A proposal that would rezone park and open space land next to Fairmount Park to an industrial category in order to accommodate an electronic billboard seems to have crept back to the dark hole where it belongs — hopefully to die.
That's just one piece of good news related to Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.'s decision to withdraw a proposal that would change rules that outlaw billboards near parks and historic sites.
The other good news – from which we derive only slight comfort – was that this did not stem from one of those hare-brained ideas to raise money for the city by charging for advertising or billboards on public space. Jones' proposal stemmed from the fact that staff at a new research facility at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia near the South Street Bridge were bothered by an existing billboard obstructing their view, and wanted it removed. Jones' compromise was to put another billboard – this one double-sided — farther up the Schuylkill on riverfront land hugging Fairmount Park. It would be visible from the park, and from the Schuylkill Expressway.
It's worth noting that this is far from the first public debate about billboards and advertising messages on public spaces. The city has considered selling advertisers the use of its name, allowing giant video billboards in Center City, and other ideas to raise money by selling itself to advertisers. These advertising ideas are often considered "harmless" ways to raise revenue. After all, people must be used to the constant encroachment of advertising in every available space, so how bad can it be to allow more?
But there is great harm in allowing the encroachment to continue — especially commercial messages sanctioned by public officials on public property. Such schemes are second only to gambling as a cheap idea for public officials to raise money that ends up cheapening us all.
Although in some ways, billboards in public spaces may be worse than gambling, since they demand attention from everyone, everywhere. Gambling is more of a choice by those who want to partake, and can be ignored by those who don't.
Public space – especially in a big and growing city — should be held at the highest possible value. Public space reinforces the idea that we are citizens – not target markets. Introducing commercial messages into that sacred space demands extra scrutiny and extra public deliberation.
The city doesn't have a great track record recognizing this. Even if the Jones proposal gets resurrected, the state Department of Transportation would have to authorize it. PennDOT now regulates billboards on highways and turnpikes in Philadelphia, an authority it reassumed in 2015, following concerns that Philadelphia was not doing a good enough job regulating its billboards. The state was concerned that Philadelphia's failure would have cost it federal funds under the Highway Beautification Act.