Heroes of the Urban Landscape

Volunteer groups strive to make a difference in Toronto, and politicians are starting to take notice

What is a hero?

Do they wear spandex bodysuits and fight crime? Are they ordinary people who do extraordinary things? Are they the ones that fight for what they think is right?

Except for the spandex, Rami Tabello is all of those things. By day he is an average 34-year-old working in the stock market, but he has taken on another calling. He fights to keep Toronto beautiful. He is just an ordinary citizen, but his work has lead Councillor Howard Moscoe to publicly state that Tabello is an “urban hero.”

This is Tabello’s story. He has lived in the city for his whole life. Over the years he began to notice that more and more visual space in Toronto was being sold off to corporate interests.

Advertising Overload! This imaginary landscape does not exist, and groups like www.illegalsigns.ca and the Toronto Public Space Committee aim to keep it that way.Flashing neon behemoths and marketing posing as murals sprang up en masse on almost every street corner. Many of these signs were illegal, and Tabello decided to do something about it.

In February 2007 he launched www.illegalsigns.ca, a website dedicated to curbing the onslaught of illegal signs that he felt were degrading the visual landscape of his city. Tabello spends a couple of hours each day searching for illegal signs, posting them on his website and fighting to bring the perpetrators to justice.

It certainly hasn’t been easy. In fact, powerful forces have a great deal of interest his work.

“I’ve received threatening calls and threatening notes,” said Tabello. The signs posted on his website are technically against city bylaws but, according to Tabello, “There’s really no regulation as it is right now.”

That is exactly what Tabello has hoped to change through his frequent trips to city hall and community council meetings.

“We have been very successful in getting our message across and we have been getting support from a number of city councillors,” said Tabello. “Howard Moscoe has been our number one ally.”

With literally hundreds of illegal signs across the city, Moscoe outlined the problem and why it has been allowed to get to the state it is in.

“This is big business…it is the profits that have driven them to putting up illegal signs in the first place, because the profits are huge,” said Moscoe. “They are willing to risk breaking the bylaw in the face of a very weak set of enforcement regulations.”

Thanks in part to Tabello’s dedicated work, Moscoe is currently working on a complete review of sign bylaws. This review would create one set of bylaws for the entire city that would hopefully reduce the number of illegal signs.

“(Toronto is) six cities, each with a different set of sign bylaws that have not been harmonized. Even the definition of what a sign is has not been harmonized,” said Moscoe. “The whole thing is a dog’s breakfast.”

The new bylaw is still in its conceptual stages, being drawn up by a team of consultants. After it is written, it must be reviewed by committee, revised, and then finally brought before city council to be voted into law.

Moscoe hopes to help protect the public from the greed and money that he blames for visual pollution in Toronto, but the reality is that there are groups of volunteers across the city that have taken this into their own hands. These groups are what Moscoe called, “the essence of democratic society.”

Before branching off to start www.illegalsigns.ca, Tabello was a member of a volunteer group called the Toronto Public Space Committee.

The TPSC started around 2001 and has taken the beautification of Toronto very seriously. Where Tabello focuses on bringing issues to city hall, this group often works independently to improve the look of the city.

Jonathan Goldsbie has been with the TPSC for almost four years and is one of a handful of coordinators that help run it. They are responsible for planning a number of ongoing projects that aim to preserve and improve upon public spaces.

Art Attack is one such project. Members create unique pieces of art and then sneak around the city to post their art overtop of commercial ad space.

Guerrilla gardening is another initiative that is organized through the TPSC Goldsbie and the gardeners assemble several times a year to go, uninvited, to neglected public spaces and turn them into lush gardens for the people of the city to independently maintain and enjoy. Though this may be technically illegal, Goldsbie says, “there are rarely, if ever, any complaints.”

Not only do they take pride in actively improving the cityscape, Goldsbie and the TPSC have a history of fighting corporate interests out of public spaces.

“No one should have the right to suddenly privatize, to take over a huge chunk of the visual environment. They’re turning the city into a mass marketing magazine,” said Goldsbie.

He claims that the TPSC was instrumental in preventing the installation of “megabins that functioned more as seven-foot billboards than as garbage bins,” across the city. He also boasted successful campaigns against bills to remove public poster spaces, and street furniture that would provide what he felt was excessive ad space on the streets.

His excitement about fighting to keep Toronto safe from advertisement overload peaked when Tabello’s crusade against illegal signs was mentioned.

“I think it’s only since illegalsigns.ca launched that city staff, councillors, and the billboard industry realized that the current situation was absolutely untenable and that they absolutely have to put something new together sooner or later,” said Goldsbie.

He is eagerly anticipating his chance to influence the process of writing the new bylaw by organizing as many people as possible to show up at an upcoming meeting at city hall. He couldn’t be sure how many would show up, but the TPSC mailing list is several thousand strong.

“I expect the industry will be throwing everything they have at it,” said Goldsbie. “We are trying to make sure that they write a bylaw that is responsive to the wishes of the public and not to the wishes of advertising companies.”

It seemed the struggle to keep Toronto beautiful was swinging in the balance. After years of hard work, it had begun to look like there is hope for Tabello, Goldsbie, and the growing number of those like them.

Tabello said he was focused on making sure that the new sign bylaw stays at the forefront of the city’s attention, but what after that?

“I plan to keep doing what I’m doing and expanding the website,” said Tabello. In fact, he had already begun to expand his influence outside of Toronto. He said there are now many volunteers working with him in Toronto and affiliates working in St. Catharines, Burlington, and New York City.