Common complaints of noise and light pollution from inner-city dwellers have raised questions about what billboard advertisers are able to get away with

The writing may be on the wall for electronic billboards in downtown Auckland.

A hearing reevaluating sign bylaws next week will see submissions from local board members and community leaders who say noise and light pollutions from signs and billboards are affecting the quality of life in the city centre.

Auckland City Centre Residents’ Group spokesperson Antony Phillips says bylaws around illuminated signs need to take into account the population density of the city centre, a group he said are commonly overlooked.

He related the complaints of a family living in an apartment on Albert Street who have been dealing with an electronic billboard shining into their windows at all hours as it cycles through a range of advertisements.

“They’ve had a gutsful of the city and they are probably going to move,” Phillips said. “I know of people who have changed curtains and tinted their own windows and gone to all sorts of personal expense to try and mitigate it.”

He said the group has no problem with electronic and lit-up billboards in principle, but more care needs to be taken to notify and consider people who may be living in the area when they are erected.

“The problem we face that we’d like to alert the officialdom and the authorities about is the fact that please remember there are people who live in the city centre who choose to live here who are raising their families, who’ve got children,” he said. “When you’ve got this sort of illumination beaming straight into apartments it’s really hard to ignore.”

Before the pandemic there were more than 60,000 people living in the city centre, which has dropped over the past two years to slightly over 40,000. In a space of roughly 344 hectares – the size of a Hawke’s Bay farm, as Phillips puts it – it’s the most densely populated neighbourhood in the country.

“We are talking a huge residential populace who often get forgotten about when it comes to all sorts of policy making and decision making,” Phillips said.

Electronic billboards in downtown Auckland have raised complaints due to their level of illumination. Photo: Supplied

Auckland man Campbell Larsen began investigating billboards and signs in the inner city after noticing the frequency at which they were pushing the boundaries of the bylaws in place.

“They are popping up like mushrooms,” he said. “I think it must have been very distressing for residents who woke up to find a billboard right outside their window.”

Larsen put in a series of complaints to Auckland Council and did some of his own digging to find out what council-operated entities like Auckland Transport’s approach to billboards involved.

Council’s response contained a “concerning admission”, with customer resolutions manager Sally Woods telling Larsen that the council is unable to provide information on billboard complaints as they haven’t kept track of how many there have been.

At the same time, the council intimated to local boards that sufficient evidence of issues caused by the signs has not been found.

“[Council] did not provide the absolutely necessary qualifier; that it is actually not sure how many complaints there are,” Larsen said. “There’s been a real lack of broader public consultation or consensus about do we actually want these huge things everywhere? And if we’re okay with having some, how many and where are they most appropriate?”

Regulations on electronic billboards on the roadside already reduce the frequency they spin through their reels of advertisements at busier intersections, such as at the corner of Pitt and Hobson streets, where cars are entering or exiting the motorway.

Studies have shown that roadside billboards are good at what they set out to do – catch your attention. In the case of drivers, it has already been acknowledged that there is certainly a downside to this.

But for the people living in the city who have a billboard as an unwanted roommate, like neighbours of the Chancery who reported the audio component of a nearby e-billboard running on loop audibly from their homes, those downsides are detrimental to their quality of life.

Billboards are covered by different rules to shop signs, which can create some ambiguity in advertisers’ reading of the rules, said Larsen. Photo: Matthew Scott

Deputy chair of Waitematā Local Board Alexandra Bonham said some of the most common complaints she received from residents of the area related to billboards.

“Noise and light pollution are the most common complaints made to residents groups and then onto me by residents in the city centre,” she said. “Light gets through curtains making it hard to sleep, moving videos catch the eye, distract traffic, change the look and feel of the city. These effects will only be exacerbated with new intensification planning rules.”

She said the current set of rules allows for case-by-case exceptions, which introduces the ability for advertisers to sometimes push the limits.

“It’s a bit of both the rules being too permissive and the advertising industry pushing them to the limits and asking for exceptions,” she said. “If something goes wrong or rules are breached, there’s a very slow procedure to deal with it.”

Bonham said she didn’t blame the council, which has limited resources for compliance and tends to try and address these sorts of issues with education rather than punishment or sanctions.

“That’s highly reasonable if you’re talking about a household that makes a mistake,” Bonham said. “But where it’s an industry that’s absolutely focused on trying to make the most bang for its buck, it almost feels like it’s a game that can be played.”

She said it’s an issue in need of resolution if the council wants people living in the inner city.

“If living in the city centre is unpleasant, then people won’t,” she said. “A good way to grapple with climate change is to make low carbon living in walkable distance to jobs and amenities desirable. The city centre is compact and the council and ratepayers are going to huge and expensive lengths to improve the walkability and look of the city.

“A casual attitude to billboards and signs undermines this.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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