Super Sustainability in Spain

Published 04/08/2024 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Zoe Hsu | 04/08/2024

In alignment with the Milken Institute’s commitment to “bring[ing] together the best ideas and innovative resourcing to develop blueprints for tackling some of our most critical global issues,” I traveled to Spain to tackle one of the Milken Institute’s focuses: environmental health.

Specifically, I visited Barcelona to see its sustainability efforts in action, given that it is well known for its eco-friendly buildings and green spaces. In fact, Barcelona developed the “Nature Plan 2030,” which seeks to add “160 hectares” of green space and encourage citizen engagement in developing a green blueprint for the city between 2015 and 2030.[1][2] I believe that to follow the Milken Family Foundation’s goal to “discover and advance inventive, effective ways of helping people help themselves and those around them,” especially as climate change continues to accelerate and harm the people and the planet, we must commit ourselves to education, specifically by learning from other countries and how they are committing to reducing greenhouse gasses by improving central components of cities. Below, I outline the sustainability efforts that intrigued me the most.


Superblocks   Carrer de Tanger

I took the subway from Barcelona’s city center to an area called Glòries, which is known to contain one of Barcelona’s Superblocks, or Supermanzanas in Spanish. The Barcelona Superblock is a 400 x 400-unit[3] “sustainable urban neighbourhood transformation strategy in cities”[4] that aims to promote community health (e.g. reduce air pollution) by replacing car lanes with bike lanes, sidewalks, and green spaces like parks. I decided to visit the Glòries area because it was relatively close to the city center, and still in the process of development.

After exiting the Metro and walking for a couple of minutes, I immediately noticed how quiet the area was compared to the metropolitan areas of Barcelona. A few cars filled the streets; an electric bus or two also rode around the area. I walked around for about ten minutes and saw bike lanes on practically every street. What surprised me was how wide they were compared to the streets of suburban and urban areas in America, where I grew up; even though they took up a lot of space, there was still plenty of room for cars and sidewalks to exist.

I continued to walk along the sidewalk until I entered an area known as Carrer de Tànger, where you can see obvious elements of a traditional Superblock. I reached the main part of the Superblock, where wooden benches, tables, a playground, and trees filled the wide streets. To my surprise, the sidewalk, benches, and black cylindrical bins occupied almost half of the streets. It was fascinating to see how these areas were once streets occupied by heavy traffic; now, you see many individuals sitting and walking outside as well as children playing on the playground. The quiet atmosphere, clean air, and cleanliness and accessibility of public spaces in the Superblock have immense benefits, such as promoting social cohesion and improving public health for the people.[5] 

The only question that lingered with me after leaving the area was the feasibility of implementing Superblocks in downtown areas of Barcelona. Given that they are typically much more crowded and congested, and remodeling popular city sites may impede transportation and accessibility to tourist sites, I am curious to see how Barcelona will extend Superblocks beyond the outskirts of the city. Regardless, Superblocks still serve as important examples of how cities around the world can aim to include more accessible green spaces for people to have the option to go outside and/or reach their destination without the hassle of a car.



The next day, I visited one of Barcelona’s most famous parks, Park Güell, which was accessible via the Metro again. I understand why the park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site,[6] as it was unlike any other park I had ever seen because of the variety of activities and sights available. The first sustainability effort I noticed was that the park was ticketed to limit the number of visitors, and certain sites were regulated by staff to ensure that people did not damage park areas. I had never been to a ticketed park, but thought it was a smart way to protect the park from unnecessary destruction and preserve its biodiversity. Additionally, the park’s investment in the arts, as seen by its colorful monuments and ceramic tiles (shown on the right) created by the famous architect Antoni Gaudí, attracts people to enjoy the outdoors and admire views.[7] Several hiking trails also took me around the park and through forests, exposing me to different plants and flowers that I had never seen before (e.g. olive and almond trees). After walking around the park, I stopped at a bench under the trees, which happened to be situated in front of a playground, where many families were resting and children were using swings and slides. Similar to the Superblock, all of these elements encourage both locals and tourists to explore the outdoors and appreciate the biodiversity of Barcelona. The park creates a healthy living environment for its locals while also contributing to sustainable tourism.


Public Transportation

The best part about exploring Barcelona was that I did not have to rely on a car to visit all of the attractions or travel to my hotel or airport. Barcelona encourages tourists to use its Metro and bus system by offering unlimited day passes, which saved me money and encouraged me to rely on public transportation for the entirety of my stay. Barcelona’s Metro system reminded me of the subway system in New York City, except the trains themselves were cleaner and showed clearer information about stops and transfers. What I did not expect to use frequently was the bus system, especially after I had negative encounters with using the bus system in Southern California due to their long wait times and inaccessible bus stops. Walking to the bus stop took no more than 10 minutes, regardless of where I was located at the time. Each bus I rode was very quiet, clean, air-conditioned, spacious, and accessible for people with disabilities. Barcelona is well known for its clean, electric buses, due to sustainability efforts by the company in charge, Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB). TMB aims to have 25% of its fleet be zero-emission vehicles by 2025[8] and half of its fleet operating on electricity by 2030.[9]


Concluding Thoughts

American cities have much to learn from Barcelona’s sustainability efforts, especially in the areas of urban planning and public transportation. All three elements discussed strengthen community cohesion and health, reduce greenhouse gasses, and preserve biodiversity. Local governments in the U.S. must be willing to collaborate with city planners, sustainability experts, and members of the community to improve public transportation and green spaces. Beginning these efforts as soon as possible is imperative to address the pressing issue of climate change today.