Adfree Cities is currently researching the cumulative impact of social, spatial and health inequalities. This project investigates the link between the placement of outdoor advertising billboards, and socio-economic and health determinants including air pollution.
Policy measures are starting to regulate the promotion of harmful content on advertising sites, from gambling to unhealthy food. For example, Transport for London has restricted ‘junk food’ advertising on their network, a policy that is expected to save the NHS £200m. However, these policies do not currently consider inequalities and injustices regarding the locations of large advertising screens. Initial findings suggest these are disproportionately placed in communities already facing socioeconomic disadvantage and poorer health outcomes, which can be compounded by harmful advertising content as well as the ill effects of light pollution and other health and amenity impacts of digital billboards.
The full research findings will be published in March 2024.
In 2019 – 2021, 33 planning applications for advertising billboards were submitted to Bristol City Council. 11 of 33, one third, were located in Lawrence Hill ward. This ward is in the top 3 most deprived wards in Bristol.
Further, we have observed as residents of Bristol, that Lawrence Hill has a high density of ads, while affluent/heritage areas such as Clifton have a low density. This research tests this hypothesis in two English cities other than Bristol.
Our research seeks to map and overlay the locations of outdoor advertising, air pollution, and Indices of Multiple Deprivation across a minimum of two cities. This practical comparative analysis is accompanied by a critical approach to the variables being studied. This includes, for example, delving into the construction, history, and critiques of the Indices of Multiple Deprivation. It is important to understand the sources and translations of data within the Indices, to pay attention to who is left out of the measurement, or how it entrenches existing and unequal social structures.
The aesthetics of this map, and of the Indices of Multiple Deprivation are subject to scrutiny. Cartography has a legacy of erasing communities and ecologies in colonialism, while the history of ‘poverty mapping’ in the UK reveals maps with moral judgements embedded. This research seeks to make clear the construction of our mapping, defining who and what is measured, and why.
Adfree Cities’ Public Space Researcher, Peter Brooks, is coordinator and investigator for this project – in collaboration with other academics and local Adblock activists. Peter is a multimedia investigative researcher, whose work focuses primarily on tracing spatial violence along supply chains. Peter studied his MA in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, and has worked on placement with Forensic Architecture, a human rights research agency. This field of study uses architecture as a lens to interrogate the forces that shape social and environmental space.
Amenity and Public Safety
Planning permission for advertising is assessed, and can be objected to, on the grounds of amenity and public safety. This research problematises these concepts and categories. Amenity has a vague legal definition that is generally understood to relate to the visual aesthetics of an area. Public safety, meanwhile, is largely focused on the risk of distractions to motorists and traffic incidents. Aesthetics, as Weizman explains, has its roots in the Greek phrase to sense. This research follows Weizman’s notion of investigative aesthetics, taking a broader view that is not limited to visual sensing, and uses buildings, bodies and other physical things as sensory, evidential material. Combining this approach, with a public health rather than traffic safety focus, makes the distinction between amenity and public safety blur. High pollution levels are clearly a public health issue, but could they be an issue of amenity? We can sense light, noise, and air pollution, as we do the visual aesthetics of public space.