Is Barcelona emerging as one of the world’s most sustainable cities?

Consider the words “city life” for a moment and come up with five adjectives to describe it.

Mine were: busy, vibrant, dirty, smelly, dynamic.

Very few, if any, would associate city life with sustainability, cleanliness, or relaxation. Yet, trends from 1961 to 2018 show steady population increases in European urban areas, with an expected increase of 83.7% by 2050. As more people move to cities, there are serious impacts on urban sprawling, sanitation, air and water quality, energy use, and the environment.

It’s for this reason that Barcelona has been making headlines in sustainable circles over the last few years – for its efforts to become a more liveable place.

The city’s current standing

The Catalan capital has plenty of projects in the works to reduce pollution, increase neighbourhood cohesion, and boost economic diversity, ideally resulting in improved physical and emotional well-being. The city council’s approval of the “Omplim de vida els carrers” (Let’s Fill the Streets with Life) initiative back in May 2016 was an integral part of this transformation and has led to the “Superilla” developments that those living in Barcelona are sure to have noticed.

Add this to its growing network of cycling lanes, increasing commitment to renewable energy, and initiatives for waste management, and things seem to be heading in the right direction. Let’s dive deeper into each of these to see what they really mean for the city.

Superilla Barcelona

Superilla Barcelona, or “superblocks,” is a multi-faceted urban planning concept based on five pillars:

  1. Transforming public spaces
  2. Improving neighbourhoods and venues
  3. Reactivation of economic fabric
  4. Facilitating sustainable transportation
  5. Increasing public housing
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Barcelona’s urban city blocks will allow the creation of superblocks. (Source: Unsplash)

By transforming public spaces, there will be more green space and community gathering areas. The improvements will be citywide and have a particular emphasis on schools, as part of the “Protegim les escoles” (Protect the Schools) programme, making the surrounding areas safer and greener for children.

Improving neighbourhoods and venues is meant to improve existing neighbourhoods and facilities with a human approach in mind. The term “regeneration” is prominent in much of the documentation, as the city focuses on revitalising – rather than replacing – historical neighbourhoods, landmarks, and other venues. Another key component is the Vila Veïna Project, centralising care-related services in every neighbourhood. Lastly, Barcelona City Council has approved plans to regulate the development of charging stations, ensuring that the transition to electric vehicles (including e-scooters) is managed sustainably.

The reactivation of economic fabric is largely taking place in the Sant Martí district, as well as in several others. The approach is meant to make the areas more inclusive and sustainable, with a balanced mix of citizens, the economic sector, universities, and public administrations.

The facilitation of sustainable transportation includes an additional 60 km of cycling lanes throughout Barcelona by 2024, as well as 97 new bike-sharing stations. Public transportation will be improved by extending tram connections and metro lines, reducing the need for private vehicle use.

Lastly, Barcelona is planning to increase public housing spending, to make affordable housing accessible instead of forcing people to look elsewhere for homes.

It’s worth noting that this project is not without controversy. Some critics feel that the added pedestrian lanes simply funnel congestion onto adjacent streets. Others say that public transportation improvements are not enough to allow many people to ditch their cars altogether. Change is slow and often comes with growing pains but it will be interesting to see how Barcelona adapts to these developments.

Increased Access to Sustainable Transportation

Believe it or not, Barcelona is ranked 13th out of 20 bike-friendly cities. This list includes heavyweights like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Antwerp.

Between the existing 240 km of cycling lanes and the 60 new kilometres in the works, Barcelona is set to improve its ranking. The city has made its cycling infrastructure available to all members of the public by working with Bicing, which has 7000 bikes available to share throughout 519 stations in Barcelona. It’s fair to assume that these numbers will only increase with Barcelona’s development plans.

Not only that, Barcelona boasts a robust public transportation system that it continues to expand. Road traffic is greatly reduced thanks to this system, but the 900 or so buses that run during rush hour still have a sizable greenhouse gas footprint. Enter, NIMBUS: a pilot programme to turn the city’s sewage into biofuel for its buses. According to their website, this should reduce the carbon footprint of a single bus by 85%.

Baby Steps: Sustainable Energy Production

Synonymous with sunny weather, it only makes sense that the city is finally investing in solar energy projects through the Sustainable Energy Mechanism (MES) Barcelona: a public-private partnership working to install photovoltaic panels on buildings throughout the city.

This collaboration will secure at least 166 million euros of investment for installations and lead to a 66% increase in the current generation of local renewable energy. As of now, only about 1% of Barcelona’s yearly electricity consumption comes from a renewable source.

The Journey to Zero Waste

Barcelona is among the largest European municipalities to implement a zero-waste strategy.

Plans involve a wide range of waste prevention, reuse, and recycling measures designed to curb the waste production in the city. Separate collection is one of the primary ways that Barcelona is managing its waste, which allows for recyclable and compostable materials to be processed and reused rather than dumped into a landfill. At the time of writing, Barcelona has a separate collection rate of approximately 40.64%, missing the 50% goal it set for 2020 by a substantial margin.

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Barcelona’s separate waste containers (Source: Flickr)

In addition, the Generalitat and the Spanish government insist that they will comply with the European directive banning single-use plastics such as plates, cutlery, and drinking straws. Unfortunately, there is yet to be any legal framework to enforce these rules.

One of the biggest changes will be the 2023 implementation of the Spanish Plastic Tax and 10% Tax breaks for businesses reducing or eliminating single-use plastics.

So who’s in charge of all this?

In May 2023 there were fresh mayoral elections in Barcelona. The incumbent mayor, Ada Colau, was responsible for starting many of the initiatives covered in the post. She was replaced by Jaume Collboni after falling short to be re-elected.

The new mayor has pledged to maintain the focus on sustainability and climate change. That means the developments in this post will be seen through and there should be positive change too, from a similar point of view.

With the new, I hope the city’s sustainability status will continue to ascend and not regress.

2024 State of Emergency due to drought

In early 2024 Barcelona, and also many parts of Catalonia, entered the first of three phases of a State of Emergency, due to drought. It’s deeply concerning for a city that is heavily invested in its startup ecosystem and tourism, both of which will be impacted by drought. Especially tourism: swimming pools may have to close in future phases, for a start, and visitors (who consume way more water than residents, statistically) will have restrictions on the amount of water they can use.

Barcelona Desalination Plant
Barcelona is already home to Europe’s largest desalination plant for urban supply

When considering how sustainable Barcelona is then, this complicates matters and is becoming an urgent lateral question. Clearly Barcelona is a city impacted by matters relating to sustainability, like drought. But it’s also about the city’s adaption. Further ahead – with climate change not going anywhere soon – Barcelona will have to find more sustainable ways to give its people and its city infrastructure the water it needs. That and consider an economy that isn’t as reliant on water-intensive tourism. This will likely involve more costly desalination, itself a process with relatively high emissions thus arguably aggravating the root causes. As always, sustainability is a little tricky.

Whatever it involves, it’ll need to be something stronger than hope. Because, at the time of writing there’s not much rain forecast – with the ferocious summer approaching. Action and innovation are required for Barcelona to remain a sustainable place to live and work. Yet, there’s still cause for optimism. Well, just about.

Watch this space, we’ll report back soon, when the city is likely to enter further Phases.

A final observation

Recent developments in Barcelona’s sustainable plans have, at the very least, put it on the map as a committed participant of global efforts to combat climate change.

The reduction of fossil fuel-based transportation, development of green spaces, and focus on liveability are all important steps towards making it one of the most sustainable cities in the world. On the other hand, the necessary changes will not be made with these initiatives alone and the city faces threats from climate change itself. Continued improvements in waste management, plastic consumption reduction, water management, and implementation of renewable energy production must all be pursued if the city wishes to better its standing on the global sustainability stage.

Barcelona has the building blocks, all it needs now is timely execution and thoughtful scaling.

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Eric Sandstrom

Eric is a creative hailing from Canada. He holds a BBA in Marketing and an MA in Photography, which he draws on to create engaging content.

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