Under cover of a January night two years ago, Matt Tomasulo, a landscape architecture and urban planning graduate, grabbed a few friends took to the streets of Raleigh, NC with zip ties and 27 corrugated plastic signs. Strapping “It’s six minutes by foot to the Rose Garden” and “It’s two minutes to a great cup of coffee” to utility poles, it was just a way that the entrepreneur could not only playfully encourage his fellow residents to walk more, but to urge the city, then making economic development plans, to consider how people use space. He had no idea he was launching a way to hack city planning.
The project, Walk [Your City], a website where anyone can customize and print his color-coded signs to create walking routes through neighborhoods, has now been used in over 100 cities around the world. Tomasulo’s work is part of a larger trend to revitalize downtown areas. Moving away from the post-war standard of ushering cars along as quickly as possible, this new urbanism designs around how humans move through space.
Demographics dictate part of this effort to get a handle on shoe leather instead of tire rubber—the country’s two largest generations want to be able to walk to their nearest Starbucks. Fewer Millennials have driver’s licenses or own cars than the two preceding generations. They place a high value on walkability in picking a place to live. Boomers, who may be giving up driving as they age, want the same easy access to shops and entertainment. An AARP survey found those 50 and older ranked “pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods” near the top of their community preferences.
With Walk [Your City], getting feet on the street starts with re-training our car-centric brains. Distances are measured in minutes instead of miles. Relatable, when it’s your energy you’re burning instead of an engine’s. The non-profit Creative Santa Fe (CrSF) recently made a set of signs to show citizens in their town that two popular neighborhoods were only 15 minutes apart by foot. Katelyn Peer, the group’s director of community initiatives, helped marshal volunteers to install 120 signs last fall, the largest Walk [Your City] project so far. “The perception here is that the city isn’t walkable—the sidewalks are narrow, there are weird little barriers,” says Peer. Guiding people through the space with signs such as “it’s 7 minute walk to the best margarita in the city” and “it’s a 23 minute walk to the Canyon Road galleries” made the connections clear.
The Santa Fe project, up for six weeks, not only got people excited about rediscovering the city— some noticed for the first time a park that lay between the district— but enabled CrSF to connect with city leaders. CrSF hopes that they’ll be able to get funding for permanent signage. “[City leaders] have got such busy schedules,” says Peer, “this turned out to be a great way to get to them to pay attention.”
Peer observes the low-cost Walk [Your City] signs—each sign cost them about $15 to $19—allows citizens and planners to try out different ideas without a great deal of risk—like wasting city money—attached. “Both sides can be playful and creative. You’re not stuck with anything,” says Peer. “It gets people open to possibility, rather than stuck on: ‘what if this doesn’t work’” That’s why Tomasulo aims to take Walk [Your City] wider, making it what he calls an “actionable civic platform” so it can be used to create places that people can enjoy. He’s working on ways to add elements to the website that give citizens data and other tools to influence their local legislatures. The goal in all his work is to make cities more human-scaled. “I like the idea of being the cultural stimulus inspiring cities to embrace walkability. The signs,” says Tomasulo, “are just the beginning.”