For a brief moment this past spring, a waterway in Vancouver, British Columbia, was home to a bright, colorful, cruising digital billboard.
Flashing ads for a mortgage broker or the Museum of Vancouver, or just shouting “ADVERTISE HERE,” the floating billboard traveled along the False Creek inlet near downtown. On its website, the operator, outdoor ad company Burke Billboards, promises clients the opportunity to “take the beautiful waterways, the stunning skyline of Vancouver, and make the perfect platform for you to grasp your audience’s attention.”
Not everyone in the city appreciated this re-envisioning of the landscape.
Local media reported significant outcry from residents, and by the end of May, the City Council had voted to amend Vancouver’s Sign Bylaw — the set of regulations covering commercial signage and ads in the city — to prohibit floating billboards such as Burke’s.
On the heels of that controversy, the city now is taking a macro view of commercial signage in its public spaces. A revamp of the sign bylaw is underway, which will allow the city to update its regulations, policies and processes around outdoor commercial signage.
Phase one of this effort began this summer, and primarily covers the way businesses use signage to identify themselves on private property. The next phase will focus on advertising signs and billboards in public spaces.
Vancouver is just one of several cities that have decided to reassess public ad policies in recent years. Some have opted for outright bans; São Paulo, Brazil’s “Clean City” law is often held up as the extreme example. Implemented in 2007, it prohibits any form of outdoor advertising in the city. (You can see the impact in the before/after video below from São Paulo Turismo). An examination of the anti-billboard movement in The Guardian last year pointed to other bans in Chennai, India, Grenoble, France, and a small handful of U.S. states from Vermont to Hawaii.
One primary goal of these efforts is to reduce the proliferation of commercial content in shared city space, or what São Paulo refers to as “visual pollution.”
This, after all, is the whole point of outdoor advertising: to be more effective at grabbing our attention than anything else in the landscape. One of the industry giants, Lamar, states that their billboards will “command your audience’s attention,” and competitor Clear Channel promises “maximum visibility” and “a dominant presence.”
Randy Pecarski, deputy director of planning with the city of Vancouver, allows that “if the public wanted to get rid of billboards, we can proceed with that.”
However, he emphasizes that at this stage in Vancouver’s bylaw review, the goal is to assess public attitudes on outdoor signage and ads, and to learn what changes would or wouldn’t be welcomed by Vancouverites.
The city has opened a public survey for this purpose, which solicits opinions on what, where, and how different types of commercial signage should be implemented or avoided.
“What we were trying to do was get people’s values and attitudes towards the look of the city, and the role of advertising in what the city should look like,” Pecarski says.
The bylaw update was inspired in large part by increasing pressure from advertisers to allow for digital billboards, according to the city. Vancouver’s existing sign bylaw only allows for paper billboards, with restrictions on how close they can be to streets and residential areas, as well as site-specific digital signs in limited contexts.
“We’re coming to a point where we need to address the demand that we’re hearing for digital signage,” says Heather Burpee, a planner with the city. “Without a coordinated policy, we’re not sure how to move forward.”
Depending on public feedback, the city might ultimately draw up parameters around acceptable brightness levels or hours of operation for digital billboards, or restrict their locations to dedicated entertainment districts, according to Burpee and Pecarski.
“As you might expect, the digital and advertising industry is very interested in placing those large format signs in the city,” Pecarski says. “The question is … if we are going to support billboards, what are they going to look like, and where would they be supported?”
Based on recent controversies, it seems unlikely that Vancouverites are clamoring for more digital signage in their city. According to Pecarski, the city received as many complaints about the False Creek floating billboards as are typically received annually about all signs.
Digital ad screens at BC Place stadium in downtown Vancouver have also caused significant outcry since appearing in 2011. Because BC Place is provincial property, the billboards — spanning 2,000 square feet, per CTV News — were not subject to the city’s existing size regulations (roughly 200 square feet).
“I think people are used to [paper] billboards, but the digital billboard is something that there’s more hesitation around,” Burpee says.
The unique issue with digital billboards, especially in a highly mixed-use city like Vancouver, is that they can cross the barrier between public and private space.
“I’ve got light being propagated into my home from these giant video screens … it becomes a level of assault,” says David Cookson, of Take the Giant Screen Down Now, a group that sprang up in protest to the BC Place signs. “I’d like to be able to sleep without Budweiser ads flashing into my bedroom.”
The proximity of residences to shared space in Vancouver is part of what gives the city its famously livable character. It’s even written into the city’s own definition of “Vancouverism,” which emphasizes “tall slim towers for density” along with “many parks, walkable streets, and public spaces.”
As a result, Cookson is skeptical that clustering commercial signage in certain districts would work for Vancouver.
“The policymakers need to look at light propagation the same way that we think about sound propagation,” he suggests. “There are sound bylaws that restrict the amount of noise you can make because it’s understood and very intuitive [that noise] crosses some kind of threshold border property line.”
Cookson would like to see Vancouver’s sign bylaw update mandate “absolutely no digital video boards facing any residential homes, ever.” He’d also like it to prevent the proliferation of digital ads in, for example, Vancouver’s public parks.
There were once an estimated 19,000 neon signs in Vancouver, or 1 for every 18 citizens. (Photo by SqueakyMarmot)
For advertisers, obviously, this is a huge advantage that has only been boosted by the brighter, dynamic visuals that digital technology allows. But what advertisers see as an important advantage, some see as a hazard. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Scenic America refers to digital billboards as “the biggest threat now facing America’s communities and highways,” which “constitute a magnified blight on the landscape.”
These sentiments recall a similar debate about commercial signage that was held decades ago by an earlier generation of Vancouverites. If you knew the city in the 1950s and ’60s, you may remember it glowing with neon light; there were once an estimated 19,000 neon signs in Vancouver, or 1 for every 18 citizens. Just as today’s digital billboards have sparked concerns about visual pollution, those neon signs were once seen as “desecrating our buildings, cluttering our streets, and … blocking our view of some of the greatest scenery in the world,” as one Vancouver Sun writer put it.
Though acknowledging the resistance to digital billboards, Pecarski charges that there is also an opportunity for the city and businesses to take advantage of the technology. He cites the possibility of providing site-specific information in different areas of Vancouver, or devoting some digital ad time to public interest messages, which is already taking place on some existing signage.
As Vancouver’s bylaw review moves forward, some advocates are jumping on the process as a chance to determine how the city’s public space is shaped.
The Vancouver Public Space Network is urging locals to participate in the city’s public survey, writing online that it’s “a great opportunity for public space advocates to have their say.”
VPSN board member Stewart Burgess says the organization is “absolutely interested in a ban on billboards in public space.” However, he adds, “that being said, we’re not against signage [and] advertising if that is of a reasonable size and doesn’t interfere with pedestrians.”
Burgess says he feels it is possible for Vancouver to achieve low-impact, positive signage that enhances, rather than detracts, from public space. The city is considering, for example, light projections against building facades in limited settings, according to the public survey.
“We’re certainly not against having good signs in the city, and there’s creative ways of making signs,” Burgess says. “The fear from our perspective is if you have [ads] all over the city … you have a city that’s not built for people to calmly and quietly live their lives. It’s a city that’s built to entice them to buy more products.”
If you live in Vancouver and want to throw your thoughts into the mix, you have another two weeks to fill out the city’s public survey; public stakeholder meetings will follow, according to the city. The phase two review, focused specifically on ads in public space, kicks off in the fall.
You can check out the survey and a full project timeline online here.