Posted by: Andrew Pask | June 14, 2011

Toronto mayor looks to sell naming rights, allow corporate branding of public spaces

Public space issues in Toronto have been taking a bit of a drubbing since Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug were elected a few months ago. First there was the scuttling of millions of dollars of investment in a well-thought-out LRT program. Then it was a war on bikes. And street artists (including ones that the City had given grants to). And waterfront revitalization. And public housing (they’re planning a bit sell-off). It’s a bad scene. The Toronto urban renaissance of the last decade now seems precarious indeed. Say what you will about former Mayor David Miller, the current Ford-squared regime is in the grips of a debilitating myopia.

Now, on the heels of the same populist approach that has driven them to gut the City’s ability to generate tax revenue wherever possible, they’ve started looking at ways to fill an enormous (and growing) gap in revenue.

It didn’t take them long to fix on corporate branding. Just today, according the Globe and Mail, D-Ford has suggested that “the city should be selling naming rights to just about everything but city hall.” His brother, the Mayor, likes the idea too.

This idea is problematic for a lot of reasons. For one, naming rights and branding of this sort seldom bring in the sort of revenue streams that are really needed. They’re a modest supplement at best – and represent a much much bigger win for the advertiser (not the best example, but think of how many times “Rogers Arena” has been printed or mentioned over the Cup run alone).

More importantly, the sale of naming rights and the branding of public space compromises the spaces themselves – and the people that use them. Shellacking public spaces in a layer of corporate advertising, or selling off naming rights to the highest bidder makes these spaces feel less public. It privatizes them. At times, it can even make the space seem down right exclusionary.

A city’s parks, plazas, community centres and libraries ought to be places where people can avoid the incessant shill-job that surrounds us at so many other junctures in our daily life. These spaces – and many others – are public assets and are part of the commonwealth of the city. They ought, by and large, to remain free from the noisy layering of big advertising symbols with their constant entreaties to buy something. (And to be clear, I’m not talking issue with the small a-frame sign from the adjacent mom-and-pop cafe).

There are exceptions to this, of course. Times Square in New York, Dundas Square in Toronto. But they’re designed to be exceptions: an obesity of signifiers (pouting lips and perfume bottles, shiny electronics and skinny jeans) all soaring 100 feet into the air. These spaces are outliers, artifacts, larger than life – a set of spaces covered with big ads and an over-the-top narrative of excess.

Times Square has a story to tell, for sure. It has its place — outside the norm. This approach should not be the m.o. for public space.

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