There is currently a growing and energetic campaign in Bristol to get rid of corporate advertising hoardings in Bristol.
This group, led by Adblock Bristol, also wants to stop all new digital advertising and become the first city in the UK to call a halt to such intrusive and damaging messaging in our public spaces.
So far at least 1,400 communities around the world have banned digital advertising boards including Auckland, Bergen, Hawaii and 700 communities in the US.
My hope is that by the time you get to the end of this article, you will agree that Bristol should join them and that you will help us to persuade the politicians that this is a good idea too.
So why are we so against these advertising hoardings? After all, they brighten up some dark corners of our city and cover-up unwanted vacant plots (which, incidentally, is the reason they first appeared on a large scale in the UK – to cover up derelict bomb sites).
I totally accept that if I look at a magazine or watch a film I will see images and words trying to sell me things. What I (and a growing number of other Bristolians) find unacceptable is a proliferation of images on billboards, bus stops and other public spaces and especially the giant advertising digital boards that are starting to appear along our major roads.
The key phrase here is ‘public spaces’: I have not chosen to look at these messages and frankly don’t want to.
From a positive perspective; where billboards have already been removed in the city, such as in parts of St Werburghs, beautiful historic buildings have been revealed which the hoardings have previously blocked, or green spaces have been allowed to flourish in their place.
In my view, the worst offenders are the digital billboards, which are effectively very large computer screens. One that was recently proposed for Mina Road was 7.5 metres high and five metres wide but, fortunately for the city, this has been rejected twice by the council and (after an appeal) by the planning inspectorate.
These huge brightly lit advertising boards are a terrible idea because:
1. They distract drivers. This is of course what they are supposed to do in order to sell stuff, but, as they are sited on major roads (the Mina Road one was to catch drivers on the M32), this distraction can easily lead to accidents.
A study in Sweden found that they distract a driver for up to two seconds. At 70mph, this is a long time to travel and they have subsequently been banned in that country.
2. They are visual pollution (‘sky trash’) in public areas where no consent has been obtained from the public.
3. They are very carbon intensive. The large ones contain up to 10,000 LED bulbs and use the same power as up to 30 residential houses.
4. There is a social justice issue as they are usually found in more deprived areas of urban environments.
5. There are proven links between advertising and mental health issues – for example, many studies have shown that the unrealistic body images promoted in advertising can lead to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression, particularly among young people.
6. They manipulate children. Studies have suggested that most children younger than seven or eight years cannot differentiate between factual content and advertising.
Have a look at the campaign’s website and you will see that what we are working towards is to have a city that celebrates its creativity and independence, where communities have a say in what they see in the city’s streets and other public spaces. Those are the words – what about the actions?
We have already had a number of notable successes: supporting residents in opposing planning applications for new advertising sites and checking the legality of existing ones (a surprising number do not have planning permission), engaging in a constructive dialogue with Bristol City Council about the advertising sites it controls and future planning policy, and engaging in discussions about positive alternatives for those spaces.
To help in that process, we have arranged to have a workshop in Bristol on November 28 with the fantastic artist/poet Robert Montgomery. The event will provide an opportunity for Bristol residents to work alongside Robert in the co-creation of a new piece to be installed in the St Werburghs Community Billboard.
We also need your help to create an interactive map of billboards in Bristol, to help us identify which have permission and which are there illegally. Then we can plan any appropriate action.
If, like us, you would prefer a visual environment which reflects the unique identity of our city, the values of local communities, and the local economy then come and support us.
Stephen Clarke is a Green Party councillor for Southville