Guidelines for Planning a Public or Community Event

What Public Event Planners Can Learn From the City of Chicago

Neighborhood organizations in cities across the nation host special public and community events such as outdoor festivals, street fairs, and carnivals. Many of these public events - particularly the successful ones - become anticipated festivities and sometimes a point of pride for the hosting community. While there are aspects of event planning and execution that are shared across all types of events from weddings to corporate conferences, public events tend to have their own host of needs and challenges. One of these unique public event planning factors is working with and receiving permission from government agencies.

Sometimes the best way to learn is to just jump right in. Other times, it is worth learning from the lessons and experiences of others. In this case, we're going to learn from the city of Chicago. Experienced with organizing about 350 special events throughout Chicago, The Mayor's Office of Special Events has created its Special Events Resource Guide and Special Events Permit Package, which includes practical ideas that other towns and cities may wish to incorporate into their community events. Here are the top tips for planning successful community events from the masters themselves.

1
Have a Formal Application Process

Community Festival
Getty Sawaya Photography

In Chicago, municipal code requires organizations wishing to host a community event to submit a formal application that agrees to certain event guidelines, such as:

  • No fee may be charged for admission (set a donation amount)
  • Food vendors must be licensed and possess certification
  • Liquor vendors must be licensed (beer and wine only)
  • Merchandise vendors must be licensed
  • Chicago Transit Authority must be notified

Having a formal application process for public and community special events can cut down on the workload and streamline approvals, which is a win-win for everyone.

2
Require a Special Event Permit

In addition to the event application process, the city of Chicago also requires that organizers submit a special event permit application, which carries its own requirements such as:

  • Application must be submitted a minimum of 45 days prior to the event
  • Applications must be notarized
  • Organizers must produce a certificate of insurance for $1 million in commercial general liability naming the City of Chicago as an additional insured

While at first, it might appear that Chicago simply creates quite a few bureaucratic hoops to jump through when it comes to community events, without making the applications overly difficult, the city has actually ensured that all public events will meet their set of requirements - many of which relate to safety.

3
Require an Event Map with Permit Application

As part of a special event permit application, organizers should submit an event map that identifies street closure areas and reroute plan. It should consider public garage spaces, driveway access, and fire lane space. Detour signs and barricades must comply with city requirements, and organizers are required to obtain these supplies directly. The following items are considered when issuing a permit:

  • Public safety
  • Proximity of another event in the area at the same time
  • Previous issuance of a permit for another event at the same location map

4
Require Tent and Canopy Permits

In Chicago, tents or canopies that are larger than 240 square feet at public events require permits from the city. If larger than 600 square feet, drawings must be stamped by a licensed architect or structure engineer, and exit and emergency plans including signs and lighting must be submitted. If the size exceeds 4,000 square feet, the permit request must be submitted by the company responsible for erecting the structure. This process ensures safety measures are taken seriously.

5
Require Partnerships with Public Safety Officials

Special events in Chicago must involve both the police and fire departments. Organizers must meet with the police commander (and/or his or her representative) to address issues such as a traffic lane for emergency vehicles, security plans, and designated command post at the event. Organizers should designate an individual who will act as a liaison to the police department, fire department, streets and sanitation departments, office of special events, and others. It will help to have one knowledgeable and experienced person on your team serving as the point of coordination for all of these public departments.

6
Provide a Fire Safety Code Checklist

Festival and outdoor event organizers in Chicago are provided a checklist and required to meet certain fire safety code requirements, including:

  • Tents shall be made of fire retardant material (certification required)
  • Fire extinguishers are required in every booth
  • Temporary seating rows shall seat 5 to 14 people (maximum)
  • Temporary seating aisles shall be a minimum of 36 inches
  • Flammable liquids shall not be stored in any tent, canopy or booth
  • Rubbish shall not be allowed to accumulate
  • Electrical cords should be taped down and multiple outlets are recommended
  • Fire lanes for emergency vehicles are recommended (10-foot fire lane)
  • Basic C.P.R. and first aid courses are recommended for staff members

Experienced or new public event planners alike all appreciate a good checklist.

7
Ensure Safe Food Handling Practices

The city of Chicago requires that vendors attend a class by the Department of Health before submitting any applications. In addition, vendors must obtain a Summer Festival Sanitation Training and Certification (offered by the Illinois Restaurant Association). The health officer, who determines whether a vendor will receive a permit for operation, maintains the authority to suspend any permit at any time.

The city outlines detailed rules for food, containers, labels, food protection, personnel personal hygiene, food equipment, waste, booth construction and toxic material. It also requires vendors to attend a mandatory sanitation seminar.

On a related note special event liquor license(s) must be received 20 days prior to the event.

8
Have a Plan for Contracting City Services

Public or private contractors must be hired for a range of services, including posting no parking signs, providing barricades, towing, refuse drums, recycling drums, liners, sweeping, refuse collection, electrical services, and/or sound equipment. In Chicago, the Department of Streets and Sanitation is available to provide such services on an hourly fee scheduled based on expertise.

In addition, a recycling program is required as part of the special event permit package in Chicago. With the rise in popularity of green events, this is not a bad idea!

9
Require Animal Permits

If animals are involved in the event in any way, the city of Chicago requires that the name of a local veterinarian who will be present at the event must be submitted with the event application. This person will be responsible for providing for any sick or injured animals. In addition, the Commission on Animal Care and Control may inspect animals prior to their use in public activities.

10
Manage Event Signage and Promotion

Public event organizers in Chicago have the opportunity to get additional event exposure with light pole banners. Of course, the city manages these requests requiring that organizers complete a banner permit application that includes a copy of the proposed banner graphics, the date of the event, and any other significant aspects of the request. The department of streets and sanitation manages these types of requests.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to the Mayor's Office of Special Events in Chicago for extending permission to highlight its Resource Guide and Permit Application requirements.