Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder: Signage Laws in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland

Image Credits: Creative Commons Mykl Rovertine

I’m one of those people. I live and work in the bubble of an urban centre. It is beautiful – Vancouver proper is a city that’s mostly cement and glass punctuated by tree-lined streets and little boutiques. Our signage is, for the most part, very simple. Sometimes it is even beautiful. But, once or twice a year, I make a pilgrimage to the mecca of cheap & cheerful homewares, my local Ikea store.

Visiting Ikea involves travel to the next city, Richmond, BC. Ikea, like other big box stores, is clustered on a highway with fast food joints, tooth-pick skinny trees, signs of typographical nightmare and of course, my aesthetic nemesis, the wacky inflatable guy.

Wacky Inflatable guy

Just what is it with these things?

I’ll admit, I’ve made fun of these. I’ve wondered why these commercial areas have to be so visually unpleasing. But then tonight, a newscast gave me a jolt.

The City of Surrey, another community in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland, has issued new laws regarding signage in an effort to ‘clean up’ the city. The Vancouver Sun quotes city counsellor Bruce Hayne that the bylaw target “ugly” signs and most of the amendments deal with “unsightliness.” (link). This includes large store wraps, businesses that have multiple signs and sandwich boards, and a few inflatable ‘sky dancers’.

Hayne’s comment twigged a reminder of a statement that I read about Vancouver’s vibrant neon culture which evolved between the 1950’s-1970’s. Now a star attraction at our museum and a valued aspect of our heritage districts, neon was once considered a detraction in our city. A 1966 op-ed called “Let’s Wake Up from our Neon Nightmare” (also published in the Vancouver Sun) by Tom Ardies described downtown Vancouver’s signage:

“We’re being led by the nose into a hideous jungle of signs. They’re outsized, outlandish, and outrageous. They’re desecrating our buildings, cluttering our streets, and – this is the final indignity – blocking our view of some of the greatest scenery in the world.”

Granville Street neon circa 1966

While I’ll probably never give a wacky inflatable guy an aesthetic thumbs-up, it is hard to endorse the visual cleansing of neighbourhoods. With it, we ignore our current histories and endorse a very limited view of what a city should be, how it should function, and it should look like.

Suddenly, the Lower Mainland’s past and present do not feel that far apart.

Free idea: protest the destruction of ‘urban blight’ by constructing  your own wacky inflatable/sky dancer costume. Go stand next to the nicest storefront that you can find, and dance it up!



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