Monday, August 8, 2011

Billboards: Menace to the City

Numbers Don't Lie
August 1, 2011, 4:33am

MANILA, Philippines — As far back as December 21, 1915, Supreme Cour t Justice Cayetano Arellano passed a decision outlawing billboards in our cities.

In his final verdict, Arellano affirmed that every citizen had the right to enjoy the view of the sky, the landscape and the architecture of the city as it enhances one’s quality of life. He further stated that the Filipino people deserve a beautiful capital to advance their sense of national pride. Justice Arellano’s judgment was written almost a hundred years ago.

Even then it was acknowledged that billboards are a menace to the city and do nothing to enrich the lives of the people living in them.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the fears of Justice Arellano have been realized in its most grotesque form. Manila has become a cluttered mess of graphic ugliness due to the uncontrolled proliferation of billboards. There are more than two thousand of them in Edsa alone— that’s 90 billboards per kilometer! And since size matters in outdoor advertising parlance, some billboards measure up to 500 square meters.

As it is, Metro Manila is an overcrowded city choking on its own pollution. Billboards exacerbate the situation by blocking our airspace and trapping carbon dioxide from flowing out of our city byways. As a citizen of our nation’s capital, I take issue that the interests of the few who benefit from billboards have taken precedence over the health and wellbeing of the public.

We, the citizenry, should not be deprived from enjoying the city’s architectural progress and whatever greeneries are left. Neither should we be bamboozled at every turn with semi-nude people peddling cup noodles, underwear and face-lifts. In terms of health and safety, we should not be made to suffer the hazards brought about by the billboards’ greenhouse effect. Neither should we be made to bear the safety risks of these structures trampling down on us as we have seen during typhoon Milenyo.

The billboard menace in our city has spun out of control. Clearly the time has come for stricter regulations on the industry, one that holds the public’s wellbeing primarily over all.

The Culprit: Corruption

The billboard industry is regulated by both the local government units and, until recently, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). In separate capacities, they ensure that each billboard complies with the national building code, city zoning laws and regulations on content, among others.

Given the stringent specifications of the law, records show that a great number of billboards in the city are in technical default, and thus, have no clearances. Yet they are allowed to operate. We can only conclude that corruption and the “padrino system” plays a big part in the equation.

Sources confirm that only 18 out of the several hundred billboards in a major city north of the Pasig River are legit; the rest operate illegally. In fact, some of them are identified on the MMDA website. Their location, ad space booker, advertisers and type of violation are specified for public view.

There’s a lot of money to be made in outdoor advertising and so those that directly benefit from it (the ad space bookers, building and airspace owners, as well as the advertisers themselves) naturally pursue every opportunity to expand. It’s a free market and they have every right to do so. But we are where we are because the very institutions mandated to protect the health and wellbeing of our city and its residents have failed us.

A Chance for Redemption

In a recently signed memorandum of understanding, the task of regulating billboards within Metro Manila has been transferred from the DPWH to the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA).

The MMDA, headed by Chairman Francis Tolentino, has since been consumed with the physical audit of every single billboard in the city to ascertain technical and legal compliance.

The good Chairman is doing everything by the book, and for this I feel a sense of hope. In keeping with this administration’s tenet of “Matuwid na Daan,” Chairman Tolentino is determined to crack down on billboards that operate without permits and sever the money trail of bribe leading to government officials who look the other way.

Recently he ordered the dismantling of billboards that promote sexually questionable content. It is, after all, prohibited according to a set of regulations ratified in 2004. Those that promote liquor, tobacco, underwear and sanitary products are prohibited as well, and so we can also expect a crackdown on these billboards in the near future.

Chairman Tolentino has a reasonable vision for the billboard industry. He intends to rationalize billboard sizes, regulate zoning, ensure better spacing and conform to higher standards of building specifications to ensure structural integrity.

Stakeholders of the billboard industry need not worry, as the chairman has every intent to respect their rights. But under his watch, the law will be followed to a tee and the welfare of the city will come first, as it should be.

Given the tremendous lobbying power of the billboard industry, Chairman Tolentino is up for one of the toughest fights of his career. He can assure, however, that we the general public are behind him. No doubt, even Justice Arellano will be cheering him on from the heavens.

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