaptation threatened by power struggles at the municipal level

Barcelona: Urban adaptation threatened by power struggles at the municipal level

By Will Bugler

Dealing with the challenges posed by climate change will require transformational change for cities. However, these transformative actions to adapt to the impacts of climate change may be hindered by political struggles for municipal power, suggests a new study. Published in the journal Cities, the paper assesses the complexity of the processes of implementation of urban measures against climate change, with the example of Barcelona’s “Superblocks” as a case study.

Barcelona is particularly vulnerable to climate change-related threats, specifically sea level rise and floods, increasing temperature including urban heat waves, the loss of biodiversity and more frequent and intense drought periods. Within the framework of the Climate Plan (2018-2030), Barcelona launched the “Superblocks” program, which aims to drastically change urban mobility and land use. A superblock is a group of city blocks delimited in a perimeter that can only be accessed by vehicles that have their origin or destination there. Traffic runs outside while the interior is reserved for pedestrians and cyclists.

So far superblocks have been implemented in two areas (Poblenou in 2016 and Sant Antoni in 2018), but the City Council plans to remodel the city in 503 superblocks thereby reducing car traffic by 21% while restructuring the public transit and cycling system and infrastructure. In this way, CO2 emissions will be reduced by 40%, as well as the 3,500 premature deaths per year associated with air pollution, converting 60% of the space occupied by car use into public pedestrian and neighbourhood leisure spaces.

When implementing the scheme political and neighbourhood forces became active, either supporting or opposing the implementation of the scheme. Researchers from the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), analysed the resistance in Barcelona as an example of the difficulties of implementing transformational adaptation in cities in the face of climate change.

The results of the study show that the everyday political struggles emerge from clashing visions for the future of the city. The difficulties are also related to discontent over the public participation aspects of project implementation and a perceived imposition of authority. “The civic and political contestation over the authority of ‘climate champions’ (or climate policy drivers) can jeopardize not only the achievements of transformational adaptation to climate change, but also the political survival of those who drive them“, the authors of the article said.

According to ICTA-UAB researcher Isabelle Anguelovski, transformational change can be obstructed ” not only out of fear of the material and political effects of the transformation measures, but also because of the message it conveys as concerns who is entitled to decide for the common good”. Therefore, she indicates, “brave politicians that take on struggles for authority in the short-term are needed to achieve mid- to long-term transformational goals”. The study suggests that participatory processes are vital at the very earliest stages of decision making on key policies to ensure that key power brokers are on board and communities have a shared vision of their city.


Cover photo by Benjamín Gremler on Unsplash

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