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Digital billboards downtown: a bad idea for Baltimore | GUEST COMMENTARY

People walk past an eight-story-tall digital billboard in New York City's Times Square. The billboard, which made its debut Tuesday night, hovers over the Marriott Marquis Hotel.
People walk past an eight-story-tall digital billboard in New York City's Times Square. The billboard, which made its debut Tuesday night, hovers over the Marriott Marquis Hotel. (JEWEL SAMAD, AFP/Getty Images)

The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and members of the Baltimore City Council have had a “bright” idea that is arguably quite dim, indeed — and possibly harmful to people and wildlife. They propose inviting media companies to erect enormous digital billboards in the downtown corridor.

Picture Pratt and Charles streets all lit up, like Times Square or Las Vegas, with fast-moving ads beaming down at you every couple of blocks, if not more.

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The effort’s backers say creating a special signage district for this purpose has worked elsewhere, including Atlanta and D.C. They promise the billboards would generate revenue for downtown property owners, promote local businesses, showcase local art and highlight upcoming events.

But there are significant downsides to the proposed legislation, now before the City Council, that are not being discussed and ignore the problems and complaints that have plagued other cities, where digital billboards have been installed, including Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

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First and foremost are the health effects associated with excessive human-made light. Light pollution has a profoundly unhealthy effect on people, through disruption of the natural circadian rhythms of the body. This condition, known as chronodisruption, has been linked to a host of conditions including depression, anxiety and obesity, which in turn are risk factors for some of the most important and prevalent conditions in Baltimore, including diabetes and

cardiovascular disease.

There is a growing body of research showing an association between artificial light at night and cancer risk, including breast cancer. Furthermore, a recent analysis of the environmental inequities in nocturnal light pollution showed that Asian, Hispanic and Black people, along with Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, in the U.S. “experienced substantially greater neighborhood exposures to ambient light at night” than white people.

Studies have also shown that electronic billboards can significantly increase the risk of motor vehicle accidents. Drivers exposed to electronic billboards tailgate more, drift more across lanes, are more inclined to cross intersections unsafely, have more variability in their driving speed and have a more distracted gaze.

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Pedestrians, motorists, cyclists and scooter riders are not the only ones at risk from distracting billboards. In Baltimore alone, over 400 birds die annually when they strike glass-walled buildings, according to Lights Out Baltimore, because they become disoriented when flying over brightly lit buildings in city areas. Artificial light interrupts their vision. The result is hundreds of dead birds on our streets, which in turn attract rats and other vermin.

There are economic impacts to consider, as well. Despite the rosy projection of shared revenues, not everyone benefits from these investments. A 2011 urban planning study in Philadelphia reports that homes near billboards sold for less than comparable homes farther away.

Councilman Eric Costello, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, says the billboards would not directly face residential properties. How is that possible? The City Center is home to more than 10,000 residents living between the Bromo Arts District, the National Aquarium and the American Visionary Art Museum (the latter is admittedly outside the billboard zone). Hundreds more, including many seniors, live in apartments, condos and townhomes facing the business district from Federal Hill and Otterbein. Many of these residents have unobstructed views of major downtown intersections that are prime candidates for billboards that would wrap around the walls of their buildings.

We all want to see Baltimore recover from the pandemic and renew its economic base. But lighting up downtown with ads — and let’s face it, this will be mostly commercial ads — that already bombard us on our various screens is not the best solution.

The legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs said in her seminal work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” a great American city must have three things:

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  • Public and private spaces shouldn’t “ooze” into each other, as they do in suburban settings. Digital billboards are publicly intrusive by design.
  • There must be “eyes upon the street.” Billboards would take too many eyes off the street.
  • And streets and sidewalks should be busy enough so that people are entertained by the hustle and bustle of foot traffic. Billboards will not necessarily bring more people into downtown to shop or dine, once the novelty wears off.

Baltimore is, and will continue to be, a great city as long as we make smart choices about reinvestment and renewal and avoid glitzy window-dressing. Let’s enliven downtown by welcoming more small and minority-owned businesses, erecting more affordable housing, and cleaning our streets and harborways.

Barbara and Henry Valeri (bhvaleri@yahoo.com) are residents of The Towers at Harbor Court Condominium, which is adjacent to the Inner Harbor. Also contributing are: Lindsay Jacks and Aaron Heinsman, who volunteer with Lights Out Baltimore, and downtown residents Amy Bernstein, Clifford Mitchell, and Sue Carlin.

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