If the results of the city's public consultations on street furniture are any indication, you weren't terribly happy about where you got this magazine.
Sure, you're likely to want more clocks, more sidewalk, easier access at transit stops, public washrooms and water fountains; but your feelings on whether or not these should be privately owned and paid for by advertising could sit anywhere between ambivalence and murderous rage, and may depend on whether you live in sparse suburbs or the dense downtown.
The great unifier is our shared outrage at publication boxes. Prone to clustering around high-traffic areas, they are the obvious indicator of a greater problem that blights the city's canvas and impedes accessibility.
"It's as though we're buying more and more clothes and running out of places to put them," jokes deputy mayor Sandra Bussin at the Monday, March 6, consultation at Metro Hall.
Robert Freedman, the city's director of urban design, uses a similar metaphor, referring to a city's avenues as its rooms, with buildings as walls and roads as floors.
Because media firm Viacom's bus shelter contract ends next year, and Eucan's ownership of the trash bins in 2009, certain wings of City Hall see an opportunity to literally clean house - and potentially bring in revenue. Most residents express qualified agreement, with the caveat that the house not be plastered with the logos of soap makers.
The consultation process, which included sessions in Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York, consisted of presentations by coordinated street furniture program staff, variously representing works, urban design and the Clean and Beautiful City program.
Through a Q&A with City Hall staff and group discussions facilitated by Public Consultation, it becomes clear what residents think their streets are lacking. And most of all, they're lacking one particular colour. you know the one. Rhymes with "clean."
This is immediately apparent upon entering the room at Metro Hall. On display are large pictures of downtown street corners that staff presumably felt exemplified a haphazard approach to street furniture. One couldn't help noticing the common denominator of ugly: they were all seas of pavement.
"I don't like the actual foundation these [public furniture piece] are built on,' says Aisha Hassan. "It's one broad sheet of paving.'
Luckily, visualizations of potential makeovers prominently feature additional greenery, even if the choices are limited to trees in sidewalk holes and strips of grass (which, used indiscriminately, could actually accentuate the banal gridwork of Toronto's layout). Streetcar right-of-ways are also included as aesthetically preferable to crammed streets.
Pictures of artful city centres in Chicago, Vienna, London, Paris and Dundee with individualized light standards and multi-use art objects are exhibited. What isn't shown, however, is advertising.
"One of the realities," says project director Bob Millward of RE Millward and Associates, "is that well-designed and -maintained public furniture is often supported by advertising."
"Often" may be a bit of an understatement. Citing current budget constraints, staff say this process is leading toward a request for proposals (RFP) from the private sector, with the aim of coordinating as much of the street furniture - manufacture, installation and maintenance - as possible in a single contract.
"And why are [companies] willing to do this?" asks Millward. "Because some, if not all, of this furniture will have advertising on it."
In Scarborough, this sentiment was met with calls for caution and temperance. Downtown, it starts a firestorm of criticism as soon as the initial presentations are over. "Where did this direction [for a private RFP] even come from?" demands one High Park resident. "It means a huge financial package for Viacom or someone like them."
Says Alison Gorbould of the Toronto Public Space Committee, "We don't expect roads to pay for themselves. When you leave public amenities to private companies, you get really crappy public amenities."
Many agree, citing the hated Eucan bins, and the fact that it took Viacom years to attach street names to their bus shelters. "I've worked in all those cities [shown] but Dundee," says Scott Dobson. "You don't have to travel far before spirit diminishes. How can we be sure [these improvements] won't just be focused on where the tourists are and where the white people live?"
Some also take umbrage at the fact that Toronto firms will not be favoured, and there is no apparent push to explicitly involve local artists, designers or architects - many of whom are in attendance at Metro Hall. Staff say the city doesn't have the design expertise to deal with furniture.
Residents ask how staffers will be able to know a good financial deal when they see one, suggesting that companies inflate their costs to justify giving less ad revenue to the city.
Andy Koropeski, director of works, expresses his sense of affinity with many of those who are hostile to his department's perceived handling of the process. He agrees that past furniture contracts have been boondoggles, and that a coordinated program, as opposed to selling things off piecemeal, would give the city more control, including over the ads.
But tendering the project would also give private interests more control over the individual furniture. The winning consortium would own in full all the furniture for the extent of the contract, expected to last 15 to 20 years. Such a long contract could also cement the practice of seeking private funds first in civic culture, eroding public funding structures and weakening the city's case for more funding from the province.
Public space activist David Meslin feels successive councils have cried poor but shied away from pushing the province or spooking taxpayers, leaving the private sector to fill the void. "Council is essentially implementing a Common Sense Revolution," he says.
There's no simple way to lay blame. Much of our infrastructure, especially that related to transit, directly benefits corporate employers who not only fail to carry their tax burden, but now seek to make more money off that infrastructure. And even if they were chipping in, there's the familiar refrain of provincial and federal neglect.
If council believes people want a more engaging and inspiring cityscape, it must also believe residents would be willing to help pay for it through property taxes.
With cost recovery being an increasing priority in infrastructure planning, important questions -- such as how to control advertising or whether changes will gentrify an area and threaten tenants -- are taken out of public hands.
In the end, staff who agree with public sentiments are forced to argue for unpopular solutions. "I wish you folks had come and spoken this passionately at budget meetings," says Freedman during question period. "Because we get slapped down every year."