2011 Villain: Astral Media Info Pillars
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2011 Villain: Astral Media Info Pillars

Nominated for: taking up a lot of space to tell us very little.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past twelve months. From December 12–23, the candidates for Mightiest and Meanest—and new this year, a reader’s write-in option! From December 26–29 you’ll be able to vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year, and we’ll reveal the results December 30.

When Astral Media and the City struck a 20-year agreement for the Coordinated Street Furniture Program, public space advocates were dubious about entrusting our street furniture requirements to an advertising company. The resulting bins, bus shelters, and other pieces have been criticized for being overly designed, impractical, uniformly bland, and lacking connections to our neighbourhoods, but Astral initially avoided criticism that the furniture’s design prioritized marketing over utility.

And then their “info pillars” started going up around town.

They are an egregious example of what happens when an ad company is given free rein to commercialize public space. They block a third (in some locations, nearly half) of the sidewalk space when installed, on some of the busiest streets in the downtown core. The “info” feature is clearly not the primary element; the narrow maps, affixed to the support pole for the billboards, weren’t even installed when the pillars first appeared. They display information most people can Google on their smartphones (previous info pillars were deemed redundant for that reason) and could easily be posted somewhere less obtrusive.

In a press release for Astral Out of Home‘s “signature columns,” an artist’s rendering shows one in a square, where it impedes no-one; they’re described as having a “high capacity to reach both vehicular and pedestrian traffic with minimal site obstructions.” In reality, that means occupying the extreme edge of our sidewalks, where road users can’t miss the blindingly bright LED lit ads (unlike our solar-powered parking meters and Bixi stations, these ads suck power from our grid). Given how they obstruct drivers’ and cyclists’ views, it seems like only a matter of time before someone steps out from behind one of these pillars and gets hurt.

Further cementing the pillars’ villainy, crews installing them have ripped out bike postsnearly half a dozen at one site, when the City is cracking down on bikes locked to anything but the rings. They’ve even removed posts that still had bicycles attached, with no warning.

We’re not alone in criticizing the pillars: Spacing Toronto has spoken out against them; new organizations like Re:Post Toronto are forming in reaction to the pillars; and on November 29, Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) moved that council review the pillars (his motion has been referred to committee).

While the City does earn a share from the ads on the “signature columns,” that profit needs to be weighed against the public good. Placed as they are on busy sidewalks, the pillars are a physical impediment to pedestrians and, worse, their visual obstruction makes them street hazards. They should be removed, and Astral sent back to the drawing board with stricter guidelines for a less-obtrusive design—one that’s a safe and useful info pillar first, and an eye-catching ad second.