Grey Is The New Beige, Part Two: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Maps.
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Grey Is The New Beige, Part Two: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Maps.

On Monday morning, Astral Media unveiled prototypes of its new line of “street furniture” at City Hall. Torontoist was going to review all of the items at once but decided that some merited their own posts. Yesterday, we took a look at the garbage bins. Today we look at the advertising pillars. Friday, the transit shelters, and on Saturday everything else. (Be sure to read Spacing’s coverage, too.)
“Isn’t two dollars a bit high for a free map?” asked one of the photographers gathered around the mayor, as Miller unfolded one of the “pocket sized, full colour INFOTOGO maps” that had been tucked inside the dispenser on the prototype of Astral’s new ad pillar. He’s right. Any tourist who isn’t a sucker would be better off heading inside City Hall or virtually any other tourist attraction and grabbing a handful of free materials. Which is not to say that you’d necessarily get anything for your toonie, anyway.
Astral has had 25 of the virtually-identical first generation of its pillars on streets and in parks for about three years now. When the Public Space Committee visited most of them last year, pretty much everything but the advertising had faded, and the giant one at Metro Square was actually open, such that the wiring was exposed. In January, the Star‘s John Spears conducted a more thorough audit of the 15 located in the core and “found them in lamentably poor order”:

All the pillars are supposed to dispense maps of the downtown core for a toonie. Only six of the 15 pillars checked yielded maps.
Three of the nine pillars that refused to give maps also ate the toonie.
Six of the pillars surveyed are supposed to have sound systems that play recorded information about the immediate area. Only two were in working order.

On Monday, Spears revisited one of the two installed at the Queen Street side of Nathan Philips Square:

The audio system that’s supposed to tell tourists about the area at the touch of a button gave out nothing more than a dial tone. And the dispenser that’s supposed to deliver a tourist map for a toonie ate the coin but wouldn’t deliver a map.
(The Star tested the pillar again shortly after noon. The audio was working, but the map machine swallowed another toonie.)

Astral dismissed those as the problems of the earlier design; the new ones are supposed to “send a signal to maintenance crews if something breaks down.” But of course this highlights what is still one of the most startling things about the street furniture program: Prior to this contract, Astral Media Outdoor’s only experience with street furniture was 320 ad pillars in Montreal and 25 in Toronto (plus a few wayfinding structures). And those handful in Toronto, after being on the streets for only two and a half years of a five-year pilot, were found to be in terrible shape (“nine were frozen, and four were without power”). And yet despite this miserably failed pilot and lack of other meaningful experience, they now get to install and be responsible for maintaining 120 more—plus 26 000 other items of street furniture, which we’ll be stuck with through 2027. At the launch, the Mayor called the contract the largest “private-public partnership” in Canadian history and Astral “one of the leading media companies in Canada.” The latter statement is true, but why you’d want a “media company” designing your urban infrastructure, and by extension all of your streetscapes, seems to be a question that hadn’t occurred to him.
2008_6_11Ad1.jpgSo what are some of the new features of this second generation of ad pillars? Well, they have a touch-screen information system. We’ve yet to see whether these will be genuinely useful and informative, but they can’t be worse than the audio systems installed in the current pillars. At least the contract explicitly sets out that the screens may not be used for advertising purposes. But because they’re expensive pieces of equipment, all of the pillars will now be armed with security cameras. While Astral will have to abide by the City of Toronto’s Security Video Surveillance Policy, it’s still rather shocking that a billboard company can put CCTV cameras on our streets more easily than the Toronto Police Service can.
The new pillars will also be placed directly on the sidewalk. All but three of the current ones are on land under the care of the City’s Parks, Forestry & Recreation division and as such are set just off the sidewalk. Each of the new ones, however, will eat up about 20 square feet of pedestrian space, because if there’s one thing Toronto is known for, it’s our broad, uncluttered avenues and generous pedestrian realm.
The things are also towering and quite deliberately dwarf everything in the immediate vicinity. This is the sort of garishness Kramer specializes in; the pillars can’t not become the focus of the streetscape. These are really just the MegaBins, back again with maps instead of nominal holes for trash.
Jonathan Goldsbie, with the Toronto Public Space Committee, continues his examination of the City’s new street furniture tomorrow. Photos by Goldsbie.