Photo by Michelle Wong
Summer is prime time for invasive species. Landscapers, gardeners and municipal parks staff are all on the lookout for purple loosestrife, Tartarian honeysuckle and dog-strangling vine.
It's time to add a new species to the list when it comes to threatening Toronto's public spaces: Soul-Strangling Signage (aka outdoor advertising), the most invasive species of all.
An invasive species is defined as something alien whose introduction or spread adversely affects the surrounding habitat, aggressively out-competes other species and is likely to cause harm.
Let's test the definition:
1) Alien species
As the Toronto Zoo website states, "Invasive species are introduced through human activity to areas outside of their natural range."
No one would suggest that a business should not be able to advertise what's for sale on its property. For example, it's appropriate for a car dealership to have a sign about cars. These are called "first party" or "identifying" signage.
Billboards become invasive when they are randomly advertising products that have nothing to do with the location.
2) Adversely affects the surrounding habitat
The Zoo's site also says that invasive species "often have negative impacts on biodiversity as they form monocultures that replace all diversity within an area." Nothing could more accurately describe the impact that commercial billboards have on our public spaces.
While community-driven expression such as public art, posters or murals reflect the colourful, vibrant, multi-ethnic diversity of our city, Soul-Strangling Signage uses mostly white, straight, able-bodied, anorexic supermodels to transmit one spiritually void, homogenous message: buy more stuff.
3) Aggressively out-competes other species
Outdoor advertising doesn't just add visual pollution to our public spaces; it also pushes out other forms of visual expression.
A great example is the long-term contracts the city negotiates for advertising rights on the TTC or on our so-called "street furniture" (bus shelters, info pillars, etc).
Without those contracts, we could be using those spaces as a canvas for local artists, non-profits and community organizations. In some cities, every bus shelter is adorned with art designed by a local artist or even by kids at a local school.
The billboard industry is constantly looking to expand, applying for new sign permits all across the city every month. And, of course, each of these billboards literally blocks the view of the urban landscape, whether it's trees, the horizon or the sky - the things that make the city beautiful and livable.
4) Likely to cause harm
While it's hard to measure the impact that billboards have on our collective mental health, the rapid expansion of digital billboards onto our highways clearly presents a safety hazard.
The leading cause of traffic accidents is not alcohol or speeding, but distraction.
And the sole purpose of all those digital billboards on the QEW is to distract drivers' attention from the road. That's why the Toronto Paramedic Association recently came out strongly against digital billboards on highways.
Says TPA president Geoff MacBride: "Paramedics regularly see the consequences of distracted driving. It seems unfathomable that at a time when so many resources are being mobilized to reduce driver distraction, billboard companies are seeking to make our highways more dangerous and unsafe."
5) Here's the good news: according to the city's website, citizens "can help prevent new infestations of invasive species."
This statement is equally true for Soul-Strangling Signage.
The billboard industry employs lobbyists to schmooze city councillors, attend fundraisers and win exemptions from sign bylaws to put new billboards any place they can.
Earlier this year, lobbyists won a huge victory at City Hall when Metrolinx and billboard company Allvision jointly applied for permission to erect eight massive digital billboards on the 401 and 427.
These signs violate municipal and provincial restrictions. They are too big, too bright and too close to the highway. City staff recommended against all eight. The Sign Variance Committee (a citizen board) agreed.
But council happily approved the application, ignoring safety concerns, bylaws designed to protect public spaces and recommendations from their own professional staff.
The Metrolinx application sets a dangerous precedent. But we can stop it. Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca has not approved the application yet. (You can learn more about the process at MixedMessage.ca.)
The city website encourages us to "learn to identify and control invasive plants on your own property." Let's never forget that "our own property" doesn't end at our doorstep. Our streets, parks, alleyways and highways - these are spaces that belong to us all.
Let's assert our collective ownership, reduce Soul-Strangling Signage and replace those billboards with community-driven expression that reminds us who we are and makes us feel at home.
Dave Meslin is a volunteer with Scenic Toronto.