Cities ought to embrace street life, including sandwich boards

If signs on the sidewalk help businesses and don't create any danger, what is the need for the city to worry?

Crosscut archive image.

If signs on the sidewalk help businesses and don't create any danger, what is the need for the city to worry?

Rethinking allowed uses in city rights-of-way can change the look and feel of streets in unexpected fashion — especially when the focus is on more than the ambiance of sidewalk cafes, benches, or clocks. One example is the impact of sandwich board signs, something I first noticed last year when researching the key role of corners in reconsidering neighborhood spaces.

Sandwich board signage, also known as “A-frames,” can be easily traced to 19th century urban roots. Local businesses rely on them for advertising and wayfinding, although they often impede the pedestrian traffic around them, block sight lines, or distract the vehicular traffic passing by.

Like sidewalk cafes, sandwich boards are making a comeback. Often prohibited in the past, they are now permitted, but regulated in scope. In many cities, such as Aspen, Colo., the approach replaces the outright prohibition with specific conditions in certain parts of the city:

Sandwich board signs are intended for special sales, the advertisement of unique menus or offerings at restaurant establishments, and for businesses that are difficult to locate. Only one (1) sandwich board sign is permitted per business and a permit must be obtained. The size is not to exceed six (6) square feet per side. These signs are only permitted for retail and restaurant businesses within the CC and C-1 zone districts. Restaurants may use one (1) sandwich board sign if it is located on adjacent private property. Additionally, sandwich board signs may be used continuously by those locations identified on the City of Aspen Sandwich Board Sign Location Map. Amendments to the map may be made administratively by the Community Development Director.

Elsewhere, such as Seattle, sign dimensions and locations are similarly prescribed, subject to street use permit application processes, location criteria, and fees ($146 for the first year) largely administered by the City’s Department of Transportation. Generally speaking, businesses are entitled to use them, but questions inevitably arise when the signs are placed at some distance from the business, or in a way that constricts safe passage.

As a lawyer interested in the "on the ground" impact of policy and regulation, I find the picture of implementation in this case more interesting and dynamic than the actual permit criteria. With a return to a neighborhood base built around multi-modal street life, the images here show sandwich boards as both fascinating symptoms and emblems of the changing city.

Perhaps because of business necessity and the the simple, homespun nature of sandwich boards, users assume flexible placement of such signage is appropriate. Recently, one Seattle blogger took to moving sandwich boards to the side of sidewalks, reporting those he suspected as illegal. He also expressed ironic concern over potential city liability for any case of trip and fall.

Whether compliant or not (see my earlier essay on the role of "shapes of avoidance" on the landscape), I think the real question is how more random, simple signage such as sandwich boards typifies the popular essence of today’s urbanism. When a sidewalk is "occupied" in a more minimal fashion, is a fee really appropriate? Other than standards assuring public safety, are there aesthetic risks which cities should manage? In summary, is this a market that should largely go unregulated?

If public safety can be assured by simple criteria governing location, timing, size, and shape, I offer five reasons why sandwich boards should stay:

  1. Homespun simplicity sells.
  2. Artisans need work and small businesses need affordable ways to shine.
  3. Well done signs bring character to neighborhood.
  4. Sandwich boards can supplement permitted façade signage and increase the prominence of a small business.
  5. Perhaps most important, like other forms of pop-up urbanism, removal is an option.

We should foster and encourage quick fixes that innovate. If done right, aren’t sandwich boards one example that can literally show the way?

A similar version of this post first appeared in The Atlantic Cities.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe provides a unique perspective about cities as a London-based urbanist writer, photographer, land use consultant and former Seattle land use and environmental attorney.