Beauty Or Blight?
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - March 29, 2003 - 12:00am
Aside from the issue of noise pollution, I received much feedback from readers about billboard blight. Most expressed concern that billboards are getting or have gone out of hand. Some have given examples such as the Dasmariñas turnoff at SLEX, which is typical of the over-billboarded intersections in the city and countryside. One architect pointed out the half-naked models in underwear billboards on the same route, which he finds attractive but which his wife does not.

Typical of this feedback is this e-mail from Dr. Felix Librero, who writes: There is much sense in banning giant billboards perched literally above our cities. Your idea of putting those billboards on buses makes good sense. This way, advertisers will literally get a lot of mileage out of those moving billboards. Another idea: How about designating billboard zones in the cities? You know, much like the billboards of COMELEC and politicians. Who knows, our advertisers might be better disciplined than our politicians.

Talking about advertisers being more disciplined than politicians, I received this long letter (reprinted in full) from Jun T. Perez, president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of the Philippines (OAAP ). He wrote:

Please allow me to react to the article you wrote in the Philippine STAR last March 1, entitled "Billboard Blight." Not everyone shares your opinion. In fact, the majority of the Metro Manila population would disagree with you. For your information, a survey conducted among all classes of the population in Metro Manila shows that only two percent of the population share your distaste for billboards. Survey results show that 75 percent had nothing but positive comments, 21 percent had both positive and negative comments and two percent had none. In summary, 96 percent approved of billboards and only 23 percent didn’t. Furthermore, the same study indicated that 45 percent of the public watch billboards on the way to work while the rest either watched other people or listened to the radio. So you see, Filipinos do enjoy looking at billboards. The study was conducted by FB Consumer Research Services, Inc., a member of the Marketing & Opinion Research Society of the Philippines, Inc.(MORES). MORES is a member association of the Advertising Board of the Philippines (ADBOARD), which is tasked with self-regulation within the advertising industry. We can make the study available for your perusal should you desire it.

Contrary to your claim of non-regulation of the industry, legitimate outdoor advertising practitioners are members of the Outdoor Advertising Association of the Philippines (OAAP). It is a 39-year-old association whose main function is self-regulation in industry. It adheres to a very strict code of ethics, which include among others, observance of engineering safety standards in structure construction which exceed those set by the National Building Code and respect for national and historical sites and landmarks. Also contrary to your perception, there are rules and regulations governing the installation of all forms of outdoor advertising set by law in the National Building Code, as amended by P.D.1096.

Among others, the law prohibits the installation of all forms of outdoor advertising within national roads right-of-way. No less than the Hon. Datumanong, former DPWH secretary, confirmed the illegality of such in a letter to the OAAP. These illegal displays should have been the subject of your ire. Banners and other forms of advertising you see in columns and outside walls of terminals of the MRT/LRT, movie ads atop bus shelters, tri-vision displays on pedestrian overpasses and those monstrous ad structures initially disguised as pollution indicators installed on center islands, are all ILLEGAL under the law. These are the ads which really intrude and cause clutter or to use your term, visual pollution. They are far too many, in direct line of sight and block your driving view.

You are barking up the wrong tree. Billboards are not the culprit. It is unfortunate that you featured photos of legitimate billboards on private property rather than these illegal displays. Could it be because you approve of them as you suggested in your column that advertising be "shifted" to the MRT/LRT? On EDSA alone, these ad displays are on every pillar of the MRT. The pedestrian overpasses which cut across the highway are filled with them as well. The question one asks therefore is why are they there? Obviously, because someone is issuing permits for them despite being contrary to law.

The OAAP has brought the problem to the attention of the DPWH, the MMDA and the DILG, urging them to remove them. The ball is their court. We understand that the MMDA filed a case against the owners of the MRT for violation of P.D.1096 when Mr. Ben Abalos was still MMDA chairman and the case is still in court. But in the matter of ad displays on pedestrian overpasses, curiously enough, some of them are there because of MOAs with no less than the MMDA itself. Others were given permits through the offices of local mayors. Not only are they clear violations of the law, but they also rob the local or national government from what should be its share from an industry which generates hundreds of millions in advertising revenue. This is why the OAAP is lobbying for a law in Congress that will allow the OAAP to be part of the system which governs issuance of permits for displays within national roads right-of-way. We want to be able to weed out the illegal structures so we can better regulate displays in the metropolis.

While I do share your idea of greenery instead of billboards, I am curious as to where on EDSA, for example, would you suggest we plant trees? Billboards are found only on major thoroughfares that are lined not with trees and beautiful scenery as you describe but with buildings, a lot of them decrepit and dirty. In some places, streets are lined with squatters’ shanties. If it’s anything the billboard does, it focuses attention away from the concrete jungle that is Metro-Manila’s streets. Others would even argue that the colors in billboards actually brighten what would otherwise be just a harsh gray and black in the horizon. Lights that are used to illuminate billboards at night, help make nightdriving safer by helping to brighten dark portions of the road. Billboards are not the problem, urbanization is.

You are correct in your observation that billboards have been with us for the longest time. It is in fact, the oldest form of advertising and has earned its rightful place in media. Even Imelda Marcos was unsuccessful in dismantling billboards during her time as Metro Manila governor. No less than the Supreme Court ruled that billboards are a form of media just like TV, radio and print and therefore should be given freedom of expression. You don’t have to regulate billboards in Hong Kong because their streets are already cramped with neon signs which cover the entire width of city streets. Singapore does regulate billboards, but then again, they also regulate chewing of gum. Otherwise, billboard consumption is very healthy and enjoys even a higher share of advertising revenue in the free world compared to us. I have been to almost all the major cities of the world and I can assure you, our billboard population pales in comparison to many of them.
The Right To Good Views And A Good Life
Thank you, Mr. Perez. I have not had the opportunity to study your survey, but sampling size and the questions asked do influence the results. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that those were the results you got nor do I question the competency of the consultants you hired. People who have lived with blight (and other things like noise and politics) get used to it and having not seen or lived with anything better, would probably reply that they do not mind it. Most of the feedback I have gotten have come from those who have had the opportunity to compare urban environments here and in other saner cities (see the feedback above).

On your second point: Yes, I have read your (OAAP) code of ethics. Architects and most other professionals in this country have similar ones. Sadly in this country, just as there are traffic laws and other forms of legal control, people and businesses consider these laws and codes as just "suggestions." With little civic will, save for efforts of groups like the HCS, heritage structures and the views of our disappearing landscapes are little protected or taken into account in planning for visual amenity – a factor in highway design in other countries. Elsewhere, planners prepare what is called a Visual Resource Survey (there you go ...another survey!) which determines visual corridors to pleasing and/or historic landmarks. When was the last time anyone saw a clear unhindered view of any landmark, pleasing panorama or heritage building in Metro Manila (except for central Makati, where they do have control)?

On your next few points: Yes, I agree that there are tons of other sham billboards and displays" that are illegal and should be dismantled. I have shown pictures of both illegal and legal billboards in my article. The issues I raise involve all of them, though I do not propose a total ban. I do not also propose that they be transferred to the MRT/LRT posts. I meant (and this may not have been too clear in my original article) that the ads could, like in Singapore, Hong Kong and other cities, be put inside the trains and on the train bodies (as with my proposal for bus ads). I am against ads on the posts or fixed locations and agree with you that these are there because "someone" gave permits.

Like I mentioned, the MMDA and the DPWH are trying to regulate all of these and it would be a good idea to strengthen the law or make a new one to regulate all this. I do, however, prefer that an urban development body be the prime authority. OAAP and other groups could be part of the system but this system should also allow other stakeholders, like the HCS and other civic groups and NGOs, equal participation. People who have to live with billboards have the right to regulate them and not just those who, even legally, profit from the business.

I agree with Mr. Perez that urbanization is the larger problem. There are few tree-line streets. (He is right. How can I bark up them if they are not there? In some US states that do not have billboard control, billboard lobbyists manage to have them cut down to be able to gain better visual access for their boards.) The trees have almost all gone because of improper planning and make-do interventions in an already flawed transportation infrastructure. This does not mean that we cannot correct this larger problem (and I’ve tackled this in many other articles). This does not also mean that just because the city is dysfunctional that we allow blight to take over and let visual mayhem rule the day. Urban Filipinos do not need billboards to distract their attention from other problems, they need proper solutions to issues of housing, transport, the lack of open and green space and a stress-free, pollution-free environment.

The "free" world does get higher revenue from billboards compared to us but they are also seeing growing movements to curb billboards. Hong Kong does have regulations and roads leading out of the central district and in the immediate suburbs are strictly controlled. Their residential neighborhoods are essentially billboard-free compared to here. Singapore has control – and for your information now allows chewing gum. Both have residential districts that are much better places to live in because of better control of visual blight than here. Why do people here pay more to live in exclusive subdivisions where visual blight and all other forms of pollution are kept to a minimum? Shouldn’t everyone have the right to a good urban environment?
Why Control?
To reiterate – we need billboard control (for both legal and illegal installations) because no control will mean compromising the visual character of our city, suburbs and countryside. Good visual character is an indicator of a quality of life of cities. (Yes, they are used in surveys that rate the best cities in the world.) Too many billboards, even legal ones, prevent us from free access to heritage views and natural scenery (once we recover the trees and green areas of course).

There still are, survey or otherwise, the detrimental effects of "billboard overload" to consider. A university study by Texas A&M University determined that billboard-strewn traffic ways contribute to commuter stress. The same study also showed that stress was reduced when drivers drove in billboard-free roads. Other studies also drew a positive correlation to billboards and accident rates. Billboards also reduce the tourism value of our cities and countryside. Many European countries and certain states in the US ban them altogether and this is in locations that attract the most tourist dollars like Florida, Alaska and Hawaii. Dick Gordon needs all the help he can get.

We all need all the help we can get. Noise and visual blight reduce the quality of life of everyone including those who are in the business of billboards and contribute to noise pollution. Billboards and tricycles, to be fair, are not the only contributors to our diminished environment. There are others – like unruly and uncontrolled cables and utility poles, illegal signs and all manner of barriers used by road-side private businesses, ugly architecture and even uglier infrastructure built by both private enterprise and a government already blighted by politics. But everything adds up.

The OAAP’s members will still earn a sizeable living even if we manage to get government (by some miracle) to adopt stricter control to curb billboard proliferation and embrace a more correct approach to city planning. Other media businesses in other countries that have saner and more humane urban governance are thriving despite, and possible because of, better management.

Thank you to all who sent feedback. Everyone’s point of view should be respected and considered. Our views, as we travel down the road to urban sanity, are today still marred by many signs of civic apathy, the overwhelming commodification of life and a pervasive neglect of our physical and social environment. Don’t we all deserve much better than what we see today?
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