Billboard watchdogs clean up skylines
Aiming to clear out commercial clutter, billboard watchdogs from Rio to Toronto police outdoor ads.
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Tabello seems poised to score a major victory: In October, due in part to his “municipal activism,” the Toronto City Council will vote on – and many think pass – new bylaws for outdoor signs and a billboard tax. Revenue from the tax will fund enforcement. The tax, the final form of which is not yet articulated, will be far lower than projections by the Out-of-home Marketing Association of Canada (OMAC), says Ann Borooah, Toronto’s chief building official. (Earlier this year, OMAC estimated that tax proposals on the table then amounted to an industry-crippling 25 percent of revenue.) While it won’t be the first tax on billboards in North America, she says, it’s notable for its use of taxation as a regulatory tool.Skip to next paragraph
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“I’ve cost the city I don’t know how many millions,” says Tabello of the paperwork he has inflicted on the city. “Somebody has got to pay for it.”
Tabello belongs to a growing international grass-roots movement to control outdoor advertising.
“People are getting fed up” that sign companies have “determined what our public spaces are going to look like,” says Howard Moscoe, a Toronto city councilor. Tabello is forcing civil servants to be accountable for decisions they’ve made, he says “It’s helping us restructure the system to bring accountability in.”
Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and Alaska ban billboards outright. In Philadelphia, SCRUB (Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight) claims it has gotten the city to remove 1,000 illegal billboards. In Los Angeles, the recently formed Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight works to stem the proliferation of digital billboards. Similar efforts exist in Houston, Tucson, and other smaller US cities.
The most dramatic evidence of the antiadvertising groundswell comes from abroad. In 2007, São Paulo, Brazil, South America’s largest metropolis, banned all “off-site” advertising, and greatly restricted “on-site” signage. Some 15,000 billboards were removed under the “clean city law.” Noting widespread public support for the law, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires are considering bans of their own.
The movement takes inspiration from Jane Jacob’s 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Activists define public space as “sacrosanct,” and refer to violations of the unique character of cities by “mass market” advertising as “parasitic” and “invasive.” In some ways, their critique of consumer society is not new. But the voices are new and the context has shifted. Cities are actively reimagining themselves and their public spaces. Ideas about the commons that once belonged to the margin are increasingly mainstream. And they coincide with – and in some ways are prompted by – technological advances that promise to make outdoor advertising more ubiquitous, attention-grabbing, and better targeted than ever.