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Developing Nations and Their Emerging Superblocks

A radical planning idea that is well-known in Spain is taking root in Africa and South America.

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Antananarivo, Madagascar. Unlike the centrally planned superblocks of Barcelona, those in the developing world emerge in a more piecemeal, bottom-up manner, responding to the needs of micro locales and individuals. (Photos by Scott Beyer)
Barcelona is known to urban planning afficionados as the world capital of the superblock. In the 19th century it began experimenting with long stretches of continuous but subdivided pedestrian-friendly squares and rectangles with internal courtyards, making for a city of diverse urbanism. Now other cities around the world are doing something similar. But they aren’t the cities you might expect. One of them is in a place you might consider the least likely on the globe: Madagascar.

Superblocks separate pedestrians and their neighborhoods from surrounding traffic corridors. Within them, areas are arranged to accommodate a non-car existence, with alleys, stairways and parkland. While these blocks are mostly residential, one can also find schools, service centers and a variety of retail, including street markets that line the internal pathways.

Barcelona is still in first place. That city’s leaders are currently spearheading efforts to create 500 superblocks within its existing grid. The city has already converted some blocks from the famed Eixample neighborhood, which has had a large-scale gridded layout since the 1800s. Space that has been dedicated for automobile throughput is being retrofitted for pedestrians, who will be able to walk long distances through the city without encountering cars.

David Roberts, writing about Barcelona’s initiative for Vox, states that it “has always been an intentional city, closely conceived and constructed by central planners.”

Its superblock idea continues to pay off. According to the World Health Organization, residents of one superblock neighborhood described “a perceived gain in well-being, tranquility and quality of sleep; a reduction in noise and pollution, and an increase in social interaction.” One report finds that car use in Barcelona has decreased by over 80 percent in one neighborhood that implemented this ambitious mixed-use concept.

The new superblocks in Africa and Latin America are different. Unlike the centrally planned superblocks of Barcelona, those in the developing world emerge in a more piecemeal, bottom-up manner, responding to the needs of micro locales and individuals. Such regions have lots of informal, often illegal settlements (called favelas, barrios populares or slums depending on the country). That’s where many superblocks get built.
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A little alley, called elakelan-trano, in Madagascar.
I saw this when I visited the city of Antananarivo, Madagascar. In the low-income 67 Ha neighborhood, block formation began with structures built fronting the street with minimal setback. But as the neighborhood grew, residents wanted to build behind those structures, further into the block. So space was left between the buildings for little alleys, called elakelan-trano. These were provided to allow pedestrian access into the deeper sections of large blocks, and multiple iterations of development kept happening until the entire block space was full.

The alleys within 67 Ha's superblocks zigzag every which way. Some of this is the result of loosely defined property boundaries. The relatively few regulations that exist are weakly enforced. Inside the superblock, landowners come to informal, voluntary agreements, rather than taking disputes to court. In a few cases, adjoining owners petition the government to authorize development of formalized alleys. This generally happens when residents are experiencing unsafe conditions in the elakelan-trano, such as from leaks and rodents.

Up the hill from 67 Ha are Antananarivo's wealthier central neighborhoods, which were planned when the French controlled Madagascar. They have a similar superblock concept, with alleys and stairways, although the planning and maintenance is a government responsibility.
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An alley in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

A third path to superblocks is through formally titled private development. Large developers in Madagascar may establish their own “social actions” to improve their developments or blend in with existing ones, negotiating with abutting neighbors to install improvements. This seems to have happened with the hotel I stayed in, a large upscale corporate facility, within a superblock, that butted right up against some shabby dirt alleyways.

No matter how superblock development comes about, it seems like a worthwhile planning concept. Along with insulating residential areas from the impact of cars, these blocks create multiple entry and exit points for pedestrian convenience. Their presence in both Europe and the Global South shows the wildly different contexts in which they can be made to work.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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