A free ride for the advertising industry?

By Mark Marsden 

There’s a marked difference among the world’s major cities on the extent of advertising signs allowed in the urban environment. 

Singapore has virtually no advertising signage. Hong Kong is “billboard city”. While some may say Singapore has a “clean” look, others may say it’s a sterile environment. Hong Kong’s signage may add to its glamour and glitz, particularly at night, others may think the abundance of signs is an eyesore.

Melbourne’s CBD area has a long history of advertising signs on side walls, above roofs, under verandas and on the street. Over the past 20 years there has been a general tightening up of advertising signage in Melbourne’s CBD under the City of Melbourne’s planning scheme, particularly in heritage precincts and the Yarra River environs. 

The question of whether more advertising signs on Melbourne’s tram shelters would result in too much advertising signage in the city was a key issue in a recent decision of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, JCDecaux Australia Pty Ltd v Melbourne CC [2019] VCAT 347.

The application made to the council was for the construction of 34 electronic promotion signs on tram stops at seven locations in Collins, Bourke and Swanston streets. This would add to the 400 electronic signs already installed across the tram network in central Melbourne. 

Council refused all seven applications, arguing that it breached a fundamental principle of the Melbourne City design strategy to keep the tram shelter structures lightweight with minimal physical or visual obstructions under the canopy. It also had concerns with electronic signs in a heritage environment.

In its submission to the tribunal, as well as arguing the planning merits, JCDeacaux said there were other benefits of the signs. One such benefit is an agreement with Yarra Trams that reserves up to one-sixth of the content time for sponsored notices, such as safety notices on behalf of the transport authority, advertising from selected community organisations and notices about community events, etc.

Another benefit is that the revenue generated from the advertising signage is an additional income source for Yarra Trams which is important to their overall budget in providing public transport services. 

It was noted, however, that the revenue raised is no longer directly tied to the provision of any particular piece of infrastructure, such as is the case with the original Adshell shelters where advertising directly subsidised the development of a shelter. In this case, it is a generalised contribution with no particular tie to a localised benefit.

Further, there are no arrangements presently in place for any such contribution towards the maintenance and enhancement of the Melbourne City Council tram stops.

The tribunal thought the capacity for the electronic signs to display community notices was a minor benefit and that the net community benefit “should be discounted somewhat, since the addition of the proposed signage infrastructure could become a constraint that needs to be taken into account, and certainly would limit any opportunities for the city to introduce advertising within a future shelter design in order to contribute to future enhancements.” 

Ultimately, the tribunal approved four of the seven of the applications. It refused two applications outright and gave partial support for another by only allowing one sign on one side of the shelter. It determined that for three locations where heritage was the predominant character, the additional signage would not enhance that character and would most likely diminish it. 

In four other locations that are less affected by heritage character, it allowed signs where it considered the location to be more appropriate. However, the tribunal remained concerned with the lack of design integration with the council’s physical infrastructure and required design changes to address these concerns.

Compared with other large cities across the world, the amount of signage in Melbourne’s CBD is fairly extensive, particularly at street level. 

As well as various road signs for cars, trams and pedestrians, there’s signs on shop fronts, tram stops, bus stops and Telstra telephone booths. Plus there are “moving” signs on trams, buses and taxis. 

Whether all the signage adds to the vibrancy of the city or is considered to be visual blight may depend on one’s view of the world.

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