Rethinking public spaces in cities

If not ads, what do we want to see in our public spaces?

If you’ve been with us for some time, you probably know already that we at AdBlock Leeds don’t particularly like having our public spaces crammed with aggressive ads. But this is not all. It is not just that we are against corporate advertising. It is more that corporate advertising is incompatible with our vision of Leeds if the well-being of its residents was the priority.

In our vision, communities are more tightly knit together through community gardens, local markets, art festivals or simply sharing skills and resources. Citizens live healthier lives, because the levels of noise and pollution have decreased, because the infrastructures are more walk-, run- or bike-friendly.  Residents reconnect with nature, because green spaces are respected, wild life is preserved and people are encouraged to discover the space around them. People are wealthier, not because they have more money, but because they have discovered that they need much less than what they have been told. And of course, ecosystems are thriving because we have learned to see ourselves as part of the planetary system, rather than thinking that anything non-human has to serve us. And the coolest thing is that all the points above are interlinked and feed back into each other, so that the whole system balances itself after a certain point.

Rethinking communities (by Brenna Quilan)

Where does this leave advertising? Obviously, when large corporations tell us that we cannot be successful unless we own an expensive and polluting car, that we cannot be happy unless we fly to pristine beaches every 6 months or that we are not real women/men if we don’t wear make-up/ eat meat, they are consciously or unconsciously working against those goals. As Adblock Bristol put it:

Whether it’s the myth of a perfect body, a perfect family Christmas or a perfect holiday, advertisers are on hand with the promise of a perfect lifestyle. The message: if we would just buy their product, then we too could reach that perfection

This simply has no place in a world where we care about people and ecosystems.

So what do we do now?
Once we’ve decided that the society we want does not have corporate ads, we can think about what we want instead. As a starting point, we get rid of them. Just removing the existing advertising infrastructure would declutter the visual landscape and be a huge first step towards our desired world.

In Grenoble, new urban furniture replaces ads

Another option is to replace billboards with infrastructure that promotes interaction within local communities. When Grenoble (France) decided to go ad-free in 2014, the city council built new urban furniture which aims to promote social interaction and to provide information about local events such as art exhibitions or sport games, as shown in the picture above. This is a good place to mention that not all announcements are harmful. Messages that benefit the community have their place in the city. Sometimes it is not that easy to tell what benefits and what harms, but let’s leave that for another post.

We can also encourage more space for nature. Again in Grenoble, about 50 trees were planted in the city centre, where there were once ads. Or as suggested by a group of subvertisers in Leeds, flowers and greenery are much more desired (see the picture below).

In Leeds, a group of subvertisers has used an empty ad frame to put flowers

In St Werburghs, a neighbourhood of East Bristol, the Burg Arts project is a community billboard that features art pieces from local artists. The billboard had not been used commercially for several years, so the local community decided to put up photos, children’s paintings or messages from residents. The picture below shows how photo-journalist Colin Moody used the billboard to thank Bristol Waste workers for the job they do.

The community billboard at St Werburghs

We hope that this post encourages you to reflect on the use of public spaces. What would you like to see instead of ads?

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