Sharing public space

Private advertising pillars send revenue to City Hall in exchange for occupying public right-of-way. Is it worth it?

Private advertising pillars send revenue to City Hall in exchange for occupying public right-of-way. Is it worth it?

Throughout Boston objects jockey for space in the precious land between buildings. Utility poles, street lights, garbage cans, benches, and fire hydrants compete for prime real estate while trying to maintain space for walking and other public activity. Inevitably, conflicts surface between accommodating all of the necessary “street furniture” and providing adequate width for pedestrians and wheelchairs.

In a city as old as Boston, these issues are especially complicated. In fact, so much so that the City has a governing body – the Public Improvements Commission – whose primary responsibility is to review and permit changes to these public spaces. For example, if a cafe wants to add outdoor seating, they must seek the blessing of the PIC to occupy a public sidewalk.

Yet despite these considerable complications, the City facilitates the installation of advertising pillars throughout Downtown, the Back Bay, and other heavily trafficked areas. These pillars are placed without PIC oversight subject only to the whims of the City’s street furniture director, Peter O’Sullivan. And unlike their advertisement-ridden counterparts – bus stops, trash cans, and public restrooms – the so-called kiosks (and their diminutive partner panels) provide no useful service to the walking public.

Judging by the near-ubiquity of these street furnishings, it must be a lucrative business. And no doubt City Hall values any non-tax income that can support the Mayor’s treasured slush fund. But at what cost? How many of these obstacles can we take?

The Globe’s Brian McGrory, with whom we do not always agree, put it well:

A city, especially our city, can be a stunning place, filled with beautiful architecture, unusual people, and unpredictable encounters. These ads, by their very nature, direct our attention and imagination away from all that… can’t you just appreciate the life you have and the moment you’re in?

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