Superblocks and Sustainable Malls

In the past 20 years, most American cities have added sustainability departments to their city government offices. These councils generally think of ways to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, ecological impact,  and save money by using energy more efficiently. You might curse them when your main streets dedicate lanes for bicyclists or carpoolers, but these regulations are paved with good intentions.

Vox has been producing really fascinating content on a number of global issues and innovations in sustainable policies recently. Their episode on the Superblock policy of Barcelona is definitely worth 10 minutes of your attention.

It all started in 2014, when Barcelona failed to meet EU air quality targets. Studies showed that air quality was causing about 3,500 deaths per year in the region. Not only that, but noise pollution was also causing negative, stressful effects. So they developed an Urban Mobility Plan which included the concept of Superblocks.

These Superblocks take nine square blocks, which are literally square in Barcelona, and close off the perimeter. Within the Superblock people are free to walk, bike, and jog around without being exposed to the city traffic pollution that plagues most of Barcelona.

In the main Superblock at the city center, pedestrian space increased from 45 percent of the total surface area to 74 percent. With so much less traffic, noise levels dropped from 66.5 dBA to 61 dBA. Most impressive of all, there was a 42% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions and a 38% reduction.

This also helps the small businesses as people are more likely to stop by storefronts if they are walking or biking, than if they are driving.

This got me thinking, how can this idea be implemented in America? American cities and states are interconnected by a network of streets and highways designed in the 20th century for the internal combustion vehicle.  Mega-malls used to be a very big part of the American landscape, however lately, many of them have been shutting their doors.  With the growing behemoth Amazon spreading its tentacles across the nation, gobbling up Whole Foods this month, allowing it to deliver groceries, books, and drones to our doors, not only are mom and pop stores shuttering, but large big box superstores and malls are leaving abandoned lots across America. The mall as we know it from the 1980s and 1990s is simply not built for the “4th Industrial Revolution” with automation and online shopping dominating the market. In fact, there is dead mall series on YouTube, documenting the downfall of these antiquated structures, as entire malls are being abandoned and sold for as little as $100. It makes you think, what would you do with a middle America mall, if you bought one for 100 bucks?

The superblock idea, and integration of residential, commercial, and recreational areas might be a great way to utilize the massive amount of real estate malls take up. America needs more recreational playing fields, parks, and jogging tracks, which could be built in place of parking lots. The malls themselves could be opened up to allow more natural sunlight and greenscaping, re-imagined to include office, residential, and commercial spaces. This would logistically make it more sustainable, as everything people need would be on the mall property.   And possibly, being able to walk to a store and get something will be competitive with a few clicks and waiting for Amazon to deliver to your door a few days later.  Just a thought, but it would be complicated by government regulations on commercial and residential space zoning.

Thankfully, there are companies working on navigating the tricky world of sustainable redevelopment.  For example, Brightworks Sustainability is working on revitalizing a failing mall in Cupertino located adjacent to Apple’s new headquarters in Silicon Valley.

The community of Cupertino will revitalize the failing Vallco Shopping Mall into a vibrant, sustainable, walkable and safe new neighborhood with a mix of retail, dining, entertainment, recreation, offices, housing, open space, and public amenities…

In place of the existing 1.2-million-square-foot mall, Sand Hill Property Company and its design team will build public parks and plazas; educational, retail, office, and entertainment space; and up to 800 residential units.  Atop the modern and sustainable buildings, the world’s largest green roof will provide over 30 acres of public park with a 3.8-mile network of walking and jogging trails, meadows, vineyards, orchards and organic gardens, children’s play areas, and a refuge for native species of plants and birds.  It will be Cupertino’s largest park when complete – and entirely open to the public.  The rolling shape of the green roof mimics the forms of the foothills surrounding Silicon Valley and provides privacy for residents of an adjacent neighborhood from the public uses planned for the new development.

Pretty cool right? Hopefully we will see these types of projects not only in the tech savvy innovative communities in California, but also the Rust Belt and Midwest where failing mall blight and suburban sprawl is a big problem.

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