Raleigh likes walking idea, not the signs

ckellner@newsobserver.com, bsiceloff@newsobserver.comFebruary 23, 2012 

— City Planning Director Mitchell Silver was strict but sensitive when it came time Wednesday to enforce the rules against posting a sign without a permit.

He praised a civic-minded guerrilla campaign by graduate student Matt Tomasulo, who put directional signs at downtown street corners to promote the act of walking. Then, gently but without apology, Silver said the signs would have to come down.

"You have to go to the City Council for an encroachment permit, and it's something we can authorize," Silver said. "But you can't just put up signs."

Each sign is simple: an arrow, a destination and the time it takes to walk there. And there's a special scan code that pulls up directions on your smartphone.

"It's 17 minutes by foot to Oakwood Cemetery," said one of the small signs posted at the corner of Wilmington and Hargett streets.

Tomasulo and friends posted them on utility poles at the intersection about five weeks ago, and at two other corners near Cameron Village and N.C. State University. The signs announced walk times to parks, museums, the Amtrak station, Chavis Park, Glenwood South and other destinations.

"We want to have people talk about these topics through fun, interactive tools that lead to a more engaged community," said Tomasulo, 29.

The project he calls "Walk Raleigh" has drawn attention elsewhere. The Atlantic Monthly discussed it online earlier this month, and the BBC sent a reporter to Raleigh to talk with Tomasulo and Silver for radio and TV reports that aired this week.

Tomasulo is a graduate student working on a dual degree in landscape architecture at N.C. State University and urban planning at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Last year, he founded CityFabric, a tiny company that gained national interest for its localized T-shirts and tote bags printed with city grids. An online fundraising effort seeking to gather $13,000 to expand the company brought in about $36,000.

"CityFabric created the cash flow for my community projects," Tomasulo said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have the money to run them, as a poor graduate student."

Tomasulo recently experimented with a similar way-finding tool in New York City: posting sturdy signs reading "North Is That Way" with an arrow pointing disoriented Big Apple pedestrians in the right direction.

"It's making what can sometimes be very bland or unengaging information fun, exciting and more accessible to the general public," Tomasulo said.

Useful reminders

The city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission has invited Tomasulo to speak about Walk Raleigh at a future meeting.

"I don't see any downside to it," commission member Sig Hutchinson said. "Anything we can do to make our city and community more walkable and encourage people to walk."

Silver said he'll look for ways to incorporate the walking-time messages into Raleigh's pedestrian plan and its official way-finding signs for downtown visitors.

"For the psychology of a city that's used to driving, having those messages reminds people how short a walking distance it is from place to place," Silver said.

"Yes, they didn't get proper permits, but it shows a level of passion and commitment to a city and encourages walking. We want to work with this younger generation to capture that energy to build a future city they want to see."

Meanwhile, Silver wasn't sure which city agency was supposed to remove the signs, so he did it himself. He walked from corner to corner at the intersection Wednesday afternoon, carefully cutting down an armload of signs that had been zip-tied to utility poles.

"Typically what we do is give a warning," Silver said. "So we'll just call him and return these to him, because I'm sure he wants them."

Kellner: 919-829-4802

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