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.