Are the many billboards that have cluttered the city, eye-catching or an eyesore?
Up, up, they come
By Renu Warnasuriya and Priyanwada Ranawaka
A few weeks ago, stormy winds brought down one of the oldest and largest trees near the Colombo University in the heart of the city. The hope of a new tree coming up in the same space was soon dispelled when three large billboards were erected in less than a week in the same spot.

Colombo, which was once known as a "green city" has virtually overnight, turned into a "billboard city". Like giant mushrooms, billboards of various sizes and shapes with eye-catching images on them have sprung up.

But not everyone is thrilled about them. "It has marred the visual image of Colombo city. This is what you call visual pollution," says P.K.S. Mahanama, Senior Lecturer in Town and Country Planning, Faculty of Architecture, Moratuwa. He believes that many aspects, cultural, environmental and physical are not properly considered in the process.

"We have had billboards for five to six years now but the trend really started about a year ago," says Colombo Municipal Commissioner Jayantha Liyanage adding, " It's an easy money-making business."

"Billboards were originally used as a covering for construction areas, garbage dumps etc," says an official of the Urban Development Authority adding that advertisers soon realised their potential and started using them to display their products. "In Sri Lanka billboards have become a craze," she said, explaining that this is because there are no detailed regulations concerning the number, size and compatibility of the billboards.

Billboards on public property come under the purview of the Municipal or Urban Councils in an area, which have their own set of regulations to monitor and authorize their construction. A hoarding has been defined in the Advertisement (Colombo Municipality) By-laws, 1948 as "Any structure, support, post, board, wall, case or any other contrivance erected or used for the purpose of displaying any advertisement."

"To put up a hoarding, on public property, an application has to be presented for my approval," says Dr. Liyanage. The Commissioner has an advertising committee comprising members from the traffic, planning, engineering, architectural and accounts divisions of the municipality. After evaluating the application and considering other factors like the effect it will have on traffic, the pedestrians and the neighbourhood, they approve the location if they find it suitable.

Once the location has been approved, the applicant can construct the hoarding and while the CMC does not supervise the actual construction, checks are carried out once it has been erected. The by-laws prohibit hoardings, more than 25 feet in height from the ground and also specify that advertisements should not be displayed on places of worship, parks, bridges, and street lampposts.

The cost of erecting a hoarding is surprisingly low. "The annual fee is around Rs 20,000 for a board that is 20x10 square feet, the biggest size we permit," says Dr. Liyanage adding that they are now considering an increase as many people put up boards and then sell them to others for around Rs. 300,000.

While the CMC sets the price considering the size of the board in question, the owner of a billboard, however, sells it according to its size and location. Bigger billboards and those placed in popular spots cost more. “Billboards on Galle Road are very expensive," says advertising executive Mehnaz Ilhamdeen explaining that the positioning is of utmost importance. Certain boards, for instance, are strategically placed in the outskirts of Colombo so as to catch the eye of people coming into Colombo for shopping.

The UDA official adds that the craze has fast spread to rural areas. "You even get billboards in the middle of paddy fields," she says adding that farmers have complained that they obstruct their footpaths. The UDA has recognised the growing problem and is working on a new set of regulations for the local authorities. These will aim to reduce the number and curtail the size of billboards.

In a joint project with the Road Development Authority, (RDA), the UDA removed several boards on the Kadugannawa hill around ten years ago. "The boards were blocking the beautiful scenery, were very cumbersome and not compatible with the surroundings," she explains.

Visuals on billboards in the city have to be approved by the CMC. "We don't allow any provocative or offensive pictures," says Dr. Liyanage adding that they have, however, received a few complaints about certain images.

"Sometimes the CMC tells us that the visual cannot be used and sometimes they suggest that certain parts should be excluded," says Mr. Ilhamdeen adding that certain advertisers have gone ahead even after they were rejected. In such a case the CMC has the authority to take down the billboard.

So what makes a billboard really eye-catching? Many factors, say the advertising professionals. Since it has been found that a person's eye stays on a billboard from around 3 seconds to 3 minutes, more pictures than words are recommended. "No one has time to read the copy on a billboard," says Mr. Ilhamdeen adding that their aim is to give the message through pictures.

When it comes to private property, the owner of the land has the right to fix a billboard on his land. Since it is not on state property he has to pay only Rs. 50 per square foot as the display tax and then have the visual approved. State organisations are exempted from all charges except the display tax and only have to submit a written request from the relevant ministry.

The authorities admit that they now have problems coping with the huge increase in the number of billboards in the city. The Municipal Commissioner, on the Mayor's instructions, has been rejecting applications for new hoardings especially those that are of the big size, 20x10 square feet. About 640 applications were rejected this year while a few which had already been approved were allowed to continue. "The situation was really getting out of control," says Dr. Liyanage explaining that scores of unauthorised hoardings had come up, defacing the city and causing various problems.

Two months ago the CMC started a programme to clear certain areas of unauthorised billboards. " We do it in stages and focus on a particular area at a time," says Dr. Liyanage adding that they have so far covered Independence Avenue and the Sports Ministry area.

Though there is no penalty laid down for illegal billboards, the CMC has the authority to remove them and the owners then have to pay Rs. 15,000 to retrieve them. "We have had many difficulties," says Dr. Liyanage explaining that there have been instances where they have even been threatened for taking the unauthorised billboards down.

Since the 1990s, the RDA has also been authorising the construction of billboards on national highways under their jurisdiction. "We have guidelines which the clients have to follow when constructing a board," says P. Dayananda, General Manager of the RDA, adding that a new set of regulations is currently being drafted. The new regulations contain several added safety measures and improvements and require the client to submit a Chartered Engineer's Certificate approving the design. Technical officers of the RDA too must be present when a billboard is being put up.

This September the RDA introduced a price increase for billboards in Colombo and urban areas. Previously the charges were Rs.10 per square foot, per month. This has now been increased by 100%. "We found that other forms of advertising cost much more than what we charge, and that advertisers can afford the new rates," says Mr Dayananda.

"Other countries have very strict planning guidelines to regulate billboards," says the Moratuwa Unversity's Mr. Mahanama stressing the importance of consulting a Town and Country Planner when putting up a hoarding. He is critical of the present situation where different organisations such as the CMC and the RDA follow different sets of regulations. "It should be a multi-municipality effort, where all the authorities work together."

Why billboards?
"A billboard works as a constant reminder medium," says Ranil de Silva, CEO of advertising firm Leo Burnett adding that in this way it is different to other forms of advertising.

"The environment must suit the brand," he states, admitting that certain billboards are not very well placed. Billboards should be put up where the product advertised has a market.

Agreeing that the number of billboards is rapidly escalating, Mr. de Silva says that this is not in the best interest of the advertiser or the client. Billboards have already made their way outside Colombo too, he feels.

"Overcrowding one area is also bad for the advertiser because there will be too many messages coming out of that spot for your message to be noticed."

"I hope the situation won't get any worse," says Mr. de Silva adding that both the authorities and the advertisers must be responsible when dealing with the situation. "Done tastefully, meaningfully and thoughtfully, billboards can add colour to the city."

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