Communities can take a page from Barcelona’s playbook on green, pedestrian-friendly spaces

In response to the pandemic, communities in northeastern Illinois quickly adapted for their businesses’ survival, closing streets to traffic to make room for outdoor dining and safe gathering places. These kinds of spaces have many benefits beyond alfresco dining during a pandemic. They enhance safety and access, and they’re more pedestrian-friendly and better for the environment.

Across the region, many communities have started transforming streets to create attractive and welcoming community spaces.

For example, Algonquin in McHenry County transformed its Main Street in its downtown district by adding streetscape features and other amenities, like wider walkways, to make the area safer for pedestrians. Chicago implemented its first “shared street” in the Uptown neighborhood, reducing the speed limit near Argyle Street and Broadway Avenue, removing curbs, installing different color pavers, adding planters, and other design features.

Birds-eye view of a decorative intersection

Farther away, cities like Barcelona, Spain, have used these concepts in a much grander way to address negative quality of life impacts. As one of the densest cities in the world with an infrastructure built around the car, Barcelona had few open spaces, leading residents to experience noise and air pollution, and other health concerns.

To address this problem, city leaders embraced an innovative approach, called superblocks, to reclaim space occupied by vehicles for its citizens.

Barcelona created its first superblock in 2016 with the goal of establishing a healthy, greener, and safer public space that promotes active travel, social relations, and the local economy. They sectioned off large areas within the city — grouping up to nine neighboring city blocks at a time — and created greener spaces that put pedestrians first by adding plazas, closing streets, and limiting cars to 6 miles per hour.

And the city is seeing a return on these investments. People are driving less and walking and cycling more.

Now, the city’s 10-year plan calls for adding 21 more of these spaces within the city’s central business district, permitting most vehicle travel to only the perimeter of the superblock. And the goal is to eventually create more than 500 superblocks, an effort that could turn 70 percent of the city’s current roads into greener and more pedestrian-friendly community spaces.

Northeastern Illinois can draw inspiration from Barcelona and neighboring communities and work toward transforming streets to be green, healthy, and safe gathering places for residents.

As part of our mobility recovery project, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) is examining how the pandemic has changed public spaces within the region and learning from others on how innovation can help make these uses permanent.