A little less than two years ago, Dave Meslin sat before the Toronto Public Space Committee and said, “Harmonization could be the best or the worst thing we have ever seen.” Riding high on a series of victories for public space in Toronto, the radically optimistic committee sincerely believed that harmonization might spell the end of advertising on street furniture. As this fateful day has approached, however, it is clear the proposal is leaning toward “the worst.”
The City of Toronto, tirelessly un-creative, consulted perhaps the worst people they possibly could have to design street furniture for the entire city: criminal corporations. As Christopher Hume points out in his column earlier this week, “at least two of the three bidders – Astral Media and CBS Outdoor – are deeply implicated in erecting illegal billboards.” And to think that every neighbourhood in Toronto, a city whose motto is “Diversity Our Strength,” will receive the same steel-and-glass treatment is an embarrassing laugh.
The street furniture circus has taken a turn for the ridiculous as local billboard freedom fighter Rami Tabello of IllegalSigns.ca received legal threats from both Clear Channel Communications and Astral Media, the latter threat coming despite criticism from Executive Committee members Councillor Mihevc and Councillor McConnell, who already stated their conviction that Clear Channel should be disqualified from the street furniture RFP for their appalling behaviour.
In news release, Astral says that it “wishes to serve notice on illegalsigns.ca and its coordinator, Rami Tabello, that recent potentially slanderous posts on this website are under review by legal counsel and we reserve the right to take such actions as necessary to protect our corporate reputations.”
If it seems like it couldn’t get any worse, brace yourselves: last night, Rami revealed an “untenable conflict of interest” in the street furniture proposal:
We have discovered that Bob Millward was working in his private consulting practice on a video screen variance application for Astral Media’s designer, Kramer Design, while he was under contract to the City as Project Director of the “street furniture” program.
If the City has a shred of decency, if the citizens have a voice left, if there is any hope for justice, this snowballing disaster of an idea is on its deathbed. No word on which company has won the bid to design the program’s shiny, steel-and-glass coffin. Before we strike up the band and boogie down, though, make your voice heard! The Toronto Public Space Committee has the tools to communicate with your elected officials on their website.
What about the money, the budget crunchers may ask? All may not be lost: we have a battery of suggestions, a partial distillation of the alternatives proposed by forward thinking people.
At the end of the N-Judah line in San Francisco, there is a place called Ocean Beach where people like to have bonfires. The local government, seeing it necessary for public order to quash this very ancient human activity, decided to ban all fires outright. One outpouring of community outrage and one Burners Without Borders-sponsored design competition later, the city will see twelve artist-designed, one-of-a-kind, customized fire pits made from a wide array of beautiful materials on their way to being installed this Saturday. You can see the designs here. San Francisco’s arts community designed their own civic infrastructure.
Let’s return home for a moment, shall we?
Could Toronto operate its own outdoor advertising agency? The answer is unequivocally yes. Certainly the most pleasing solution would be abandoning public advertising altogether, but we are stirring this cauldron with a dose of reality. We have not privatized our other important public functions like trash collection and transit, so why we would leave the look and feel of our public space for the next two decades to any incorporated body other than the City of Toronto is a mystery. The creation of a “Department of Outdoor Advertising” would give us the freedom to use as much space as we wanted for public service announcements and community information, as well as create a body that is accountable to the public.
Is it too much of a stretch to imagine a city where bus shelters, garbage cans, public washrooms and “information kiosks” are designed by local (we mean really local) artists in a way that reflects the character of the neighbourhood? This was the challenge for the Toronto Public Space Committee’s Where the Streets Have No Name campaign last year, and it was a remarkable success. Why are the streetcar stops near OCAD and West Queen West not painted with the radical hues of the creativity endemic to their respective ‘hoods? Why are the Beaches’ not adorned with overdone nautical artifacts? We still feel the optimism and the bold imagination of the uTOpia series, which dared to conjure images of massive wind farms in the lake and an express rollercoaster to the Islands. We can be the authors of our environment, and this is our chance.
Let’s have a design competition. Let’s open up the city. Let’s vote like the citizens we are, and weave the fabric of Toronto’s public space.
Frank Merritt’s fire pyre proposal courtesy of Burners Without Borders.