Whether you’ve lived in Toronto for decades or are new to the city, there’s no doubt that the glowing lights of signs and billboards impact the way you see the place you live. Where some find the flashing lights exciting and indicative of commercial potential, others see light pollution and gentrification. And then there are those who are nostalgic for the unique marquees of the past like the iconic Sam The Record Man sign, which lit up Downtown Yonge for decades.
Signage has played a significant role in the vitality and history of Downtown Yonge Street, how do we honour the history of signs and what role should signage play in the future? Share your opinion in the comments or click here to use our share form.
“A number of cities around the world have elected to create signage districts like Times Square in New York City and Piccadilly Circus in London, and Toronto has adopted Yonge-Dundas Square as the primary signage district in Canada,” says Paul Seaman, Vice President of Real Estate and Public Affairs at Clear Channel. “One of the first iconic signs in Toronto might have been the neon Sam the Record Man sign, and the Square is an elaboration of that imagery.”
Canada has a (slightly unwarranted) reputation as a nation of polite and unassuming types, and some might say that attitude extends to our relative reluctance to embrace the potential of Toronto’s primary signage district.
Canada has a (slightly unwarranted) reputation as a nation of polite and unassuming types, and some might say that attitude extends to our relative reluctance to embrace the potential of Toronto’s primary signage district. Jeremy Kramer, Principal and Creative Director of Kramer Design Associates agrees. “We have a tendency to be less comfortable about making bold or theatrical statements in Toronto, so this area of the city has emerged.” he says. “Downtown Yonge is one part of Toronto that has an extroverted and gregarious aspect to its DNA.”
Some visitors find billboards too aggressive or distracting, while residents can be concerned about round-the-clock lights. Both can turn to the City’s Sign Bylaw Unit for help. This legislative arm is responsible for keeping tabs on the City’s signs, or lack thereof. “A special sign district is an area of the city where either the presence or absence of signs is a defining characteristic,” says Ted Van Vliet, Sign Bylaw Unit manager. “So there’s Yonge-Dundas Square, but on the other hand there’s Nathan Phillips Square, which is a special sign district because of the absence of signs.”
Downtown Yonge is highly commercial but an influx of new condominium high-rises is boosting its residential population. It’s common for many who live in the area to be drawn to it precisely because of the commotion and excitement caused by signs.
Downtown Yonge is highly commercial but an influx of new condominium high-rises is boosting its residential population. It’s common for many who live in the area to be drawn to it precisely because of the commotion and excitement caused by signs. But outside of the immediate vicinity of the Square and in other mixed use areas of the city, the Sign Bylaw Unit works diligently to regulate illuminated and electronic signs. “In these areas, there is more of a vertical separation between commercial and residential, as opposed to horizontal, which you might find in other parts of the city,” explains Van Vliet. “So what we recommended is that the height and size of signs in mixed use areas be limited to the first storey of buildings, which is where commercial activity tends to be. To keep the signs low and small.”
Growth means that Toronto is transitioning in many ways; from developing a new identity to understanding how changing parts of the city are being used. “The great thing about Toronto is that there are multiple choices of where to live, and parts of the city that are more active and vibrant, including Downtown Yonge,” says Ron Palmer, of The Planning Partnership. “This has been a commercial centre for a very long time. Finding a balance with Downtown Yonge is talking with people: finding out why they live there and the real impacts of signage, whether it is aesthetic, or related to light and noise. If it’s the latter, then the solution remains: don’t move there.”
One of the ways we can democratize a facet of the city that seems inevitable with the rise of commercial opportunity and growth is to push for innovation and civic programming when it comes to signs and billboards. Devon Ostrom works with the Beautiful City initiative and was instrumental in getting the City to implement a billboard tax to help create much-needed funding for the arts as well as support the regulation of illegal signs in public spaces. “I’m not super against billboards because I think they’re a valuable part of the urban fabric. From a free speech perspective, I’m definitely in support of commercial free speech!” says Ostrom. “The problem for me, in addition to illegal signage, is when they’re not supporting a balanced view of public space.” Ostrom and Beautiful City polled Torontonians and found that seven out of 10 people agree that billboards aren’t a positive contribution to the streetscape. One way to remedy that is to push third-party advertisers to create more discussion and dialogue, like television, Internet and print advertisers. “Everyone is doing their part,” says Ostrom, “and the rationale behind the billboard tax and our work at Beautiful City is to say ‘you can’t have our mental space and eyeballs for free, without some positive, independent thought.’”
Incorporating new technologies and design, as well as sharing more engaging content, are some ways commercial signage can be more creative. Kramer has worked on projects around the world, and recalls a multi-storey media façade at a Chanel store in Ginza, Japan as one of the ways in which commercial signage can be elegant, innovative and exciting. “Part of the opportunity will be the courage to go further in terms of the investment and design, the quality of technology and lighting,” explains Kramer. “Integrating urban design elements, public art elements and bringing things to a more sophisticated mix is how we can go further.”
The extravagant nature of new technologies is one reason many civic enthusiasts are excited about billboards, but there’s a more practical reason for why signs and billboards are important: they signify change, growth and a more welcoming environment. “Visiting Toronto since the mid-’70s, I remember the Downtown Yonge area for two reasons: Sam the Record Man and Fran’s, because both had great signs and they were landmarks,” says Palmer. “But for me, the best way we can honour Toronto’s signage history is by not mimicking it.”
“When I look out my window and see tens of thousands of people in the Square it feels great, because at one point there would’ve been no one there”
The intersection of Yonge and Dundas streets looks very different from even 20 years ago. “When I look out my window and see tens of thousands of people in the Square it feels great, because at one point there would’ve been no one there,” says Seaman. “And in 20 years there will be people who remember and recognize Toronto and Downtown Yonge because of the current iteration of Dundas Square.”