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The World’s First Meaningful Billboard Tax Passes in Toronto

Corporate creep

Corporate creep, the profit-minded takeover of public space, is not unlike a roach infestation: stomach-churning, not pretty, and always a losing battle. Yet the battle rages on. The issues underlying many current debates re-exert the right of the public over public space, whether real or virtual: Social networking site privacy uproars, state and city university walk-outs, the low-power FM radio movement, sponsored public transit stations. And the sad fact is, despite that they greatly outnumber the, ah, vermin – the public is losing this fight against the corporate creeps.

Except in Toronto, Ontario. There the public, angered by the realization that about half the billboards in their town are illegal, lobbied for landmark legislation last week that will curb the corporate crime that goes on before our very eyes. Everywhere. (An estimated two-thirds of the outdoor advertising here in Chicago sits outside of permitted zones.)

On Monday, December 7, a vast coalition of activists, artists and organizations in Toronto won a significant battle against corporate creep. The landmark legislation raises taxes and restricts spaces for ads – giving the public more control over the public sphere.

The Exciting Side of Boring Bylaws

It’s a thrilling victory, but getting there wasn’t always a thrill ride.
The seemingly unimpactful tax hike and decidedly boring bylaw – part of a long history of snooze-worthy legislation – passed the Toronto City Council after months of delays in Ontario, Canada. Taking their cue from the city’s beleaguered Building Department – which urged passage of the bill following years of nagging from a group called Illegal Signs – the council passed the billboard tax hike and an extremely restrictive bylaw that will henceforth regulate outdoor advertising. Even the nuances of the new rules are uninspired; many just streamline previous regulations, simply making it easier to lodge complaints about violations.

Yet, however banal this landmark legislation may appear, it’s sending chills down the spines of advertising executives everywhere. And although it took years of hard work by a citywide coalition, few are happier about the new ordnances than Rami Tabello, who runs Illegal Signs (online at IllegalSigns.Ca), an organization that monitors and fights local billboard violations.

“Illegal billboards are a global phenomenon,” Tabello opines. His response – the ten-person volunteer team at Illegal Signs – was to create a compelling model for other local communities to emulate. Anywhere. The worldwide presence of unpermitted billboards can be linked directly to governmental disinterest, corporate privilege, and the plain old ignorance of passersby. “Toronto’s city officials have turned a blind eye to illegal billboard construction, either through corruption or incompetence,” Tabello explains.

But Illegal Signs’ aggressive stance paid off. Even Toronto’s Mayor David Miller, who publicly thanked all the activists via Twitter for the work on the new billboard bylaw and tax hike, told news site that their methods occasionally irritated. “They have been incredible advocates,” he’s quoted as saying.

“Sometimes annoyingly so,” he added.

“Annoying,” is about the worst one can say about bad TV commercials or tacky print ads. But illegal outdoor advertising goes well beyond distasteful, Tabello contends. “Advertising on television, radio, and newspapers is a matter of choice – citizens can choose not to view those ads.”

“Billboards are different,” he says. “They destroy choice because they are located in public spaces. Either the public vista belongs to the public or it belongs to global media companies. Fighting illegal billboards is about reclaiming public space.”

Now that Tabello and a vast network of artists and activists in Toronto have made headway toward reclaiming that public space, the city’s skyline is about to get a lot more boring.

And Tabello couldn’t be more excited.

New Sheriff in Town

Under the new legislation, the illegal signs that clutter the Toronto landscape will soon begin to disappear, and those that don’t will face heavy fines, slated to create nearly $11 million worth of funding. (Originally slated for art and arts programming in the public sphere, a vote to determine the purpose of these funds has been scheduled for later, pending other budget negotiations in the cash-strapped city.) The new bylaws stipulate that the use of electronic or animated elements of billboards will henceforth be restricted, and the distance between signs carefully monitored. New, legal spaces for ads will be difficult to locate.

It’s a vast improvement over the recent signage milieu in the area, which had a sort of Old West feel to it: signage would pop up on one building, with all the bells and whistles – sometimes actual bells and whistles – in a space not permitted for ads. If removed, say, because bells and/or whistles are considered blatant safety violations in the City of Toronto, a new but more traditional billboard might appear in the space. Also unpermitted. Although this went on in public view for years, and many complained privately about the ads, few considered that laws already in place to prohibit such signage were simply being ignored.

This is why the boring new Toronto bylaws and taxes are so exciting. Activists and artists got the courts to recognize the public’s right to public space, and made it easier for the public to exert control over unchecked corporate creep.

Improvements to the Toronto cityscape will only stick if the law does, however. A fast challenge to the Ontario Superior Court is expected, and even during the debate last Monday, one councilor suggested that the next election might be used to unseat these new restrictions.

After all, advertising and marketing firms do have their defenders. The most strident are advertisers and marketers. During the lead-up to last Monday’s vote, an organization got involved in the public debate called the Out-of-Home Marketing Association of Canada (OMAC). OMAC represents 90 percent of the country’s outdoor advertising revenue recipients, and seeks to advance the cause of, yes, outdoor advertising. In a campaign clearly aimed to instill fear, OMAC contended that the new tax would affect all citizens, whether directly or indirectly, and that it threatened the death of the outdoor advertising industry and the healthy revenue it brings to Toronto.

Worse, according to OMAC, the tax threatened the very form the artists and activists fighting it prized: “Outdoor advertising is a vibrant part of Toronto’s urban culture, providing colour, light and energy. Outdoor advertising is a unique form of artistic expression and personality and is an important aspect of the urban culture of all great cities like New York, London and Chicago,” OMAC explains at CityBillboardTax.Ca.

Unfortunately, OMAC, through member company Titan Outdoor, chose to express its artistry in a series of illegal billboards. Illegal Signs filed complaints with the Municipal Licensing and Standards office. One sign – a vinyl wall hanging in a spot reserved exclusively for murals – proclaimed, “The City’s billboard tax. Yet another tax we can’t afford.” This received a Notice of Violation from Municipal Licensing and Standards on August 1, 2008. (OMAC did not return calls by press time.)

A Hard-Won Battle?

Facing such unrelenting foes has been difficult for the activists and artists in Toronto. There is fear the new tax and bylaws will not hold for long.

Devon Ostrom, who wrote the first draft of the legislation in 2002, agrees this is a concern. “Yeah,” he says, deflating a bit. “And we still have one more hump to go.”

His wistfulness is understandable. He’s devoted seven years to the project, and in the process created the Beautiful City Alliance, a 60-member coalition of organizations united to eradicate corporate ownership of public space and promote creative expression.

But the next battle, to ensure that $11 million goes to art in the public sphere, will be a hard one. “Right now, the city’s in a deficit,” he explains of the delay. He remains optimistic that significant support for the arts won’t be denied.

The Beautiful City Alliance, alongside other organizations like the Toronto Public Space Committee and Tabello’s Illegal Signs have a right to be proud. “It’s an amazing victory,” Ostrom says. “There’s a huge new revenue for the city,” and most important, in a city overridden with corporate creep, “it sets a precedent,” he adds.

Tabello’s assessment is less guarded. “The world’s first meaningful billboard tax,” he calls it.

And he’s right.

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