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Taking a Closer Look

Billboards: The Case for Control

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Come see America the beautiful, if you can. Amber waves of grain? It is more like a ride through the yellow pages: a windshield vista of 50-foot beer cans and towering casino signs.

Many thought billboards were an endangered species in 1965 when Congress passed the Highway Beautification Act. But the law was so riddled with loopholes and enforcement so lax that in recent years, billboard companies have put up thousands of new, bigger, more obtrusive billboards.

In a relatively short time, outdoor advertising has gone from Burma Shave to Blade Runner: from small and folksy to huge and intrusive. We’ve now entered the era of digital billboards — giant outdoor TV screens wasting energy while degrading the landscape and distracting drivers.

Billboards are the definition of a roadside distraction. Their entire purpose is to take your eyes off the road and put them on giant outdoor advertisements. Safety is just one of the reasons why many communities have been trying to regulate billboards for decades.

Curbing billboards is not easy, but it can be done. This article lays out the case for billboard control. It discusses the reasons beyond safety for why we need to halt construction of new billboards and strictly regulate those that remain.

1. Billboards are a form of pollution — visual pollution

Over the years, billboards have been described as the “junk mail of the highway,” “litter on a stick,” “visual kudzu,” “urban blight,” and more, but in their simplest form billboards are a form of visual pollution.

Regulating billboards is no different from regulating noxious fumes, sewage discharges, or excessive noise. The U.S. Supreme Court has said: “Pollution is not limited to the air we breathe and the water we drink; it can equally offend the eye and ear.”

Outdoor advertising: it's in your face

While the messages on a billboard can be ugly or ordinary when they are enlarged to the size of a house, placed on poles 50-100 feet high, randomly strewn along every street, even covering entire buildings, they become a visual and environmental hazard. Like overly loud noise — strictly regulated in many communities — billboards thrust a discordant commercial note into our environment. They deprive us of visual access to scenic vistas and create a strident, hectic atmosphere in cities.

2. Billboards are out of place in most locations

Our landscape is one of America’s greatest resources. Its value is economic as well as aesthetic, psychological as well as recreational, spiritual as well as physical. Every landscape, rural or urban, has its own kind of beauty and uniqueness. In every kind of landscape billboards are a disturbing alien intrusion. Like empty beer cans in a mountain stream, they simply don’t belong because they commercialize, homogenize, and degrade our natural landscape.

Billboard directly over a houseVisual clutter may be appropriate in a few limited locations, such as a city’s entertainment district (e.g., Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip). In most cases, however, billboards obliterate architectural character and ruin natural beauty. They also undermine community livability and sustainability. Doug Kelbaugh, of the University of Michigan, School of Architecture put it this way: “If a building, a landscape, or a city is not beautiful, it will not be loved, if it is not loved, it will not be maintained. In short it won’t be sustained.”

3. Billboards destroy distinctiveness

Billboards look the same whether they are in Mississippi, Montana, or Malaysia. As a result, billboards homogenize our communities. They help turn unique places into “Anyplace.” In fact, almost nothing will destroy the distinctive character of a place faster than uncontrolled signs and billboards. This has negative economic consequences.

“Community differentiation” is a key concept in economic development today. If you can’t differentiate your community from any other community you have no competitive advantage. Put another way, the “image of a community is fundamentally important to its economic well being.”

Every day, people make decisions about where to live, invest, or vacation based on what communities look like. Attractive, well-ordered communities have an advantage over ugly, chaotic ones. Take tourism: the more one community comes to look like every other community, the less reason there is to visit. On the other hand, the more a community does to protect and enhance its distinctive character, whether natural or architectural, the more reason there is to visit.

Billboards destroy distinctiveness and undermine our sense of place while they commercialize our neighborhoods.

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4. Billboards are the only form of advertising that you can’t turn off or avoid
5. Billboard companies sell something they don’t own — our field of vision
6. Billboards are ineffective and unnecessary
7. Billboard companies exercise almost no restraint in the placement of outdoor ads
8. Billboards are both a cause and a symptom of urban blight
9. Billboards are bad for business
10. Digital billboards, use huge amounts of energy contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming

photo of Ed McMahonEd McMahon is one of the country’s most incisive analysts of planning and land use issues and trends. He holds the Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC. McMahon is a frequent speaker at conferences on planning and land development.

Over the past 21 years, we’ve been pleased to have published more than two dozen articles by McMahon in the Planning Commissioners Journal, and now on

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