Friday, May 25, 2012

Riding A Harley In Stilettos

Two images struck me during a recent quick trip to Salt Lake City to visit my daughter and grandsons.

One image is that of a young woman in a tight black skirt, wearing stilettos and a coon skin cap astride a big black Harley-Davidson motorcycle riding alone down a busy boulevard past the 130-year-old Liberty Park as we headed up 700 E for a float at the now-50-year-old Hires Big H Drive Inn.

It enlisted a gleeful, “boy is she hardcore” from my single-mom healthcare-lawyer daughter.

The other image was of multiple streets lined with back to back billboards leading east and west to and from downtown Salt Lake City such as the one in the image from High Country News shown in this blog.

The huge boards mar an otherwise beautiful city and obscure the views of the Wasatch Range of Rocky Mountains that serve as its backdrop.  The desecration also irritates many times more people than the small percentage who may find it useful, a fact lost on the businesses that still keep this obsolete and increasingly desperate technology on life support.

This billboard blight is missing from the logo and images which are strategically used by Salt Lake’s community-destination marketing organization, but it nonetheless assaults visitors and newcomers and those residents who haven’t become callous to its existence.

There is a revolution in communities across the country, including Salt Lake City, against “visual pollution” as illustrated by a new seven and a half minute documentary by Ossian Or, who with his wife Sandra are among a growing number of marketing professionals joining this fight.

The 80-acre Liberty Park in Salt Lake was the first in that state, designed by its first formally trained architect, and it came only after the city’s extraordinarily wide streets had been established (purportedly so a wagon pulled by draught animals could pull u-turns.)

But in my experience, many architects seem ambivalent about community sense of place while others may have their information misattributed or overstated as in this flyer produced by an arm of the association representing the outdoor billboard industry.

The flyer lobbies for use of big billboards in mixed use developments and gives the impression that it is authored by a distinguished professor-emeritus of architecture.  A closer reading reveals that the flyer uses some of his case studies.  However, the photos showing dissonance between billboards and sense of place speak volumes.

Published five months ago, a far more enlightening analysis is Jonathan Snyder’s Beyond Aesthetics: How Billboards Affect Economic Prosperity.  As an urban planner, Snyder uses data to reveal the negative impact billboards have on property values.

Ironically, many downtown development organizations are “thick” when it comes to outdoor billboard blight including some cited in the billboard industry flyer above.

The downtown advocacy organization in Durham, NC, where I live, is lobbying for a tax so in part it can do marketing but expanding the agency’s web page to full screen shows a depiction of an outdoor billboard.

Whether due to oversight or a mistake or inadequate funding to make remedy, it stands as an obvious affront to Durham’s nearly 30-year-old ban on billboards.

The first lesson this downtown group can take in marketing is to be true to community-held values, the policy followed by Durham’s official marketing agency which is the guardian and curator for its unique sense of place.

Sense of place isn’t rocket science and it definitely isn’t as hard as steering a big Harley in a tight skirt and stilettos.

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