Are Superblocks The Answer to Post-Coronavirus Commerce?


Streets in the El Born neighborhood of Barcelona used to be open to vehicles now mostly serve pedestrians

Claire Killian

While many of us have just given up entirely on trying to plan for anything in the future due to the increasingly familiar uncertainty coronavirus has brought into our lives, it seems like politicians have one thing on their minds: reopening. Of course, that means different things for different states. For example, if you’re in Georgia, you’re probably already open, whereas New York is phasing open the state by region, waiting for each area to clear seven specific criteria before even beginning the process. Now with the unemployment rate estimated to be above April’s 14.7%, there’s strong pressure from businesses and employees alike for the economy to come back soon and strong.


Across the country, but especially in places like New York City, and even here in Rye, there’s a lot of chatter about how a socially-distancing economy would function. One idea, which has gained a lot of support, is to shut down certain roads for pedestrian use exclusively, allowing businesses and restaurants to spill onto the sidewalk. In Rye, there is some talk of closing Purchase St. to traffic, and turning it into an area of community and commerce. A small faction of people have been lobbying for this since long before the virus hit, and want it to become a permanent institution.


It’s not as if this is some unprecedented, undocumented, giant leap forward, cutting-edge urban planning type of idea either. These so-called superblocks already exist, and have been proven to benefit the health and economy of the cities they’re implemented in. The best example is without a doubt Barcelona, who, in 2016, to combat dangerously high levels of air pollution, undertook this new plan. It’s not some sort of trendy new idea, but a genuinely impactful change to the livelihoods of city-dwellers and the environment in which they live. 


The main concept of superblocks is the theory of post-car urban living, and thrives in cities like Barcelona, Washington D.C., and New York, which run on a grid-system. You would take, for example, a 3×3 square of city blocks, and shut down all the streets running through it, leaving open only main channels between them. Within the superblock, streets would turn into pedestrian zones, dominated by cafes, shops, and greenery. While there were, of course, bumps in the road, overall the superblocks were declared a success. On average, people became healthier as they started walking more, and spending more time outside. As they were walking around, they would pass shops, cafes, and restaurants, often being enticed to buy something and contributing to a spike in commercial activity. It also benefited the communities of people in the superblocks, allowing them to spend more time together and develop shared interests.


Could those superblocks be implemented in New York City? The firm which redesigned Aster Place, WXY says they can without a doubt. The city already has a number of initiatives, such as Summer Streets, in place to open up to pedestrians, but none which would be effective in the age of pandemics. While superblocks may have been an interesting new design idea, they may quickly become a necessity of the modern age.