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2006 03 03
Ad Nauseam
Toronto’s public realm — the shared space created through our tax dollars and our civic actions — is a kind of sacred trust. However, some Torontonians say politicians let advertisers into the temple of the public realm and they are trashing the place.

The citizen-based Toronto Public Space Committee is critical of the city’s public space advertising policies. They contend that our politicians must hold the management of the public realm in the highest regard. After all, generations of Torontonians paid for it because the quality of Toronto’s public streetscapes enhances our enjoyment of the city. It also tells the world who we are as a culture.

According to the TPSC, Toronto gets a failing grade for the way it managed this precious asset over the past decade. Lining city streets with massive advertisements posing as garbage bins, they say, is just bad civic policy.

The ad invasion started innocently. A generation back the city needed transit shelters and lacked the resources to build them. It struck a deal with an ad agency that rolled out hundreds of poorly designed, ad-containing shelters. The structures kept TTC patrons dry but blighted the landscape.

That deal generated cash for the city’s empty coffers though. Last year the amount came to five million dollars. Fortunately, people disliked the first generation shelters so much that Viacom Outdoor Advertising redesigned them to be more appealing. That helped.

There are now almost 4,000 shelters. Half carry advertising. According to city officials they cost Viacom $20,000 each. Viacom pays all ongoing costs for maintenance. The city pays nothing.

Trading access to the public realm for cash and amenities got the city thinking: Why not explore more public-private relationships? Soon we had ad-bearing trash bins at every corner. Next came Info Pillars, then Mega Bins, and then digital ads in subway stations.

The wholesale sell off hit a dead end when streets started resembling an inconsiderate kid’s bedroom. Street stuff was everywhere. Trash bins angled towards passing cars, not pedestrians. Some were inaccessible to the people who were supposed to use them. Evidence of intelligent life behind our streetscape slipped away.

Public pressure on government to improve things is helping. Mayor Miller’s Beautiful City initiative wants to redress many of the problems caused by a history budgetary shortfalls and myopic policy decisions.

The city is taking this seriously.

According to Andy Koropeski, a spokesperson who has worked at the city for eighteen years, “Once in a generation we are given an opportunity like this one.”

“The city wants to harmonize the design and placement of street amenities while improving their appearance, quality and functionality”

Mr. Koropeski says we need better coordination between the advertising displayed and where it is displayed.

As a first step in resolving the problem, the city is joining forces with Toronto’s Design Exchange. Together they will host a series of “Toronto Coordinated Street Furniture Design Charrettes.”

The DX’s Paola Poletto explains that 100 of the city’s best designers are coming to tackle the problem. Together they will explore ways to beautify and harmonize the city’s street furniture. More than that, the DX hopes their advice will ultimately strengthen the city’s international brand.

The DX’s Coordinated Street Furniture Project will look at eight sites across the city, Poletto says. The sites represent a cross-section of different street conditions, from the densely urban to the fragmented suburban, and will include all the city’s wards.

With many of the city’s most accomplished designers working on the street design problem at least the new furniture should look good. Still, the real issue here is how much of the public realm do we hand over to commercial interests who do not answer to local taxpayers.

When the ROM tried to privatize part of the public realm around the museum, people reacted — even to well intentioned sell offs of near-sacred public spaces.

TPSC’s outspoken David Meslin puts it this way: “You get what you pay for.” When we get commercial interests paying for the right to access public amenities, who do you think will call the shots?

The DX Street Furniture Design Charrettes take March 8th and March 16th. Get involved.

This story also published in yesterday's National Post
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 03/03 at 02:28 PM

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