BARCELONA, August 4 (Reuters) – When Spain lifted its strict pandemic lockdown in the middle of last year, residents of Barcelona discovered that some of their streets were not as they remembered.
The Consell de Cent, a wide street that crosses the city center, had lost two of its three lanes reserved for cars in favor of a widened sidewalk now painted in yellow.
Originally described as provisional by city officials, the changes are still in place a year later despite opposition from some business groups.
Others are part of a plan to convert 21 streets, totaling 33 km (20 miles), into pedestrian green spaces.
The project illustrates how the pandemic has influenced urban planning across the world, accelerating changes such as more bike lanes and fewer cars amid growing concern about climate change.
Since March 2020, Barcelona has reclaimed around eight hectares of the cityscape from motor vehicles, turning it into sidewalks, playgrounds, cycle paths or restaurant terraces, with authorities arguing that people need more space to avoid COVID-19.
With Paris also creating more cycle lanes, Barcelona has aggressively exploited the pandemic to embrace an urban overhaul.
The plan has drawn strong criticism from Foment del Treball, a regional trade lobby, which says it could cost 50,000 jobs, in part because it makes it harder to park delivery vans, while stores could lose out-of-town customers.
“We consider it a persecution of the private vehicle to withdraw it from the city without offering any alternative,” said group vice president Mar Alarcon.
However, Barcelona chief architect Xavi Matilla said the city has adapted well to fewer car lanes, as he believes more pedestrian space should boost local commerce.
Matilla said the health crisis has shown that if cities don’t go greener, more people will leave, following those who have already moved to rural areas with better air quality and more space. outdoors in the past year.
“The pandemic has worked like a magnifying glass which has made us understand that health should be one of the central aspects of the management and planning of the city,” he said, adding that Barcelona were discussing initiatives of urban transformation with London and Paris.
In London, however, some pandemic traffic reduction programs have been challenged in court or have been canceled.
Barcelona’s left-wing municipal government aims to transform a third of all streets in the Eixample district, famous for its Modernist buildings, into a pedestrian green axis by 2030, completing the first four, including Consell de Cent, d ‘by 2023.
Although spurred by the pandemic, the push is driven by the environment as Spain’s second-largest city seeks to improve air quality.
The European Commission has called on the EU’s highest court to take action against Spain in 2019 after Madrid and Barcelona regularly exceeded legal nitrogen dioxide limits, saying it could cause nearly 9,000 premature deaths per year.
As the lockdown reduced traffic, all monitoring stations in Barcelona recorded pollution levels below the EU limit for the first time last year, according to the city’s public health agency, which estimated that it prevented around 600 deaths and reduced new cases of asthma and lung cancer. .
Barcelona last year banned the city’s most polluting vehicles, although in Madrid a similar program suffered a setback in court.
Luca Telloli, member of environmental group Eixample Respira, urged Barcelona to be even more courageous in the fight against pollution as around 350,000 vehicles pass through Eixample daily, and called for more open public debate on its plans.
Reporting by Joan Faus, additional reporting by Luis Felipe Castilleja, editing by Andrei Khalip and Giles Elgood
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