Public space as currency
How a new tactic called ‘bundling’ is being used to change the rules at City Hall

by David Meslin

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The City of Toronto is being bundled to death.
It’s been ten years since the Common Sense Revolution strangled municipal funding, gutting social services and public infrastructure projects. But some of the effects were not immediate. Indeed, a new wave of ripple effects are washing over one of our most important resources: our common public spaces.

It all starts with advertising. The 1990s saw a backlash against the ever-increasing amount of commercialism penetrating our daily lives. Culture jammers used paint and markers to “liberate” billboards. 120,000 people subscribed to Adbusters magazine. Radio stations promoted “60 minutes commercial free.” And new digital TV recording system allowed you to skip commercials. People were tuning out the ads. The industry’s response was to place ads in places where you couldn’t turn them off; in elevators and urinals, on phonebook covers, wrapped around buildings and streetcars, and finally even on full colour televisions installed on street corners, playing only ads over and over, with no remote control.

Toronto’s sign bylaw sets strict guidelines that are designed to protect public spaces from hungry outdoor ad companies. In response, they began cleverly guiding their larger projects through procedural loopholes in the boardrooms of City Hall. But the biggest projects needed special treatment and would never have been approved, had it not been for a new tactic called “bundling.”

In 1999, during the height of Toronto’s garbage crisis, a private company offered to “donate” free, new garbage cans to the City. The new cans would have multiple receptacles for both garbage and recyclables. All they wanted in return was to install large ads on the front and back of the bins. It was brilliant. If they had walked into City Hall and asked permission to install thousands of mini billboards on residential streets, parks and school playgrounds they would have been laughed at; but who could say no to new ‘free’ recycling bins? The City was broke, so they began to sell off our public spaces, an untapped natural resource. Our visual environment went on the auction block, and advertisers were more than happy to pay lots of money to get access to our eyes. The garbage can project was quickly approved, and before long the mini-billboards began appearing on our street corners.

At the time, I couldn’t understand how such a large project could be passed so quickly, with so little media attention, and so little public consultation. But two years later, I witnessed the bundling process up close at City Hall, and it all became clear. The debate centred on the proposed suicide barrier on the Bloor Street Viaduct. The idea had been around for almost ten years, but an increase in suicides (a record 20 people in 1998) brought the plan to the surface. In February 2000 City Councilors approved the project, but they insisted they did not have enough money to pay the $5.5 million price tag. Mayor Lastman and his Council offered $2.5 million and told the Bloor Viaduct Project Steering Committee, a citizens group, to fundraise the additional $3 million.

One year later, the Steering Committee announced that they had raised the money. A private company named Tribar was going to donate $3.5 million to the project. Everyone was ecstatic. Councillors, advocates and columnists all heaped praise on Tribar for offering to build the barrier. No one seemed to care or notice that the “donation” was contingent on Tribar being given a permit by City Council to install two massive full-colour video screens on the bridge. The Steering Committee hadn’t fundraised at all. All they did was offer to sell off a piece of public space that wasn’t theirs to sell.

The proposed video boards were designed to target drivers on the Don Valley Parkway, but would also illuminate the entire Valley below including the cycling and pedestrian trails, the river itself and the entrance to Toronto’s largest public park.
Tribar planned to make millions in revenue from the boards. Outdoor ad companies had been trying for years to get video screens on the DVP. After all, they had already succeeded in getting TVs on the Gardiner Expressway. New video boards were springing up all over Toronto’s harbourfront highway, to the dismay of safety advocates who were quick to point out that while the province was trying to ban cell phone use in cars, Toronto City Council was promoting colour television on highways. In June 1999, Tribar and Mediacom partnered to build “the largest full motion video sign in Canada” (700 square feet) on the Gardiner. Their requests to advertise in the Don Valley, however, were denied.

Tribar was clever and tried a new approach. What if they bundled their TV proposal with the suicide barrier, so they in fact became one proposal? What if they created a situation where a vote against their TVs was a vote against the barrier and therefore in favour of suicides? It was a brilliant strategy, and it almost worked.

The media went along with the game and began to use the new lingo. The Toronto Star even printed the words ‘sponsor’ and ‘donation’ in the same paragraph that they acknowledged that Tribar would get all their money back:

“The suicide barrier on the Bloor St. Viaduct could be finished by the end of the year now that a private sponsor has offered $3.5 million to help build it. In return for the donation, sign-making company Tribar Industries Inc. would like to erect two electronic message signs on the bridge to make back its money through advertising.” (January 19, 2001, Toronto Star)

The proposal went quickly through stages of approval at City Hall. But it seemed to hit a major bump when city staff released a report that criticized “the safety aspects of the proposal.” The report very clearly encouraged City Council to vote against the plan. It stated that “the purpose of advertising is to attract the attention of all those whose field of vision embraces the advertising medium. However, case studies of crashes show that inattention is the most frequent human error contributing to collisions. Therefore it is prudent to limit distractions to drivers, particularly in areas where the driving is particularly demanding, and a second or two lapse in attention could have serious consequences.”

The staff report went on to state that “the collision rate on the Gardiner Expressway is almost double that of the Don Valley Parkway” and one possible factor could be the video billboards. The report concluded with a list of safety guidelines that should be followed to ensure road safety. One restriction was that “animated video (TV like images) should not be allowed.”
The story continues at a special meeting of the Works Committee. The safety report was on the agenda, and Committee members were asked to make a recommendation about the video boards. It should have been a no-brainer. It was a public meeting about road safety and the staff report was very clear on the ramification of the proposed signs. No one could dispute that the video boards were dangerous. But as the meeting unfolded, it became clear that the bundling strategy was working. One after another, members of the public stood up and told their stories of friends and family members who had jumped off the Viaduct and killed themselves. The collision statistics were not mentioned. In fact, the video boards themselves were not mentioned. There was nothing about Suicide Barriers on the agenda, but the meeting had been hijacked, as planned, by the bundled issue.
The final deputation was from the President of Tribar. A progressive city councillor asked if there were any restrictions listed in the staff report that would make their $3.5 million “donation” unviable. “Yes,” said the President and the two of them proceeded to cross out any safety guideline that would get in the way of the video billboard plan, including the ban on animated images.

The Councillor then rose in his seat and gave thanks to Tribar Industries for their “donation” to build the suicide barrier and made a motion to adopt the staff report, with the modifications that had been made. The committee approved the proposal unanimously and sent it to City Council for the final vote.

What I witnessed at that Works Committee meeting was a complete mockery of our democratic system. A private company was able to bypass the sign bylaw, alter a staff report to their liking, and somehow have their moneymaking venture labeled as a “donation” by a very progressive councillor. At the same time, public debate and scrutiny about safety (let alone the cultural impact of video billboards in a park) were shut down.

The new rules were clear: public space was the new currency at City Hall and all guidelines could be pushed aside to sell off a little more sidewalk space, as long as you sugar coated your billboards with a bundled goodie.

Fortunately for us, the Tribar deal never got past council. Councillors began to get worried about public opposition to the video boards in the park and desperately tried to find alternative locations for the signs. In the meantime, more people were jumping to their death and pressure was growing to build the barrier, at any cost. In the end, city councillors decided to unbundle the barrier and pay the total cost with public money. Over the next two years the barrier was built, with no advertising. More than thirty people jumped off the bridge while city councillors spent two years trying to save a few bucks by selling off a piece of our park.

And the free garbage cans? They turned out to be a disaster. The only thing they did well was hold up their mini billboards. The cans were falling apart, the doors were swinging open into the sidewalk and the company was illegally placing them in locations that would maximise their ad profits. Now a new company named EUCAN has purchased the cans and wants to rip them all out and replace them with thousands of new billboards that are illuminated and stand almost eight feet tall. The new ad-cans are barely recognisable as garbage receptacles at all, with little openings on the side of the billboard for garbage, paper, glass and plastic.

These cans would be one of the largest billboard projects ever allowed on public property in the City of Toronto. Safety concerns have been raised about the height of the ads blocking sightlines for drivers and pedestrians. Citizens and columnists have complained about the size and brightness of the ads. Even city staff are against the proposal. But City Council and the Mayor love the plan. They’ve voted in favour of a pilot project and the bundle continues to make its way through City Hall. After all, who can say no to more recycling?

Dave Meslin is the co-ordinator of the Toronto Public Space Committee
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