Sky-High Billboards to Urban Computing: Norms for the Public Realm and Sign Criteria for Tall Building Façades

16 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2019

See all articles by Michael N. Widener

Michael N. Widener

Bonnett, Fairbourn, Friedman & Balint; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Date Written: May 31, 2019


Major cities regulate tall building signs to ensure that they do not cause safety issues or create aesthetic blight. Crafting regulations weighing the need to be seen with issues of public safety and aesthetics is a fine balancing act. Those installing these signs do so trusting that their messages will be readable by and appropriately impress all who view them. The same is true for those who generate public art displays like media facades and LED screens, which, being more artistic (in theory), argue for lighter regulations than those accorded commercial advertising signs. Meanwhile, residential neighbors want to sleep after dark, without blackout drapes festooning every homeowner's living area window. And cities want a vibrant commercial district that is exciting and affords visual stimulation, creating the 24-hour city – but not fostering overstimulation with accompanying neighbor anger, zoning hearing warfare and mass-media aesthetic critique.

How shall community regulators proceed in this era of artistic creativity, cutthroat advertising competition and endless self-presentation? This paper posits one theory, grounded in purpose that affords viewer awareness of illuminated signs and artistry, without making commercial signs and digital media projections the main event in the municipal commercial district.

Keywords: skyscraper, tall building, advertising structure, exterior signs, zoning, land use, planning, sign codes, sign regulations, media facades, digital projection

JEL Classification: K11, K23, R14, R38

Suggested Citation

Widener, Michael N., Sky-High Billboards to Urban Computing: Norms for the Public Realm and Sign Criteria for Tall Building Façades (May 31, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Michael N. Widener (Contact Author)

Bonnett, Fairbourn, Friedman & Balint ( email )

2325 East Camelback Road
Suite 300
Phoenix, AZ 85016
United States

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University ( email )

Prescott, AZ 86301
United States

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