City Puts Brakes on Bus Ads That Tell Public About Inequality

Officials deemed an advertisement about unequal access to parks too ‘political.’

(Photo: Twitter)

May 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

From the latest Hollywood blockbuster to a hot new weight-loss product, buses in most American cities are covered with corporate advertising. But one California municipality has decided that an ad about a real-life health challenge facing its residents is too controversial to be seen around town.

Officials in Fresno refused to allow an ad meant to educate residents about green space disparities to run on a city bus. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said in a statement that the ad was rejected because local rules prohibit any political speech from being included in city bus ads.”

The advertisement did raise a provocative point: “Your zip code shouldn’t determine how long you’ll live—but it does.” Text printed on the ad described how people who live in the northern, wealthier area of Fresno have 4.62 acres of parkland per thousand residents, while those who live on the southern, lower-income side of town have just 1.02 acres of parkland per thousand residents—more than 75 percent less.

The campaign was produced by private health foundation The California Endowment and local nonprofit Fresno Building Healthy Communities, which stated that the numbers used in the ad came from the city’s general plan report.

“It is not a partisan ad. It does not reference the city council. It does not reference the mayor,” said Sarah Reyes, Central Valley regional program manager for The California Endowment. “It just says that your zip code matters and that well-being is about more than diet and health. It’s also about having places to live and exercise.”

Reyes said the bus company’s advertising contractor accepted the artwork, charging the group more than $25,000 to print it to wrap around a bus exterior. "It’s my understanding that when the mayor and the city manager heard about the bus, they stopped the ad and said that it’s political,” she said.

Unequal access to parks is an ongoing problem in Fresno. For the past four years, the city has scored last among 75 cities of similar size on The Trust for Public Land’s annual ranking of municipal park systems, with only 1.2 playgrounds per 10,000 residents. Just over half of Fresno’s residents live within a 10-minute walk of a city park, and parks tend to be small and lacking in amenities like basketball courts, jogging tracks, or playground equipment for kids.

The city slashed its budget for parks and recreation by 53 percent between 2009 and 2013. Meanwhile, more than 30 percent of adults and children in Fresno are obese.

“Fresno is very much a tale of two cities,” said Reyes. “The south part of the city of Fresno has been disinvested over the course of many decades as the city has moved north.”

Reyes said that according to a recent Brookings Institute report, the 93706 zip code mentioned in the ad is one of the most concentrated areas of poverty in the United States. “South Fresno is highly diverse, being Latino, African American, and Southeast Asian,” she said. “There are a large number of mostly women head of households. They’re working people, and many of them are the working poor.”

The north side of Fresno is more affluent, home to “more of what I would consider the decision makers and business owners and leaders in the community—folks who haven’t had to live in the south part of the city, where they struggle,” Reyes said.

So, Why Should You Care? A lack of parkland is a problem coast-to-coast, which has terrible implications for our national obesity crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there’s a clear connection between easy access to parks and how likely a person is to exercise. If there’s nowhere to jog around a track, kick a soccer ball, or shoot hoops, people are more likely to become overweight and more likely to have heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure. According to the CDC, treating those kinds of preventable diseases will cost the U.S. between $48 billion and $66 billion a year over the next two decades.

Reyes said that Fresno’s rejection of the ad also amounts to censorship.

“If you shut down free speech in Fresno, which is the fifth-largest city in the state of California—one of the largest economies in the world—if it can be done here, it can be done anywhere else,” she said, adding that The California Endowment and Fresno Building Healthy Communities are “looking at all avenues” to challenge the mayor’s decision.

“We would like to know from the mayor what part of the ad she determines is political speech,” Reyes said, “especially since it’s the city of Fresno’s information.”