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AP Photo/Oded Balilty
Ads can be a jarring element of city decor.
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Hate billboards? Move to France’s advertising-free town

By Hanna Kozlowska

For the aesthetically inclined, walking or driving around a modern city can be a distracting, unsettling experience, as eyesores upon eyesores of garish street ads, neon signs, and billboards barge into view.

But for the urban aesthetes of the French city of Grenoble, visual relief is on the way. The Alpine town’s mayor announced Monday that the city will ban commercial street ads from public spaces, and starting in January next year, it will begin to remove all of its 326 outdoor advertising signs, including 64 billboards. The city will cancel its contract with JCDecaux, the world’s largest outdoor advertising company, The Telegraph reported.

“The municipality is taking the choice of freeing public space in Grenoble from advertising to develop areas for public expression,” announced the office of the city’s mayor, Eric Piolle, of the French Green party. Getting rid of the outdoor ads was Piolle’s campaign promise. Replacing the signs will be 50 young trees, to be planted before spring arrives in the Alps.

A local official told the Telegraph that the city will offer the freed-up advertising space to local cultural and social groups, though these ads will be smaller in size. Commercial ads will not disappear from the Grenoble entirely, with some left on bus stops until the city’s contract with JCDecaux expires in 2019.

Grenoble, a university town of 160,000, will be the first city in Europe to shed its outdoor signage. In 2006, the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo made a similar move, getting rid of thousands of signs and billboards, many of them illegal. The initiative was welcomed by architects and activists, but it angered the business community.

Many in other cities around the world would welcome such a move. But some, like the writer Zadie Smith, might find themselves missing the advertisements’ intrusions into their mental landscapes. Smith writes in the New York Review of Books about the giant ad right across the street from her Manhattan window:

“Whatever’s on that wall is my view: I look at it more than the sky or the new World Trade Center, more than the water towers, the passing cabs. It has a subliminal effect. Last semester it was a spot for high-end vodka, and while I wrangled children into their snowsuits, chock-full of domestic resentment, I’d find myself dreaming of cold martinis. . . . Now the ad says: Find your beach.”