Friday, November 2, 2012

The Vinyl Solution: Branding Streets & Writers

Amidst a cold fall rain, The City of Ottawa's Mayor and downtown councillors held a press release to announce their latest strategy for managing graffiti.

The pilot project that will see many of the traffic control boxes in the downtown wards wrapped in vinyl cozies. Branded with images of the O Train, the plastic coverings will cost the city between 250$ to 375$ per box, with a guarantee that they will last 4 years (assuming a truck does not smash into them). The surface is slick and so apparently will be 'graffiti resistant'.

This 'wipe off-ness' was demonstrated by councillors who picked up sharpies and proceeded to 'tag' the box. They sure seemed to have fun tagging it, although they claim that graffiti is a blight and so these box cozies are necessary. This was business.

The numbers offered to this press this week are as follows:

Graffiti tagging of traffic control boxes costs the city $35,000 year.
The initial pilot project (which only covered they key downtown area) will cost taxpayers at least 11,000$ for the pilot project.

Before I explain my disappointment in this approach, let me first tell you what I LIKE about what I heard at this press conference.

First, Marianne Wilkinson, responding to reporters, clarified that most writers tend to "have the sensibility" not to write on private property. I was encouraged to hear that clarification. I may have even cheered (inside).

Second, although the Mayor insisted on defining graffiti as a 'blight' (something that I am sure not all citizens would agree with), the municipal press speak seems to have dropped the use of terms such as 'eradication' and 'war'. I am very pleased by the use of such terms as 'reduction' instead. It's a start...

Third,listening to the reporters ask questions reaffirmed my faith in journalism. I don't know...maybe this will play out completely different once it hits some of the newspapers. You just need to  get past the name calling of the first paragraph (seriously...'punks'? sigh....), but the Ottawa Sun reporter, Jon Willing, pretty much covered the facts about municipal leaders trying their hands at 'tagging' and such.

My Criticisms are simple:

First: I wonder why the City of Ottawa did not invite community groups and artists to paint the utility boxes (as they do in Halifax). This would have been a wonderful opportunity for citizens to personalize their communities. Citizens could come out and get to know some of the artists around town, which we DO know works to combat things like 'fear of crime' and misunderstandings about who writes graffiti. It also would have been cheaper and last longer than 4 years. Remember: writers typically will not 'tag' murals or art.

I am pretty sure the House of Paint folks would have been happy to work with some of the top urban artists in Canada while they were in town recently for the urban arts festival. Some of these guys (like Omen) are professional artists who do commissioned pieces across the world; they could have created some spectacular art pieces that would have really added some 'snap' to our streets.

Second: I wonder about the environmental impact of a city wrapping its public structures in vinyl...

This 'initiative' is primarily a branding opportunity for the city.

In responding to the story in the Sun, a few commenters suggested that the city should focus on the Light Rail project instead of spending thousands more on wrapping utility boxes in plastics. Given the prominence of the OC Train image on the sample traffic box offered up to the press, I think this is exactly what this new initiative is all about.

And that is what I find ultimately disappointing about what they say they are doing.

I propose that the municipality is initiating a Public Relations campaign for the new light rail system ("coming soon!"). Instead of being upfront about the advertising, they are throwing graffiti writers to the journalists as the 'problem' that justifies spending 11,000$ so The City of Ottawa can wrap boxes up with their "tag" (ironic, eh?).

It feels like a diversion tactic.

The city continues to rack up millions of tax dollars a years on 'graffiti management' strategies even though graffiti has NOT increased. The most inexpensive graffiti reduction strategies are the ones that do what they promise; not a single mural put up by the Paint it Up program has been re-tagged. It works.

So if this pilot project falls through, I hope the Mayor and councillors consider a public art approach, where communities can take ownership of those traffic boxes (maybe throw a street-painting party) with some unique artwork instead of more advertising and plastic.
Indeed...a street-painting party!
(snapshot in City Hall about 100 feet from press conference).

Ensure the City of Ottawa Fosters Safe Creative Communities without Escalating Costs to Taxpayers

(Press Release) The City of Ottawa is set to announce a new initiative to ‘deter graffiti’ on November 2 at City Hall (11am). Given the municipality’s problematic and expensive graffiti legislation history, the hope is that the new initiative will not exacerbate many of the problems created by previous ‘zero-tolerance’ approaches:

•The cost of ‘graffiti eradication’ has escalated from $50,000 in 1999 to a recently reported $3,000,000 (as reported in the Ottawa Sun in 2011; The City of Ottawa reported graffiti expenditures of over $2,000,000 in 2007). These costs are not due to an increase in graffiti activity during this period; rather, costs are associated with such strategies as increased by-law enforcement, graffiti removal, and surveillance of previously tolerated graffiti walls.

•Negative tensions are escalated between citizens by current bylaws aimed at property owners, who are held accountable for graffiti that appears on their buildings; landlords may be served with a fine and/or the cost of graffiti removal by the City of Ottawa. This has lead to vigilante behaviour, where some citizens –upset with the bylaw- have responded to non-violent acts of ‘tagging’ with violence.

•The City of Ottawa maintains some of the strictest bylaw regulations in Canada regarding what property owners can paint on their own buildings. Furthermore, the Capital City only hosts 2 legal graffiti walls, while Gatineau hosts over 30.

There are positive ways the City of Ottawa can effectively address concerns that some citizens have with graffiti, which do not reproduce such on ‘negative’ and expensive consequences. After all, public art adds to property values and inspires young artists to head toward commission work.

•The City of Ottawa can repeal (or stop enforcing) the current bylaw which penalizes property owners for the appearance of graffiti on their buildings.

•Similar to some other cities (such as the City of South Perth) the City of Ottawa can respond and bear the cost of cleaning graffiti when requested by citizens. This would reduce the cost of ‘buffing’ significantly.

•The City of Ottawa and Ottawa Police Services can continue to foster positive relationships with groups such as House of Paint and the artists with the Paint it Up program. All of the murals that have been created to revitalize high target areas by these groups have remained graffiti free. This reinforces the need for more funding toward these demonstrably successful partnerships.

For further information: Deborah Landry (Department of Criminology) University of Ottawa. (613) 656-5305. Dr. Landry has been researching the municipal regulation of graffiti and urban arts in the Capital City for the past four years. (Photo Credit: Deborah Landry, artwork by local mural artist Hiero, commissioned in collaboration with the KeepSix Collective).