This study sought to examine determinants of outdoor ad space density in predominantly black New York City neighborhoods. Overall, we found advertising panel density at a rate of approximately 4 spaces per 1,000 residents, which is higher than in some reports.6
The higher densities we found may be due to changes in the formats used to advertise (e.g., multi-face phone kiosks), changes over time in outdoor marketing strategies, or simply idiosyncrasies in New York City.
We asked whether area-based income level and physical decay predicted the density of ad spaces in residential census block groups that were at least 60% black. We hypothesized that areas with higher median household income would have fewer ad spaces, and that areas with high total square feet of vacant lots would have more ad spaces. Only the latter hypothesis was supported by the data. As noted earlier, vacant lots are likely to result in more ad spaces not only because it is a highly visible sign of disorder in a community, but because it allows for the installation of ads in a manner that would not be possible without them. For example, we observed several decrepit and unoccupied buildings that had ad panels installed over bricked-up windows. We also frequently observed standard outdoor ad panels mounted on posts in vacant lots, or affixed to buildings with walls adjacent to vacant lots. One lot in Central Harlem, which was abutted by buildings on two sides, and by sidewalks on the other two, contained eight total ad faces: one double-sided 8-sheet on a free-standing post, another five attached to the buildings, and a wallscape on one building (see Figure ). These installations are pointed illustrations of the manner in which structural blight acts as a magnet for outdoor advertising.
A vacant lot at 128th St. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd has several ad spaces installed in the ground and on the surrounding buildings.
In general, outdoor advertising reflects tensions between the accrual of revenue for cities and the aesthetic and public health imperatives of neighborhoods. This is particularly true for segregated black neighborhoods, because geographic isolation inhibits the ability to form political coalitions and enact desired public policies.15
As a result, political leaders have often cut services in these neighborhoods, leading to a decline in infrastructure.21,25
In our study, physical decline in the form of vacant lots was positively associated with ad density. Thus, it would appear that developing the land would be beneficial for neighborhoods on multiple levels. And yet, longtime community members may not fully reap these benefits. For example, in the late 1980s one city block in East Harlem was called “Little Beirut”; it contained only 13 buildings on 27 tax lots and was devoid of residents.26
Today, four blocks from this location, new condominiums are being built, one of which features “12 exquisite homes which exhibit a classic feel fused with modern luxury”.27
These apartments start at $395,000 for a 726 sq. ft. one BR, in a census tract where the median household income is $25,941, and the unemployment rate is 25.1%.23
If such housing development continues, it is likely that outdoor advertising would decline, due to less available space for installations. However, it remains to be seen whether current residents would be able to afford living in the revitalized neighborhood.
We found that area income level was not significantly related to ad density after controlling for vacant lots. This suggests that the most economically vulnerable segments within the communities in our study were not more burdened with outdoor advertisements than the more economically advantaged. At the same time, these results are testament to the finding that African Americans with higher incomes may not be insulated from certain neighborhood conditions. Despite descriptions of some formats (e.g., 8-sheets) as being used to reach people with less exposure to other forms of media, we found that predominantly black block groups with high incomes were equally exposed to outdoor advertising.
Some study limitations should be noted. First, we studied a small number of predominantly black neighborhoods in New York, and thus the number of block groups included in the study (90) was modest. This may have limited our ability to detect an effect for income, which did approach significance. In addition, we used demographic data from the 2000 census. In the neighborhoods we studied, both racial and socioeconomic demographics have undergone marked changes since that time, particularly due to gentrification. Thus, we may not have been able to detect associations between median household income and ad density simply because the census data is not current enough to reflect neighborhood transitions. Second, the cross-sectional design of the study means that we cannot define the association between vacant lot square footage and ad density as causal. For example, it is possible that rather than vacant lots “attracting” ad spaces, the presence of ads signals to landowners and real estate developers that a given area may not be an economically profitable one in which to build, resulting in more vacant lots. Longitudinal analyses would assist in elucidating the directionality of this relationship. Third, although we conceptualized vacant lots as an indicator of neighborhood decay, all lots may not be equally indicative of blight. Our data source did not allow us to differentiate among lots that lay fallow and overrun with weeds or were subject to dumping, and those that were in the midst of new construction, or had been converted into community gardens.
Implications for Urban Health
Despite these limitations, our findings have implications for public health and well-being in African American communities. Because ad spaces tend to contain promotions for liquor (and formerly tobacco), they have often aroused the ire of community residents and activists across the nation,28,29
and black-oriented newspapers have given considerable attention to policies on alcohol advertising restrictions.30
However, ad spaces themselves have also been described as “litter on a stick”31
and as destructive to community character.32
Thus, the visual disorder caused by a high density of outdoor ads may reproduce inequality by marking neighborhoods as “the ghetto” and reducing assessed value by residents and business owners. Indeed, billboards have been described as symbols that visually define ghettos.26
The physical features of a community are highly visible class markers, such that in Boston’s affluent South End, “the diffuse light of the low-set lamps betrays a sense of tranquility, discretion, and privilege”.33
What then, does an abundance of 8-sheets, bulletins and wallscapes evoke, and what feelings are they likely to engender among residents?
Research shows that perceived neighborhood disorder adversely affects mental health, increasing psychological distress34,35
and depressive symptoms36
among residents. Some research indicates that high concentrations of alcohol density (sales and advertising) are perceived as disorder.17
Thus, it is possible that high ad space density in itself may also be perceived as disorder, and thereby act as a chronic stressor. Similarly, to the extent that individuals in predominantly African American communities perceive the proliferation of outdoor advertising as a form of racism, high ad density places people at risk of the negative outcomes associated with perceived racism, including psychological distress,37–39
poor mental health,40,41
increased smoking and drinking,42,43
and adverse health conditions, including cardiovascular problems.44–47
Future research should investigate associations between outdoor advertising and health in African American communities.