Billboards not wanted in Canberra

I was bemused to read the chief executive of the Outdoor Media Association Charmaine Moldrich, in her article of 31 October suggest “Canberra's natural beauty cannot and should not restrict its ongoing evolution as Australia's capital.”  Yes, you are right. Welcome to Canberra Ms Molrich, where we love our status as the bush capital and want to keep our natural beauty while continuing our evolution as Australia’s capital and our home.

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Canberra residents are all aware that our city is changing. But we are also very clear that we want to keep the best of Canberra and build a city that works for the people who live here, as well as our role as national capital and destination that welcomes visitors. 

This was the context for the recent ACT Assembly inquiry into billboards. In it the community made its views very clear about billboards in Canberra. We want fewer, not more. This was the message of all but six of the 166 submissions to the inquiry and the nearly 800 people who signed a petition opposing billboards. The most common concern was visual pollution. As one submission stated “It is always a relief to come home to Canberra from other capital cities because of the much lower level of visual ‘noise’. Our natural environment is subtle but stunning. Our built environment is also distinctive.”

This widely shared concern is not “seeking purity through opposition to the rhythm of urban life” as suggested by Moldrich. We are not purists, we are committed to creating a city that works and builds on our past as a planned city. Canberra was planned without billboards.  Canberra was planned to showcase our role as the national capital and our bush setting.  Billboards don’t add to our plan, they detract.  Billboards are intended to distract and have maximum visual impact.

Many Canberrans also questioned how billboards could be part of the sustainable future that we are striving for. Roadside outdoor advertising is designed to distract drivers and can make our roads more dangerous. The growing use of full bus ‘wrap’ advertisements, which are effectively billboards, is particularly problematic. Wraps can make it difficult for passengers to see out of buses at night and increase their risk of missing a stop. They can also reduce bus drivers’ ability to see passengers boarding and alighting, potentially compromising their safety.   

It was interesting that Ms Moldrich’s article was illustrated with an image of the Enlighten festival.  We love Enlighten and other outdoor art as part of our growing twenty-first century city.  We support community service information, in particular emergency warnings. What we don’t want is more billboard advertising and encouragement of consumption. Worldwide research shows that advertising decreases happiness, as its aim is to make people feel they need to buy more to be successful and happy. 

Only six submissions, largely from the Government and advertising industry lobbyists, supported billboards, arguing that they would benefit the local economy. There was no evidence presented to support this benefit. In fact, concerns were raised that billboards would mostly be used by national brands and draw customers away from our local small businesses.

While I support the Committee’s report into billboards which recommended a review of the Government’s signage rules, it does not go far enough. The community was clear about what they want and the Government should act. The community wants fewer not more signs and billboards. The ACT Government should explicitly prohibit billboards in the Territory Plan as the Commonwealth Government does in the parts of central Canberra that it controls. The ACT Government should review all advertising on its property, with the aim of reducing it in line with community expectations. It should also amend advertising signage regulations in the Territory Plan to reduce the maximum size of business advertising signage and close loopholes that allow billboards and other very large signs through back-door provisions. Finally, bus ‘wrap’ billboards should be phased out in recognition of the safety concerns of bus users and drivers.

The Canberra community is clear that billboards aren’t part of the city they want and their concerns must not be ignored.