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Many global cities are expanding outdoor dining, so what makes Chicago's Clark Street an exception?

ChicagoGlobal by Jack Benjamin
Thibault Camus / AP
People sit on the terrace of a cafe in Paris

Due to unresolved civic tensions, Chicago's Clark Street faces a potential shutdown despite expansions of outdoor dining programs in other global cities.

Chicago's ambition to be “Paris on the prairie” – with its waterfront views and sidewalk cafés – has grown over the years. But where the City of Lights and many other global cities have codified and expanded outdoor dining, Chicago has, through compromise, left key decisions to local alderpeople (and local politics). That has led to the potential shutdown this summer of one of the city’s most popular outdoor dining areas – Clark Street. 

Pandemic fuels street dining 

Street dining greatly expanded in global cities during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow restaurants to serve patrons in safer conditions. Their popularity in many cities – especially during the spring and summer months – has allowed such programs to remain and, in some cities, expand, even years after pandemic lockdowns were lifted.  

In cities such as Sydney, London, New York, Paris, and Barcelona, for example, local governments have worked to balance public interest and private residents when designing formal outdoor dining programs. 

In March 2023, Sydney put forth urban design standards tailored for outdoor dining in both central business districts and residential neighborhoods to allow for the responsible continuation of COVID-era street dining in different locales. These include requirements around clearance space for foot traffic, standards for dining furniture used, and guidelines for limiting excessive noise that could negatively affect residents. 

Similarly, London has specified limits on the hours of operation for street dining, alleviating residents’ concerns around noise. 

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This story first appeared in the ChicagoGlobal newsletter, a joint project of Crain's Chicago Business and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


"It’s part of the culture"  

Doug Voigt, urban design and planning partner at American architectural, urban planning, and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, told ChicagoGlobal the concept of using urban street space for expanded social and cultural purposes is not a new idea, even if it did receive renewed interest amid the pandemic. 

“There’s cities that have done this for a long time,” he explained. “Europe – it’s part of the culture.” 

Indeed, apart from the strong historical café culture in European cities, many, like Barcelona, were exploring ways to kickstart urban dining and culture well before the pandemic. Meanwhile, Paris’s pandemic-era “summer terraces” are set to see their outdoor dining hours expand from July to September to take into account greater nightlife demand amid the Summer Olympics. 

In contrast, said Voigt, “many U.S. cities have continued to emphasize … car movement through the city. The amount of pavement that’s dedicated to the automobile versus the pedestrian still doesn’t seem to be in balance.” 

Concerns around street dining taking up parking space in New York City, for example, have at times flared tensions. New York’s “Dining Out NYC” program has sought to balance such concerns for local residents against the benefits of street dining to local businesses. 

Beyond New York City, there are a number of American cities, such as Washington, D.C., where, as Voigt noted, there is a greater tradition of outdoor dining thanks to the construction of wide boulevards and sidewalks. 

In Chicago, the temporary COVID-era pilot program was made permanent last summer as part of a compromise struck by Mayor Brandon Johnson. To obtain the approval of City Council, Mayor Johnson ceded control over permits to local alderpeople. That deal is now creating challenges on Clark Street. 

Clark Street controversy 

The stretch of Clark Street in River North that’s recently come under fire is not Chicago’s only outdoor dining venue. In fact, several neighborhoods in the city expanded outdoor dining during the pandemic. Some of those programs, like Lakeview East’s “Dine Out on Broadway,” have been scaled back over time. That program, which ran for eight summer weekends in 2021, was reduced to only just two weekends last year. But Clark Street’s outdoor dining program has been among the city’s most popular, with 80% of local residents surveyed by Alderman Brendan Reilly saying they “strongly support” the program.  

80% of local residents

Say they “strongly support” the city's outdoor dining program.

Given its popularity, its status in “political purgatory” has irked Chicagoans outraged at reported quid-pro-quo arrangements between the local alderman and mayor’s office. Block Club Chicago reports that Alderman Reilly said he was pressured into ending Clark Street’s dining program this year in return for city officials allowing it to operate last year. As of the publication of this article, the future of the program is unclear pending mayoral review

Of course, despite the Clark Street program’s popularity, people who live near it have — like in many other cities — raised concerns over traffic, noise, parking, and property value, all of which may be impacted by street dining programs. 

Issues are more likely to occur, said Voigt, in cities which fail to take coordinated and systematic approaches to developing street dining programs.  

In addition to cities in Europe and Australia, Voigt noted that Asian metros such as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Guangzhou, China, have seen recent and “significant public realm improvements” in the areas of outdoor and café dining. “In that space that we would consider a solely dining space, it’s also a social space,” he said. 

In those cities, Voigt explained, “the design of streetscapes and the public realm is being done to accommodate a variety of activities throughout the day and throughout the year.”  

“There is this idea of seeing streets as theater, in the broadest sense, where civic life plays itself out,” he continued. “It’s something we’re seeing a great deal of interest from many cities in which we work.” 

This story first appeared in the ChicagoGlobal newsletter, a joint project of Crain's Chicago Business and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Subscribe today.

About the Author
Jack Benjamin
Freelance Writer
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Jack Benjamin is a journalist based in London. Born and raised in the Chicagoland area, he currently covers the media industry for The Media Leader, for which he also produces and hosts a podcast. He previously interned at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" and for Congressman Brad Schneider. He received his B.A. from Northwestern University and his M.Sc. in social policy from the University of Oxford.
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