BOOTH: Surrey – aka Sign City – desperately needs to unclutter

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind

Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?


The Five Man Electrical Band recorded that ditty in 1971 and, if anything, the problem has only gotten worse in the four decades that have followed.

In some places, the sign explosion has reached biblical proportions with signs begetting signs: a mobile yellow eyesore planted curbside directing attention to the sign on the business behind it. Not that we need the extra nudge to draw our attention to the storefront – we had already spotted the three-storey high inflatable giant panda bear on the roof from two blocks away.

For some reason, Surrey has become somewhat of a signapalooza. Twentysomething years ago, I was with some university buddies driving through Whalley on a late night run to the border. One of my friends, an American, suddenly sat up and asked where we were.

"Surrey." "My god," he replied. "It looks like New Jersey."

Needless to say, it was not intended as a compliment.

When I think back on that incident, I wonder what he would think if he drove through Surrey today.

We have those ugly yellow mobile billboards dotting boulevards all over the city, plus their equally garish black portable units with accompanying tawdry neon letters. (Quick question: How come the colours of the neon letters never match on these signs? They are supposed to generate business, but they end up looking like a roadside ransom note.) These mobile billboards are not pleasant to look at and, in some cases, they are so poorly positioned that they impede sightlines for drivers trying to exit the parking lots for the businesses they are intended to promote.

Then we have the graffiti signage that sprouts from the sides of telephone poles throughout the city. Lose weight fast!; Cash for cars!; Save money on moving! Or my personal favourite, Tax and Accounting Services! Here’s a tip: If you are in such dire straits that you would consult a financial planner you found using a telephone number randomly tacked to a lamp standard on the street, then I would humbly suggest a shoddy fiscal acumen isn’t your only problem. In fact, the dog walker advertised on a placard a foot above the accounting sign would probably be more helpful with your taxes. At least the dog walker can afford a ladder.

The graffiti signs are matched by another plague on the urban landscape, the lawn sign. Once the sole frontier of real estate agents, lawn signs now encompass

trade services in front of houses where work is being conducted and the viral condominium ads that sprout out of the grassy boulevards to provide an unintended obstacle course for people walking their pets. At least Rover now has a more convenient target when he lifts his leg. (Note: If you want to remove these low-lying signs, make sure you are wearing gloves.)

And then of course we have the political signs that magically appear mere hours after an election is called. Volunteers from the political parties spring into action to wallpaper every available green space and intersection with signage of all shapes advertising their candidate of choice. The practice is as impressive as it is insulting.

Do the strategists for these parties actually believe that Joe Bagadonuts driving along in his car will see the array of signs and think, "Wow, look at those signs. By golly, if that candidate can put up 350 signs in a two-block stretch of King George Boulevard, just imagine how hard he/she will work for me in Ottawa/Victoria/city hall?" The plethora of signage, advertising banners, flags, inflatable critters, dancing windsocks and other eyesores of their ilk has not escaped the attention of Surrey city officials.

The signage bylaw was amended last fall and recently Surrey Coun. Bruce Hayne drew attention to the changes. The new regulations are on the books, but they are not being enforced until businesses are made aware of the changes.

Hayne cited a desire to clean up the city by removing ugly signs of all sorts, from the roadside eyesore to the advertising ghettos that are plastered on the windows of some business establishments.

The motives for the changes are pure, but they may not always be as enforceable as the city hopes. Crews can clear the signs off public property and the poles along the roadside, but the temporary signs, the mobile billboards and giant balloon animals may not be so easy to address. By the time the city has the offending signs removed, the signage will have already served its purpose.

One last thing to make note of: 2014 is a civic election year in Surrey. We trust that Hayne and the rest of the Surrey First team will keep their own bylaw in mind when they’re out campaigning for re-election.

Michael Booth can be reached at

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