Development Signs Could Become Less Boring, More Readable
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Development Signs Could Become Less Boring, More Readable

Worthwhile Toronto initiative could see the City "sell democracy" through better design.


The current signage for Toronto’s development proposals are anything but inviting: the language is boring, the images uninspiring or difficult to decipher, and consequently the offer to become involved seems disingenuous.

This could soon change. The drab-looking boards could be phased out, as the planning and growth management committee received a report from City staff last Thursday about how and why Toronto is reforming its development signage.

New signs are already being piloted by the City, with the first one appearing on-site at 250 Lawrence Avenue West. Passersby will notice some very obvious design changes, beginning with less text, more icons and imagery, and clearer instruction on how residents can become involved.

Toronto city councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul) brought this concern to council after hearing that the planning process, in general, is not easy to understand for the average resident.

“I’m hopeful that these [new] signs will more successfully engage the public into the planning process, be a more genuine invitation for them to provide their feedback and make their voices heard and to better describe, in more compelling and plain language, what it is their being asked to provide feedback about,” he explains in an interview with Torontoist.

Over the last year, City planners have consulted with relevant stakeholders, including internal City staff and interested resident associations, through the City’s Growing Conversations model. Students at both the University of Toronto and the Ontario College of Art and Design had studio assignments to redesign the signs, and these projects were considered in the review.

The suggestion toward revamping development signage was also featured in the civic engagement exhibit “The Fourth Wall,” curated by Dave Meslin, an advocate for better engagement between citizens and local governments. The exhibit showcased design proposals for new development signage, along with 35 other proposals aimed at “democratic renewal at City Hall.” In an article he wrote for, Meslin explained why Toronto ought to overhaul new development signs. “Their purpose is allegedly to inform citizens and solicit participation, but they accomplish neither. They are designed so poorly, and filled with so much alienating jargon, they only serve to further disengage and alienate the average person,” he writes.

The signage was last updated in 2009, but in 2014 the City began a pilot project to include QR codes, directing residents to the Application Information Centre (AIC) which is where full details of the development proposals are available. The Planning Act requires that the City uses certain terminology on these notices, but that should not be a reason for why the signs remain inaccessible to residents.

“Rather than tokenism, I want it to be a sincere and genuine effort by the City to engage its residents in the democratic process,” says Matlow.

Toronto is following the lead of other Canadian municipalities, such as North Vancouver and the Village of Pemberton in British Columbia, as well as the City of Ottawa, in updating development signage in an effort to encourage public participation and understanding of new building projects.

“One valuable thing that the public sector can learn from the private sector is the art of advertising, and engaging the public in compelling them and [incentivizing] them in being interested in the products,” says Matlow.

“Why shouldn’t the City of Toronto be better at selling democracy?”

CORRECTION: 6:20 PM This article originally state that the pilot project would have to be approved by council at its next meeting. Because the staff report was for information only–an update on an ongoing project–this is not the case. We regret the error.