Step by step, Matt Tomasulo is changing the way we experience urban life.
And in late June, the founder of Raleigh-based Walk[Your City], which uses inventive street signs to make communities more walkable, made his biggest strides yet.
With funding from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and buy-in from city officials, Tomasulo and his team installed a total of 80 way-finding signs in downtown Durham and in the Six Forks corridor near downtown Raleigh. The signs tell pedestrians how many minutes of walking it takes to reach nearby shops, restaurants and other attractions. This month, his team will install 60 more signs marking an African-American heritage trail in Raleigh’s South Park neighborhood.
With a $182,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, Walk [Your City] is working on similar projects in San Jose, Calif., and Lexington, Ky. They are among dozens of communities nationally, including Atlantic Beach and Greensboro, that have connected with Tomasulo as they try to promote health, exercise and urban revitalization.
With bold letters, bright colors and conversational messages like “It is a 2-minute walk to a cup of coffee” and “It is a 4-minute walk to the movies,” Tomasulo’s street signs are a world apart from the lifeless directional ones that populate most urban interiors. They are based on a central insightabout human nature.
“People in urban areas just don’t believe things are actually as close as they are,” Tomasulo says. “When you say a store is a half-mile away, that sounds daunting. When you say you can walk there in 10 minutes, they say, ‘Oh! I can do that!’”
Build a following
Tomasulo’s journey from architecture student to urban-design thought leader exemplifies the core advice in Dorie Clark’s insightful new book “Stand Out.” Clark, a marketing and strategy consultant and adjunct professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, takes readers through the process of becoming a change agent.
The first step she identifies: finding a breakthrough idea. Tomasulo’s didn’t arrive overnight. As an undergraduate, he spent six months in Copenhagen studying architecture. A product of suburban Connecticut, Tomasulo was amazed that he could get everywhere without a car.
“I gradually realized that I was more interested in the spaces between buildings than the actual buildings,” Tomasulo says. “My lens is designing for people.”
In 2012, while completing joint degrees in landscape architecture and city and regional planning at N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill, he tried an experiment. Without any official approval, he strapped signs to some light poles at busy intersections in Raleigh explaining how long it took to walk to certain locations. The signs were illegal – and also a big hit with local residents and media.
That led Tomasulo to what Clark describes as Step 2 on the road to thought leadership: building a following around your idea. Tomasulo had to take those initial signs down, but momentum was on his side. Raleigh officials liked the concept, and Tomasulo’s own training in city planning gave him credibility. Harnessing broader support through social media and working his way through a long list of key stakeholders, Tomasulo led a conversation with city planners and council members, businesses and residents about how to make the signs permanent, culminating in last month’s installations.
At the same time, Tomasulo went about building a movement nationally. With support from a Kickstarter campaign, he created a website for Walk [Your City] that helped like-minded enthusiasts around the U.S. produce their own way finding signs. Over the past two years, more than 100 communities – from small towns to major cities – have placed orders for his signs.
Which brings Tomasulo to the third and final step in Clark’s process for standing out: making the work sustainable. By the end of this year, Tomasulo hopes to complete a series of practical tools that will guide communities of all sizes through designing sign campaigns, producing signs and installing them in ways that comply with local ordinances – making his work replicable while also helping to pay for and contribute to Walk [Your City]’s operations.
Beyond that, the future is wide open for the recently married Tomasulo, who draws a modest salary from grants and online sales of his signs. But one thing’s for sure. He’ll continue to follow his penchant for disruptive action, which he describes as “being curious, staying curious and asking a lot of questions.”
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.