Some cities are fighting to take billboards down, like Grenoble, France, which started replacing ads with trees and community bulletin boards in 2015. But a new project in London shows another direction billboards can take—doubling as public infrastructure.
Sitting on a street corner in the central London neighborhood of Lambeth, the new billboard has a community garden built into the base.
It's a serious transformation for the site, which used to be rundown. In the past, older billboards blocked off the whole corner, hiding everything behind it, including garbage and prostitution. Homeless people slept in a makeshift shack.
Even after the city started to clean up the corner, it was still a place where crime sometimes happened. "It kind of was still behind this big black wall," says Alfie Lay, a partner at Eat Work Art, a company that renovated a derelict building behind the site and turned it into art studios. "There was a continuation of quite sketchy behavior."
Clear Channel Outdoor, which owned the billboard, realized that a new design could help and turned to Wildstone, urban space designers, to make a plan. "Our design team came up with the idea of actually trying to green the site," says Philip Allard, chief operating officer of Wildstone.
Because Eat Work Art happened to have gardens and another nonprofit nearby, Oasis Community Farm, also grows food, the designers decided more garden space made sense. Clear Channel and Wildstone worked with the nonprofits on a design that fit in with the rest of the neighborhood.
"I've never worked with billboards before, but I'm assuming they usually just get put up there...and no one else's thoughts are taken into consideration," says Lay. "In this one, they went through a consultation process."
It's something that could potentially happen elsewhere. "There are obviously some site specific circumstances here that we were looking to address," says Allard. "But I think it demonstrates that you can improve the built environment through schemes like this, which are effectively public-private partnerships."
In most cities, billboards are already relied on as a source of revenue—sometimes directly tied to infrastructure, like maintaining bus shelters, or supporting New York City's new free Wi-Fi hotspots. In some U.K. cities, as public funding has been cut, ads have become more important financially.
That's not to say ads should necessarily be tangled up in public life. But if they are, could they be used more creatively, like this community garden? Even São Paulo, which famously declared outdoor ads "visual pollution" in 2007 and tore down thousands of billboards, has allowed a few ads back if they're done in the right way.
"I think [advertisers are] trying to soften the edges of their business model somewhat," says Lay. "As opposed to having lots of garish billboards plastered across railways, etc."