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Signs of Change: From Billboards to Gardens

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Artist Stephen Glassman has an idea for transforming urban advertising spaces.

Billboards are a tool of advertising, conveying a brief message at high speed. To artist Stephen Glassman, they’re a canvas, and a potential tool for confronting pollution challenges as cities grow.

What better place to experiment than here in Los Angeles? This region supports an estimated two million cars every day, many of which pass by dozens of billboards. Summit Media, an LA-based company that owns billboards, offered Glassman and former advertising executive Dan Burrier a billboard in a highly trafficked part of LA to try out their  project. To understand how it’ll look, picture a simple billboard, but instead of an advertisement, imagine tall stalks of bamboo and other native plants that gobble up carbon dioxide and create a tiny, cool microclimate.

Glassman promotes the idea to anyone who will listen. He’s even raised an impressive $50,000 in an online campaign–halfway to the $100,000 he thinks he’ll need. Next spring, he told me, he hopes that the finished garden billboard at the corner of La Cienega Blvd. and Interstate 10 in Culver City will make people think differently about commercial space, especially some areas that can be repurposed for public benefit.

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“It’s not about advertising, it’s about rediscovering the structure,” he told me in his studio nestled inside Topanga Canyon, just south of Malibu. Then we drove to see the actual site. As we looked up at the structure, diesel trucks passed by spouting exhaust.

If all goes as planned, the project could spread to other parts of LA, and other cities too. “We’ll very quickly get this down to a conversion kit for other people to do themselves,” he says. It likely won’t be cheap. Truly ambitious things, however, rarely are.