The dull blight of sameness

I went to see the street furniture models today at city hall, and and they brought to mind a phrase Jane Jacobs uses, “The Great Blight of Dullness” — she always capitalizes it.

It’s not that all the models are bad or dull — on the contrary, the Astral 100 series is consistently pleasant, and the Clear Channel proposals include some interesting ideas (I didn’t like the Astral 200 series or the CBS designs). And I really like the idea of developing kiosks, automated street toilets, and bike lockers.

The problem is the idea that the entire city would eventually be blanketed by a set of furniture all in the same somewhat generic style. To paraphrase Jacobs, Toronto would suffer from the Dull Blight of Sameness.

Our city is not homogeneous, and it should not look homogeneous. I don’t mind if all of our bus shelters look the same, really. But if the info pillars and garbage cans also look much like the bus shelters, and they all have that same somewhat designed but still tasteful corporate look to them, it’s going to leave our city feeling generic, without any real identity of its own. I think it will end up feeling oppressive and leave us wanting to scream. As Christopher Hume argues, in some ways it would be better to just have simple, functional furniture that didn’t really force us to pay attention to it.

Why can’t the City pick and choose designs for different kinds of furniture? And even have more than one type of design for each kind? The worst sin is the proposal to replace the one iconic piece of Toronto street furniture, the bike ring-and-posts (yes, they turn out to have a flaw, but that can be fixed).

The answer is supposedly money — the City doesn’t have any. But that’s actually not really true. Street furniture could be paid for out of the capital budget, where the City can borrow money. The City would then own the advertising spaces created by the furniture, and could use the revenue to pay back the loans. Because it wouldn’t have to make profits, and could amortize the payments over the complete life cycle of the furniture, the City would not need as much advertising space as a private firm would. The City would be free to develop its street furniture in smaller batches, and could get real design firms to create it, not ad firms. As well, the City would be free to allow local neighbourhoods and BIAs to create their own looks, since they wouldn’t have to promise blanket coverage to an advertising company in order to make the street furniture project feasible.

The City would then have the flexibility to enable really high-quality, iconic designs for individual kinds of street furniture — or, if it prefers, simple, elegantly functional designs. We could delight in variety, rather than endure the dull blight of sameness.


  1. “The answer is supposedly money — the City doesn’t have any”

    You’re right, this is not the answer. Remember, this is for an unprecedented 20-year contract, yet we have a Mayor who says “One cent NOW.” Well, if Mayor Miller wants to solve our budget problem now, you don’t do a 20 year contract unless a) You’ve given up hope or b) This have nothing to do with the budget, and everything to do with the fact the Mayor has bought into the ideology of privatization.

  2. If harmonization does turn into this dull blight like we all fear it will, the only thing that will save us is graffiti.

  3. I’d argue that lots of graffiti looks the same (thus having a certain dullness) AND a lot of it is bad. Anybody can pick up a can of paint. Sometimes the brilliant graffiti artists are drowned in a sea of mediocrity.

  4. It seems that everything in the megacity has to be harmonized these days. I would agree that it doesn’t necessarily make sense that street furniture, for example, would be the same at Yonge and Dundas as it would be at Woodbine and Gerrard, or at Eglinton and Royal York, or at Kingston Road and Sheppard. You could apply this to a number of other initiatives as well… the new street signs… the road width/right-of-way standards that impose suburban standards on new downtown development… etc.

    Somehow harmonization of these elements is supposed to make the city “clean and beautiful”. No – “clean and beautiful” might involve picking up litter, or washing grime off of surfaces, or removing graffiti, or maintaining grass/floral displays, but it doesn’t necessitate subjecting all areas of the megacity (and all urban/suburban environments) to the same design standard. Especially when it winds up being the suburban design standard (e.g. the Megabins).

  5. I don’t agree with you. Sure it would be nice to have each bus shelter in the city designed by a different local artist, but that would be confusing and expensive to maintain. Sometimes uniformity is good. These designs have room for minor local differentiations. Having the same design everywhere—very much like your beloved Toronto bke-posts—will give our city a more cohesive feel.

  6. I second Sarosh. The architecture varies, the density varies, the ethnicity varies, the stores vary. Some things should stay constant to unify the city. TTC vehicles are one such thing. Street furniture should be another.

  7. I don’t think Dylan is advocating for every bus shelter to be different, Sarosh. Having different neighbourhoods/BIAs have input into the process and helping the design is the point. I live near Little India and would love to see some bus shelters with south asian cultural design influences… not bus shelters like they have in India, per se, but design cues, colours, etc. from that region would be really nice.

  8. I saw the models yesterday at the City Hall Rotunda:

    My impressions:


    Astral: A+—two almost lifelike streetscenes (Osgoode Hall?) that really enhanced the presentation of their proposed streetfurniture.

    Clear Channel: B+—model setting not as dynamic or realistic as Astral, but way better than CBS (who seem to be all steak, no sizzle) in showing context on street.

    CBS: D—here they are… no model streetscape/surroundings, no ppl for size context reference, how they would fit on street unlike outstanding Astral model. CBS should take a lesson from Astal on model presentation.


    CBS: A-—CBS nailed form & functional with conservative, pleasing to (my) eye designs. On balance, transit shelters are one of highest impact/use items and I gave edge to CBS (over Astral)—showing CBS’ long involvement with NA transit properties (TDI/ Viacom Outdoor/CBS Outdoor).

    Astral: B+—Very good functionality designed in, particularly the washroom and infopost, but the transit shelters are not as functional as CBS’s proposal.

    Clear Channel C+— The most original, funky, creative design, but a bit too quirky for me. I worry about the functionality of those visually arresting sloping roofs in keeping TTCers dry and sheltered in blinding snowstorms & thundershowers.

  9. We already have a variety of different benches provided by the BIAs, which I like because it gives each neighbourhood a bit more character. I especially like the large back-less ones over by high park because you can choose to face the sidewalk or to face the road, or to lie down on it. Does anybody know if the BIA benches are going to be replaced by the new benches?

  10. Definitely not a fan of homgenous street furniture. I like seeing 7 different newspaper boxes on a street corner.

    If they are gonna replace our furniture, I’d prefer more classic ‘iron’ looks rather than all the glass & shiny metal look everyone seems to be proposing.

  11. I totally agree with your post. Of all the things the city should be controlling and paying for, street furniture seems the most logical.

  12. I respectfully disagree with this article. Applying ‘sameness’ to our cityscape will basically cement a very iconic image for Torontonians over the years. You could say the same thing about our trademark arc lamps, ring-and-post bicycle locks, Ragtime-era telephone poles and Prussian-war-helmet-spike street signs. Whether you’re in Parkdale or North Toronto or Leslieville these are all omnipresent and ubiquitous – does that mean that they have diluted the character of these neighbourhoods? No, on the contrary, they have reinforced the psychogeography of the city. I think that the image of Toronto as a whole is more important than the sum of the image given off by its individual neighbourhoods.

  13. I think Leonard has inadvertently just reinforced my point by rhyming off neighbourhoods all part of pre-war (and pre-Megacity) Toronto, and items that are found most frequently there too. And it’s interesting that one of the iconic pieces of street furniture he used as an example (the old street sign design) is on its deathbed thanks to Clean and Beautiful and the desire to harmonize across the entire megacity, and another (the post-and-ring bike rack) appears to be next on the list. (I sure hope the streetlights don’t follow!)

  14. I think I should reiterate a sentence from my post: “I don’t mind if all of our bus shelters look the same”

    My problem isn’t with a specific type of furniture being uniform, necessarily. It’s with ALL street furniture being in the same kind of style. And, also, with that style being a generic one.

    What’s great about the ring-and-post and the other furniture Leonard mentions is that they grew out of the functions they provide, and (in some cases) the specific environment of Toronto. As such, they create a specifically “Toronto” feel. The street furniture designed by ad agencies lacks a sense of place. To my mind, that means it will not become iconic, or contribute to building a distinct image of Toronto.

  15. ^Why don’t we give it time, Dylan. The only reason why they don’t create a sense of place is because they haven’t been installed yet and haven’t had the time to work their way into our collective consciousness. Surely when the ring and post bike locks were rolled out fifteen years ago, they were probably not considered to be instant symbols of the city.

    I have not seen these street furniture designs before in other cities, so I would hesitate to call them generic just yet. Even if they were “generic”, they would become iconic to our city, and eventually even to our era. For example, what could be more plain and generic than three yellow traffic lights hung in a cluster like grapes suspended from a light standard positioned over the middle of an intersection? Yet when I think of that, I think instantly of New York. Or, the Googie architecture of Southern California that was once so deplored as everyday plastic craptastic is now number one on any preservationist’s list.

  16. “For example, what could be more plain and generic than three yellow traffic lights hung in a cluster like grapes suspended from a light standard positioned over the middle of an intersection? Yet when I think of that, I think instantly of New York.”

    Detroit has some traffic lights like that. When I saw them for the first time, I thought New York, even not having visited New York at that time. When I see backlit white signs saying “one way” or “no left turn” pointing in all four directions on the same wire as clustered yellow traffic lights, I immediately think Michigan. When I go to Westmount in Montreal, the white acorn street signs immediately remind me of Toronto.

    Right now, there is no “Toronto” bus shelter. THe ones we have are metallic versions of shelters that were first installed in Mississauga. There is, however, a “Toronto” bike post, and I would be sad to see that design disappear. Just like the “Toronto” arc lamps (this design was common elsewhere in Ontario in full and mini sizes, but only persisted here), the old street signs and yes, even the “ragtime” poles.

  17. But the idea that these designs could become iconic raises a couple of questions about who “owns” the designs:

    If company X wins the contract, are their designs exclusive to Toronto or will they be providing the same furniture to other cities?

    When the original contract expires, do we have to renew with company X to keep the now-iconic designs? Or can company Y offer identical street furniture for better terms?

  18. There should be fully enclosed bus shelters – they have them in Minneapolis and they are great in cold weather.

  19. Too bad when I went to City Hall to loook at the designs yesterday they were already covering them up and taking down the displays before 4:20 pm. I said I thought the display was open until 4:30 pm and was told I could come back another time. There were 2 other people there trying to take pictures as the lids were going over the displays.

    Bush league.

    Obviously public participation is just a charade with this department. And why, if the models are in plastic cases, do they need to further cover them up ? Do they cover the open-topped model of the downtown that is just feet away ? No. Are there security guards feet away ? Yes.

    Greatly pissed off I walked over to Bettys to meet a friend. There sat David Miller. I was very tempted to have chat about the rinky dink two bit civil service he is in charge of but decided, as he was with people, to stay silent and be courteous. Too bad the Street Furniture people were not couteous enough to honour their own timetable.

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