In the autumn of 1965, US president Lyndon Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act. The Act limits outdoor advertising, unsightly roadsides and generally promotes “scenic enhancement” along interstate highways. Under the act, billboards measuring more than 112 sq m cannot be displayed within 183 metres of a highway.
In 2012, some of New York’s roads were adopted by the National Highway System, suddenly making them subject to the Beautification Act – including where Broadway and Seventh Avenue intersect at Times Square. Now, the city’s Department of Transportation is under federal pressure to remove billboards or lose 10 per cent of state roadway funding.
When signing the Beautification Act, Johnson announced that “beauty belongs to all people”. He went on to say that maintaining America’s green space would “enrich our spirits and restore a small measure of our national greatness”.
Step into Times Square today and it feels a world away from Johnson’s reference to American beauty: not remotely familiar to the plains of Nebraska or the red rocks of Arizona. Times Square operates in full force 24 hours a day, seven days a week, comprising bright lights and concrete.
The traffic there is primarily pedestrian – more than 300,000 people pass through each day on foot; a good chunk of whom are tourists (a local is generally here only out of necessity).
And it’s no small feat to make this machine work: it costs nearly $370m (€333m) a year in water, electricity and greenhouse gas emissions to run Times Square. New York’s main utility company, ConEd, estimates that it takes at least 161 megawatts at any given time to keep Times Square and its surrounding theatre district shining those bright lights. That's enough power to light 161,000 American homes.
Yet it’s not surprising that the Department of Transportation is fighting to keep Times Square intact. The billboards are an attraction and a huge revenue source from advertisers. Last year, Times Square’s largest digital billboard, standing eight storeys tall with 24 million LED pixels, debuted with a price tag of more than $2.5m for a four-week period.
Johnson may not have intended for the Beautification Act to extend to midtown Manhattan but imagine for a moment that this could be an opportunity. Rather than showing America’s prowess for commerce, Times Square has the potential to become a destination for something other than a light show. Maybe it’s time for a rebrand and some green space – hell, in Johnson’s words, we could even try to restore a tiny bit of our national greatness.
Megan Billings is a researcher/writer for Monocle.