Are shop windows a thing of the past or the future? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Are shop windows a thing of the past or the future?

Candy Chang's Post-it Notes for Neighbors project

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role storefronts play in the pedestrian experience. Mike Toolis got me started on this train of thought at MPC’s Talking the Walk roundtable on April 21 when he gave a thought-provoking analysis of the impact building design has on streetscapes – especially windows that open to the street and give passers-by a glimpse into the space.

Then MPC’s partner on the Polish Triangle project, WPB, announced a program to bring life to empty storefronts. The contest, Make Believe: Reactivating Vacant Spaces in WPB, asked artists to submit proposals that show how they imagine commerce in Wicker Park and Bucktown will look in the future. I can’t wait to see the amazing ideas people came up with when the installations are completed in early July!

So when Kaid Benfield wrote a post earlier this week on the need for “ground level visual interest” on streets, I felt like the universe was trying to tell me something. Kaid’s article, Are shop windows endangered as a species?, was sobering. He discusses the trend away from actual storefront windows that allow people to glimpse into the store toward “covered windows” that provide a barrier between the store and the pedestrian. Quoting a story in Sunday’s Washington Post, Kaid laments the loss of this public space:

 “A covered window is more than a concession to the hard realities of the retail economy or to the fear of crime. It is the loss of a form of consciousness -- the mutual regard of urban people for one another. It is the loss of an urban space that can't be found on any map, a place where you are on stage but not an actor, in the audience but part of the show, mixed up among I and you and we and us, a liminal space that has thrilled and terrified people since cities grew large enough to dissolve us in collective identity.”

Depressing, right? Still, I have to believe that for every storefront that turns its back on the street, there are others that embrace the street and understand the value of inviting people into their store through exciting window displays. Just walk down Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Square, 57th Street near the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, or Division Street in Wicker Park for examples of bustling commercial centers that engage pedestrians.

Even when storefronts are vacant – which is all too common these days – people are thinking of creative ways to use these spaces. WPB’s art in vacant storefronts is one example.  In one of my favorite uses of an empty storefront, Candy Chang, a designer based in Helsinki – and one of my friends from graduate school – used post-its on a vacant storefront to connect neighbors.

I’m curious, what are some of most innovative uses of storefronts you’ve seen?


  1. 1. Mandy from Chicago on May 28, 2010

    I'm a big fan of the Pop-Up Art project in the Loop, which just put up a new installation at Adams and State. Very cool creepy monster-ish paintings and sculptures. I also love walking down Roscoe Street in Roscoe Village. The scale of the street is so welcoming, and the windows are very eclectic, ranging from mannequins dressed in vintage clothes to locally created art to the wilder storefronts of Big Hair and the record store. It's just a great street.

  2. 2. Josh from Hyde Park on May 28, 2010

    It's not exactly a storefront, but the Hyde Park Art Center has a giant gallery space that opens onto the street and encourages, even provokes, you to enter. Add that to the Istria Cafe seating right next to it, and it makes for a cool street experience. The only problem? It's right next to a gas station.

  3. 3. Drew from Logan Square on May 28, 2010

    Windows are the key to the street, both for pedestrians and store. I had a real estate professor who made a living consulting small business on who important it is for them to clear the clutter from their windows as it allows passerbys to see into the store. The profits and foot traffic of the businesses would increase as soon as they got rid of all of the old ads.

  4. 4. Microsoft Office 2010 Standard Key from Microsoft Office 2010 Standard Key on November 23, 2010

    Absolutely brilliant post guys, been following your blog for 3 days now and i should say i am starting to like your post. and now how do i subscribe to your blog?

  5. 5. Robert K. on February 14, 2011

    People like real-tangible things that they can interact with. I don't think the internet or anything else will substitute having the mass of a real shop woth real displays. Rob the male mannequin

  6. 6. Seattle Architect on February 14, 2011

    In many ways, our website has become our virtual store front. Many more people start looking at us on the web than our actual office.

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