Can city advertising be an art form? Melbourne is famous for its laneway murals; graffiti by artists such as Banksy. As advertising looks for new and creative ways to steal our attention, it is embedding itself into the fabric of our urban public spaces.
In the course of my final year of urban planning studies at RMIT University, I had the recent pleasure of engaging in a lively ‘mock tribunal’. The subject of the ‘hearing’ was an application to erect a massive electronic promotional sign at Riverview House, wrapping around the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets in the CBD. In an actual hearing at VCAT's King Street offices, the relevant local Council is represented, along with the permit applicant, any objectors, and expert witnesses who inform the members of the Tribunal (eg traffic engineers, heritage experts, architects etc.)
As an ‘informal court’, Primary Dispute Resolution techniques are employed by the mediator to either approve or reject the proposed development. In my mock tribunal hearing, the permit applicant / developer argued that the signage was supported by the Local Planning Policy Framework (specifically Clause 22.07) which states “Advertising signs that contribute to the lively and attractive character of the area are to be encouraged”. The applicant’s main argument was that the intersection of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets was run down, decaying and that the precinct could be rejuvenated through the addition of the proposed digital media screen.
He pointed to the liveliness of world cities such as New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong – all of which have much bigger clusters of significant electronic signage than what he was proposing for little old Melbourne. He’s not wrong, Times Square has always been an urbanist's wet dream - a symbol of the bustling Metropolis’ irresistible prosperity. Bright lights go hand in hand with big cities, so what's the problem? Why shouldn’t Melbourne aspire to have a comparably intoxicating neon precinct to reflect its stature as a global city?
On the other hand, Council steadfastly opposed the signage, claiming that due to its size, location, animation and scrolling text, it would form a “dominant element” within what Melbourne’s planning scheme refers to as the Flinders Gate Heritage Precinct Overlay. The signage would contradict council’s strategic planning efforts within the Retail Core (between Elizabeth and Russell Streets) to create a pedestrian oasis of beautified city streets with generous footpaths, low building heights with generous setbacks, large public open spaces, iconic vistas towards city landmarks and a level of solar access unavailable in other parts of the CBD.
Council claimed that the sign would take attention away from all these carefully planned neighbourhood characteristics and that by commanding the attention of pedestrians, they would pay less heed to the heritage significance of Flinders Street Station. The City of Melbourne has a history of opposing electronic promotional signs. Those applications that are ultimately approved and built are typically the result of intervention from the Minister or the reversal of Council’s decision by way of VCAT. Examples of animated signage applications rejected by Council include Emporium on Lonsdale Street, the Nike [now Telstra] site on Bourke Street, the FCUK sign (after the surrounding area was absorbed by the City of Melbourne) and Young and Jacksons on Swanston Street.
These have all been built, leaving the unmistakable impression of the Council as a toothless tiger. This list gives a snapshot of the rapidly expanding footprint electronic promotional signage in the CBD. Advertising is becoming more common in our city. It is ubiquitously working to embed itself into Melbourne’s neighbourhood character, redefining community images of the aesthetics of public open space. The MCC claim to oppose animated signage applications because they have no power to regulate their content. Hypothetically, they could potentially display content of an offensive or libellous nature without Council having any say. The electronic signage at Riverview House was approved by the Tribunal and built – you can see it now. Do you think advertising signage can be a form of urban art? Have a look at the signs as you walk through the city and let us know what you think.
Alex Waters is a Student Planner and employee at G2 Urban Planning