Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Tomasulo's signs help Raleigh folks walk

CorrespondentMarch 25, 2012 

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Matt Tomasulo, founder of Cityfabric, is the man behind guerilla Walk Raleigh wayfaring signs. The city promptly removed the signs but is now adapting them to start a pilot educational program.

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com

  • Matt Tomasulo Born: March 10, 1982, Vermont Residence: Raleigh Career: Founder, CityFabric Inc.; graduate student earning concurrent master’s degree in Landscape Architecture at N.C. State University and in City and Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill Education: B.A., Business Administration, University of Richmond Awards: 2011 American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Student Award of Honor in Communication for CityFabric; 2011 ASLA Student Award of Excellence in Communication for SHIFT: Infrastructure, an NCSU student-published journal; 2010 finalist, Build a Better Barb Competition, Long Island, N.Y.; first place, 2010 Urban Land Institute/Hines Student Urban Design Competition; 2010 ASLA Merit Award; 2009 NCASLA Award of Excellence Family: Parents, Ann Burke and Bob Tomasulo of Clayton; girlfriend, Nicole Alvarez of Raleigh Fun Fact: Tomasulo’s projects are mostly focused on urban areas now. But he got his fill of country living a few years ago when he worked as a hired hand at a dude ranch in Wyoming. For five months, he made dams on wooded creeks, built cabins, mended fences, dug ditches and more. “We worked hard, but it was an incredible experience,” he says.

— The terms “guerrilla” and “wayfinding” make an unlikely pair. One brings to mind shady tactics employed under cover of darkness, while the other conjures the innocuous signs that guide sunny strolls through historic towns.

But the 27 wayfinding signs Matt Tomasulo stealthily zip-tied to central Raleigh utility poles have made him the poster boy for so-called “guerrilla wayfinding”– and put him at the forefront of an edgy national movement in which well-meaning urbanites make unsanctioned improvements to their cities.

Since the signs went up in January, the 30-year-old Tomasulo has been featured in international media outlets and sought out by copycats across the country. The signs were removed because they violated city codes but will go up this week as a city-sanctioned pilot project. Also this week, Tomasulo will unveil a website making similar campaigns possible nationwide.

“It was incredibly positive to see how a few plastic signs with words on them could resonate and impact a larger discussion,” says Tomasulo, who is completing concurrent master’s degrees in urban planning and landscape architecture at N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill. “It’s all about engaging with your place.”

Mitchell Silver, Raleigh’s director of city planning, says Tomasulo is part of a national trend of “tactical urbanism” led by a new generation of civic-minded urbanites seeking to cut through the red tape of local governments to bring awareness of, and solutions to, their cities’ problems.

The sign campaign, called Walk Raleigh, was a simple but effective way to make Raleigh more walkable, Silver says – a struggle for city planners working to make modern cities that were built for the convenience of cars more friendly to pedestrians.

“[Tomasulo] is thinking big to solve the emerging problems and really provide a public service,” says Silver, president of the American Planning Association. “He really symbolizes the next generation of planners.”

Seeking walkability

Tomasulo is soft-spoken with blue eyes and a tightly trimmed dark beard. On a recent morning, his office was a Glenwood Avenue coffee shop, where his ultra-thin laptop bore several to-do lists on post-it notes.

He grew up on a cul-de-sac in suburban Connecticut, and went to college at the University of Richmond, where he majored in business administration with a minor in studio art. The latter arose from the credits he earned during a semester in Copenhagen studying architecture.

He says his time there also sparked his interest in the way buildings and parks affect people’s lives. He says Copenhagen is “as close as you can get to a utopian city,” where public transportation was easy and pleasant, and public spaces were full of activity.

“You could access anywhere by walking, biking or train,” he says. “I had never experienced anything like that before. It really changed the way I thought about the built environment.”

A stint living in central Washington, D.C., reinforced his fascination with urban walkability, which he brought to N.C. State University when he entered the master’s program in landscape architecture in 2005. He later entered a complementary program in city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Tomasulo says the Walk Raleigh signs are meant to encourage people to walk, and to be more aware of their surroundings. Exploring location is also part of his business, CityFabric, a mostly online venture selling t-shirts and other items printed with maps. He started with Raleigh, and has expanded to include most major U.S. cities.

More maps, more access

The Walk Raleigh signs don’t tell anyone to walk anywhere; they just state how long it would take to walk from the sign to a particular destination and include a barcode that can bring up directions on a pedestrian’s cellphone.

Tomasulo attached them with zip-ties so they could be easily removed and color-coded them based on the type of destination, such as green writing for signs pointing to parks.

The signs struck a chord when they went up in January, garnering attention from the Atlantic Monthly, the BBC, and media outlets in Canada and New York City, to name a few.

At least two groups, in Tennessee and New Jersey, are planning similar campaigns. This week, Tomasulo will unveil an open-source website that will make it easier to create and access pedestrian maps of cities across the United States – and to make signs allowing people to access the maps through smartphones.

Tomasulo says the project’s success was partly about timing, coinciding with renewed interest in revitalizing downtown areas, concerns about obesity, and the rise of so-called guerilla tactics such as pothole gardening and parking lot picnics.

“Everything’s kind of hitting the pavement at the same time,” he says.

Silver, the planning director, says the even if tactical urbanism isn’t always precisely legal, the movement’s creativity and civic-mindedness should be encouraged.

“More and more young people are falling in love with cities again,” Silver says. “This is a way to show how they care for their city with direct and immediate participation.”

Eventually, all the media attention led a reporter to ask Silver whether the signs were legal. They were not, and while Silver says such a minor offense might go overlooked absent a complaint, the questions forced him to pull down the set of signs located downtown. Others simply disappeared from their poles, taken as souvenirs, Silver suspects.

But Silver says the signs were consistent with the city’s goals, so the he proposed they be reinstalled as a pilot project, and the city council unanimously approved the measure. Tomasulo has printed new signs that should go up this week.

For Tomasulo, the Walk Raleigh experience had no down side; the signs were a success, and he learned a lot about local government. It will also be his master’s thesis; his adviser suggested he scrap his planned project on Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix property to take advantage of the momentum, Tomasulo says.

He plans to raise funds for expanding the project on kickstarter.com, which he also used for the CityFabric project. .

“I never would have thought that it would have gotten this far,” he says of Walk Raleigh, “but there’s more to explore.”

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