"Info Pillar" Sidewalk Billboards

Concept: 0 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: Aren't pillars usually round and narrow?

The Long Version: It's not commonly known, but Toronto's current mayor is a shy, considerate, and intellectual man. He's even a published and award-winning poet, but writes under a pseudonym for the sake of modesty. So it's no surprise that when there's a sensitive flourish that improves our city's civic life, he's the first person that I think to thank. This latest improvement in Toronto's streetscape certainly shows his signature thoughtfulness.

This city-building project is designed to address the appalling lack of corporate participation in our public space. Crews have carefully used jackhammers, backhoes, and concrete to lovingly install a large freestanding advertising-support structure across broad portions of the otherwise uninteresting sidewalk. This neglected square footage previously served only the pedestrians and shopkeepers who make up the local community. Under the control of these short-sighted groups there was absolutely nobody looking out for the bigger picture, which is where our city government excels. Toronto's vibrant community of airbrush artists and the Idle Hands Youth Chorus are already planning their events in celebration, and I genuinely wish them well.

It's a sign of our mayor's benevolent nature and his deep love of the downtown core that these prominent billboards also consider the needs of transient visitors, a group that pays no property tax and has an even lower voter turnout rate than the city's own residents. The narrow end of this modernist edifice is used to provide tourist information to proximate passers-by. It announces itself with the large "i" symbol at the top of the post, to ensure that everyone knows that this is something useful, and proudly wears our fine city's hospitality excellence initiative program's slogan down the side. We've Been Expecting You, it boldly declares, which is far less stogy than Toronto's actual but inappropriate motto, Diversity Our Strength.

And so here's the public service announcement that demonstrates the altruistic nature of this endeavour. At the very bottom of the pillar – conveniently located at eye-level for assistance dogs – people who are new to the city will see a web site address and an exotic non-standard three-digit phone number. There's even the municipal address for the tourist information kiosk that's two kilometers away, on a different street, clear across the downtown core. The lack of directions, a map, or even operating hours provides visitors with a new opportunity to interact with the city around them and its friendly, happy inhabitants.

It's hard to put a price on this kind of civic improvement.

Part Two, added december 2011: These 'info' pillars continue to appear throughout the downtown core. Some of them now include actual maps and guides – on the end, where it doesn't distract from the forty-eight square feet of advertising display – which is an improvement over the useless information that they provided previously. On the negative side, the entire structure continues to exist. Here's an example of how they contribute to the city's streetscape and culture, shown with Mayor Rob Ford for scale:

While it's not particularly obvious, Toronto does have a "Vibrant Streets" policy, which is available as a PDF document. Section 8, 'Street Furniture and Advertising', begins with a heartwarming Guiding Principle: "Balance the quantity, size and quality of advertising with the needs of the public by integrating it into the design of street furniture elements." Some could argue that these fixtures comply with this, because they do put a pretty little frame around the billboard. However, Section eight goes on to say, quite prominently:

"The design of new street furniture must demonstrate appropriateness for its intended use, not as a venue for advertising. This means the public must be able to recognize the functionality and use of the elements. The size and scale of amenities should not be increased in order to accommodate larger advertising faces."

I can't even begin to see how these "Information Pillars" – two euphemisms for the price of one –comply with this.

This review features the ad installation on Queen Street West at Spadina, and that fixture was removed shortly after it was published. (Correlation does not imply causation: one of my favourite XKCD comics.) The new concrete slab and anchor points serves as a reminder of just how big the billboard's footprint was, and watching people walk through its ghost makes the wrongness of its location even more apparent.

But rather than seeing this removal as a victory, I think it shows that the powers behind choosing locations could be intentionally pushing far beyond the limits of what's acceptable. And setting aside the advice to never attribute anything to malice that could be explained by stupidity, if this is their policy then it's brilliant. Otherwise, how will they know what restrictions will actually be enforced?

Compared to the outrageous, the merely objectionable doesn't seem so unreasonable; by removing the atrocious, they can honestly say that they accommodate most of the public's complaints. Meanwhile, they wear down the energy of the engaged citizens and city councillors that oppose them. It's a win-win situation, and a spectacularly one-sided one at that.

Negotiations, remediation, and compromise accept the underlying assumption that these billboards have some right to exist in the first place. They don't.

last updated 16 dec 2011


  1. Great post Matthew -- I've complained to my Councillor, and hope a lot of others do so as well. Let's get this deed "undone".

    Check out the blog on the sidewalk billboards in Spacing-TO yesterday.

    Thanks, Gord

  2. Gord, thanks for your comment as well as your broader contribution to the issue. Here's the link to the Spacing article:

    Spacing Toronto: Is this really an “info” pillar?

    I have to confess that writing to my councillor never occurred to me; I was working so hard at not being angry at this installation (Queen west of Spadina) that satire was as close as I could come to being constructive. But I've corrected that now, and have written to a government representative for the very first time.

  3. I would recommend you to come up with posts a bit a lot more often.


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