November 26th, 2014

Cultural Camouflage: Losing Sight of Urban Progress in the Lights of Digital Billboards

by Andrew Christenberry

Outdoor advertising billboard


For years, a city ordinance banning “flashing, intermittent, or moving lights” relative to roadside advertising signs in Marion County has been in place. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to many of us, this ban that has been keeping marketers at bay for the past ten years may soon be dissolved by the City-County Council via Ordinance 2014-250.

This new ordinance will allow the by-right placement of digital billboards within the city limits. This means that these new LED infused billboards could potentially be located outside I-465 along Indy’s suburban thoroughfares, as well as within our urban neighborhoods along the primary corridors such as 10th Street, Michigan, New York, and Washington. Many of the static billboards that are already in place could also be replaced their luminescent digital counterparts.

Though Indianapolis is currently diving into the Indy ReZone process–a massive enterprise that will result in the redrafting of the city’s zoning codes–ordinance (2014-250) has been kept separate from this transparent, publicly informed planning process. And therein lies the rub, for it seems that, to date, this ordinance has been deliberately hidden from public view.

Having been drafted by lobbyists for the billboard industry, this ordinance has neither been subject to Indy’s professional zoning ordinance staff, nor to an adequate vetting by the public. While this ordinance offers to take down a ratio of static billboards when putting up a digital one, the ratio becomes far less appealing with the realization that each digital billboard will become the equivalent of numerous static billboards. These digital billboards will do so while emitting a bright light (visible from over 4 miles away) that will not only jeopardize the safety of drivers due to their distracting glare, but also cheapen the true urban progress and revitalization of our neighborhoods all in the name of profit.

What must be realized is that, while many arguments have been made from an economic standpoint in favor of these digital billboards, said arguments in no way reflect the true costs to urban Indianapolis neighborhoods, nor the opinions of their residents. According to Frank Vespe, Scenic America Director of Policy and Communications, in the lights of digital billboards, the public receives little of value. In Vespe’s words, “Billboards reduce property values, destroy natural and scenic beauty, and degrade communities.[1]” Is profit truly worth jeopardizing and compromising the safety of Hoosier drivers? Is profit truly worth its mean’s detriment to the beauty of our neighborhoods? This is not melodrama; these are questions Ordinance 2014-250 needs to answer. For, despite the typical message of American prosperity, not all wealth is measured in dollar signs.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Email all the City-County Councilors and request that ordinance 2014-250 be sent back to committee so that the public might properly question it. Their email addresses can be found at gov/eGov/Council/Councillors.
  • Contact your own City-County Councilor and call for a more public vetting of Ordinance 2014-250.
  • Mark your calendar for December 1 and attend the City-County Council hearing. Help to ensure this ordinance is not rammed through without being called into question.

[1] Vespe, Frank. “High Tech Billboards: The Same Old Litter on a Stick.” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing 16.1 (1997): 176-79. JSTOR. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.