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Some more thoughts on street furniture

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I don’t mean to overload our readers with similar posts, but I thought I’d add another one about street furniture since I was at City Hall yesterday. Below is what I tried to depute about to the executive committee, but I hate reading speeches, so I went off topic a little and didn’t get to say as much as I wanted. I fixed it up and sent a similar version to the Globe’s John Barber, who has a column criticizing the position I and other public space activists took on this contract.

The RFP states that the furniture will not exceed current levels, and the contract bases this on square footage. Size and space is the major thrust of this contract. When we found conflicting numbers that were supplied in the RFP and pointed them out to City staff, they changed their tune and focused on the reduction of pieces/units of ads on street furniture.

But the ad industry measures things in square footage. A thousand 1 square-foot ads are not nearly as effective as one 1,000 square-foot ad. I just think it was disingenuous of staff to change their tune when it was discovered a major mistake had been made. City staff will say they did not make a mistake, but we have agreed to disagree on this subject. But if City staff had admitted they screwed up on the numbers massive lawsuits from all bidders would surely be issued. I do not believe there is any back room deals or an intent to mislead council or the public, I just think it was sloppy to use *estimated* numbers instead of the *actual* numbers.

What bothers me the most is the idea that Torontonians are getting something for free. Some members of the executive committee (come on down, Glenn DeBaeremaeker!) do not seem to recognize that taxpayers and consumers are the same people. We pay for it, but now we will pay for our garbage bins and info pillars and benches through buying products instead paying for it through taxes. In order for this contract to succeed, rampant conspicuous consumption has to be maintained in order to pay for our infrastructure. That kind of culture is why we have such monstrous garbage problems, and possibly why we are entering an age of climate crisis. Only councillors Gord Perks, Janet Davis, Joe Mihevc, Pam McConnell, and Adam Vaughan seem to understand this irony.

Lastly, the city just awarded a contract to company that flouts signage bylaws and ignores the city’s requests to abide the law. We only have three examples of ad-funded street furniture and two of them were massive failures (EUCAN silver boxes and the Megabins). I don’t understand how staff can have so much confidence in this working out when the track record is spotty. Astral will comply with the bylaws *now*, I’m sure of that, since they have a $228 million contract in hand. But they have been poor corporate citizens in Toronto’s public realm.

Depending on your outlook, there could be one positive thing to come out of this: a desire from the City and councillors to go after runaway illegal billboards. I don’t think this a philosophical decision — it’s very pragmatic. If you reduce runaway illegals billboards on buildings, you drive up the price of ads on street furniture. The city wins out by looking like it cares about the visual environment, and it receives a greater amount of revenue from the contract.

With only 5 minutes to depute it is hard to give an intelligent, well-argued response to what I see as a flawed, multi-million dollar contract.



  1. The most insulting part of Barber’s article is obviously the statement “the only delicate pneumatic concoction that suffered was the activists’ inflated sense of self-importance.”

    After spending thousands of volunteer hours giving a damn about the city and its public spaces, the only recognition the extremely well paid Barber and city officials can give Spacing and the TPSC is a slap in the face. Yes John, we don’t work for free because we really care about the city or public spaces – this is all just about stroking our ego.

  2. Since you and the smug f**ks at the Toronto Public Space Committee seem to take credit for every tiny “win” at City Hall – regardless of how little impact you actually had – will you now admit that you totally and completely lost this “fight for public space”?

    Each of you are the first to put up features on your respective websites about all the victories you’ve secured in the name of the silent public, I wonder if you’ll be as quick to do so in this case.

  3. Ouch! Where does “a city hall insider” get off. The fact is the whole process just sucks and many city bureaucrats behave as though they have a god-given right to pronounce on what is good for the rest of the City. Many of them probably don’t live in downtown neighbourhoods where there is complete anarchy and too much advertising.

    Without people like Spacing and Public Space Committee — and I belong to neither — we’ve got american style republicanism run amok and seems to have gotten into the brain of the many politicians, especially the ndp’rs and senior staff.

    Mez, Blackett and crow are completely right, and that poem by the kid told all.

    Why are we even allowing any advertising.

    Why aren’t we cancelling stupid expenditures like front street extension to pay for what we really need.

    And those benches, with seat dividers are definitely hostile to children who want to snuggle in their seats beside their parents. It’s really an attack on the homeless so they won’t sleep on the benches.

  4. How the City can even pretend to have a shred of legitimacy left is beyond me. I know politicians are not supposed to simply amplify public opinion, but… why did we vote for these people again?

  5. This is less my issue, but the incremental erosion of commons ie. the pollution of the public realm with the limited realm of messages from the pollutocrats that extol the trinkets of crapitalism, is a set of choices that restrict our options. Sure it’s money, and we’re “broke” but if we subsidized and supported all the cars of Toronto by about $400 million a year, without a lot of direct user pay, wouldn’t that be a logical thing to work on? Will we ever see mandatory labels on any of the car porn on the City’s buses and this new furniture that say “Driving causes climate change – kick the car habit!”?
    Barber likes to slash – he’s good at it, and is fairly content with dissmissing and dissmembering those who give to advocate on principles.
    He at least stands by what he writes, unlike the craven coward within City Hall – no doubt not well enough paid – who seems to have some issues eh, but many of us likely would, as it can be a talksick environment.
    What’s next – bugging your Councillors?

  6. That some consider Barber’s article to be insulting is quite ironic. Illegal Signs and TPSC have been hurling insults and accusations at every individual they can dream up, often without basis, even going so far as to bribe other media companies for “dirt”. They shouldn’t expect to be treated with much respect when their own behvaiour has been libelous, rude and completely unprofessional. No wonder the Exec had had enough of them….

  7. There is no doubt we lost this. It was so obvious I didn’t think it needed to be said since it was the headlines.

    There are some good things in the motions that were attached to the committees approval: a benchmark to attain 100% sustainability power, a singed declaration from Astral that verifies that all their billboards are in compliance with MLS requests. Tiny little crumbs, no doubt.

    But like I said, there is the chance the illegal billboards will could be reigned in.

  8. Rami can say whatever he wants, because is his and his alone, but the TPSC has “core values,” chief among which is RESPECT.

    What have I ever said that was “”libelous, rude and[/or] completely unprofessional”? (Aside from the Mayor-as-pimp remarks… I’ll give you that one.) Or that counts as “hurling insults and accusations at every individual they can dream up, often without basis”?

  9. I’d like to see John Barber defend the Info Pillar. The form does follow function if the function in question is advertising in public parks.

  10. The TPSC just lost any credibility that it may have had at City Hall. Calling Mayor Miller “a pimp” is self defeating. It seems the TPSC is more concerned about getting in the news than affecting change.

    Credit to Spacing for taking a more nuananced approach which can actually make a difference. The TSPC could learn some lessons.

  11. “inflated sense of self-importance” – pot, kettle, black Mr. Barber. Apparently you need qualifications to make deputations – what does one need to write newspaper opinion columns?

    As for the motions Matt – they have to come back from “study” to be of any use. I have the depressing feeling Astral’s final contract won’t contain tough language and a surefire ejector seat for the city – I really hope I’m wrong.

  12. Jonathan writes: “What have I ever said that was “”libelous, rude and[/or] completely unprofessional”? (Aside from the Mayor-as-pimp remarks… I’ll give you that one.)”

    Translation: What have I ever said that was rude and unprofessional, except for that rude and unprofessional thing I said?

  13. As a member of the TPSC I was responding to Barber’s insinuations that the only reason we were at the deputation was to inflate our ego. I lost a full days pay to give a deputation and have spent a great deal of my time volunteering with the TPSC and other organizations around Toronto because I want to positively contribute to my community.

    Just because I care about Toronto doesn’t mean I’m insecure or self centered.

    For the record, I saw the media approach Jonathan and Matt after the meeting and not vice versa.

  14. People need to stop treating issues like these as battles. They’re not, they’re negotiations. One side wants/needs one thing, and the other side wants/needs another thing. Trying to convince the one side to give up all of their needs to meet your own is asinine.

    The city has made up their mind. Unfortunately there seem to be many that view the TPSC as a closed minded group with an agenda. It doesn’t surprise me that the city council acted as if they were tuning out Rami and the TPSC. They’d already dismissed the groups’ views as immoderate before anyone said a word.

    It’s important for the TPSC to get involved in negotiating how this contract will be worded. And to do so means giving up the idea that this is a battle to be won. Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world, so differing opinions are commonplace and the only way we can get things done is to comprimise.

    The city has already suggested forcing Astral to remove or legalize its illegal signs, and I think that’s a step forward in the right direction.

  15. Moi, I think these issues are battles. Sometimes one gets hammered, other times, there’s some change. In order to get any place, there has to be a diversity of opinion and language, and even actions.

  16. The perpetuating problems of the Ad industry.

    When the winning ad company overbids the contract by 200+ million (the other more experienced bidders offered 200 hundred million less) their only possible plan is.. increase ad space and price. Decrease quality and service. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on which end your on) as we’ve seen with the garbage bins. Remember OMG then Eucan/Eumex/Cemusa. Remember “Eucan’t” I loved that one. These projects or pilots had really big promises, even threats and then surprise!!!! no cash. Run away they did. One of the good things about the coordinated street furniture project is Eucan went away…Why? They learned something that the others didn’t.

    So councilors, decision makers, citizen MAYOR and morons at the big papers. Take a guess where all of the ad growth or Ad concentrations will happen? need a hint? Ad’s have very little or no value if people don’t see or drive by them. Downtown right! Yes! right where we have the least space, the most people, and crazy congestion. No thanks to all the new development that seems to never provide any space. (I wish I could re-build my house right on the property line).. So Toronto’s downtown urbanites do have a voice that must be heard. Decision makers should not give in to the promises of $$$ or accept bad planning and smoke & mirror designs. Look!.. It took a while but the Mega bins are gone. And next? The so called street furniture “Info to go” pillars from hell. I’m surprised that most of the recent concerns are with the legality of these rather than the completely useless non existent function. And what about the total disregard for safety or code requirements. Hey! Ramit. a few Info to go pillars i’ve seen have power coming from extension cords duct taped to the sidewalk. WTF is that. Is this what we are going to get from this company?. And what about the fact they have NEVER provided street furniture or service to a city anywhere. (I don’t think anyone would consider info pillars and billboards street furniture even with a plastic seat attached)
    So the City’s story is… Pick a company with no positive civic experience, poor business skill, (imagine the dingbat that signed off on the overbid) horrible public relation, crap vision, and a pile of dubious signs, and let them start digging (like madmen) into the downtown space to max out their ad space quota.
    What will happen shortly? I think what will happen is exactly what happened with Eucan’t. Backlash! Ad’s will get rejected by complaints and space restrictions. Revenue will not be what was expected. Promises will be broken and another company will run away and the whole perpetuating cycle of BS will start again.


  17. Dear John Barber

    After thinking about your story this week about Street Furniture I have
    decided that yes TPS, Illegal Signs and Spacing people can be somewhat full
    of self importance but that in attacking them you missed the larger point.

    Just because the City is broke doesn’t mean that all principals should be
    thrown out. And when by and large the population has tuned out to the idea
    that they have a role to play in civic government, attacking the few that do
    care seems counterproductive. They are probably the only few that actually
    read and care about your columns. You have scored some direct hits about
    developers in Durham and the Toronto Island airport but others have too, in
    areas that maybe you think are too boring to investigate but many others
    find important.

    I cannot have pad parking on my lawn and I only have access to street
    parking. I think, following your approval, that I should break the law and
    go ahead followed by giving the City a reasonable size chunk of cash. That’s
    because it would seem that principals are not more important than money and
    all of Millers philosophy is just cheap talk. In some ways nothing has
    changed since the days of Lastman who at least had the excuse of being

    Its funny though, you argued for principal during the Lastman years but you don’t any more.

    Cheers, Scott

  18. I read all these comments, articles and posts and somewhere a point has been missed. Of all the great worldy cities I’ve seen, none of them would have this level of advertising.

    Do you know why they would never have all these ads? Because it would cheapen the city.

    Not just the look or the feel, but I think the entire city would have something akin of mild embarrasement.

    I would hate to have my relatives from out of country return to Toronto in a few years, only to wonder why everything has plastered with cheap Ads. And let’s not speak of the effect on consumer culture here more locally. Just my two cents I guess.

  19. “I read all these comments, articles and posts and somewhere a point has been missed. Of all the great worldy cities I’ve seen, none of them would have this level of advertising. ”

    Please visit New York City and then return to Toronto and complain about ads. The ad culture there is celebrated.

  20. “…now we will pay for our garbage bins and info pillars and benches through buying products instead paying for it through taxes.”

    This objection is problematic for at least two reasons:

    1. Purchasing products is largely voluntary; paying taxes is largely compulsory. No amount of bus-shelter advertising is going to force you to buy Maybelline cosmetics.

    2. If there were no ads on bus shelters, most companies’ ad budgets wouldn’t shrink. What you do buy will cost the same.

    Of all of the objections to street advertising in general, and to the street furniture contract in particular, this may be the weakest.