Next American Vanguard, the only annual conference dedicated to enlightening, inspiring and networking the next generation of urban leaders, will kick off on Thursday in St. Louis, Mo. In anticipation of the two-day event, NAC will run Q&A interview profiles with several members of this year’s Vanguard class. To read about past Vanguard members, click here.
Founder, CityFabric, Inc.
Matt Tomasulo is a designer and self-proclaimed civic instigator who believes that an awareness of place encourages public engagement. As founder of the organization CityFabric, he has created two guerrilla way-finding initiatives, Walk Raleigh and North Is That Way, that help orient pedestrians and encourage walking through clever signage. Now, Tomasulo is seeking to expand the Walk Raleigh concept to other cities (via a program dubbed Walk [Your City]), and is launching his Wear You Live campaign, an effort to instill a sense of place through t-shirts bearing maps of cities across the U.S.
Next American City: What has it been like to see your projects grow from guerrilla interventions to popular programs and products?
Matt Tomasulo: Exhilarating. Pleasantly overwhelming. I never thought that managing media and community interest could be so much work. It’s satisfying that the message and values instilled in the project are resonating with so many folks. It has helped me realize the opportunity of now-simple interventions really can instill and catalyze long-term and large-scale change. Every guerilla tactic, especially civic, has the intention to shift cultural and societal perceptions — you never think that it actually can happen.
NAC: How do visual representations of cities, either on t-shirts or signs, contribute to more walkable streets?
Tomasulo: The signs lower perceived barriers to walking by simply stating, “It’s not that far to walk.” They are a dead-simple and easily accessible awareness campaign reminding citizens that it’s okay and possible to walk. They introduce the idea that pedestrians have a choice in Raleigh. Many barriers to people walking in Raleigh are strictly perceptual due to gaps in the built environment, i.e. huge blocks of empty parking lots.
The visual representation of cities on our products allows for citizens to talk about where they live. The maps are very articulate and interesting. We believe and have seen that the more people talk about their place, the greater the potential they will get involved in their community. Their sales directly contribute to and support the future development of our civic-minded projects. We built the line of products so that we could fuel, fund and launch these other interventions, so our products are a direct representation of our values and mission.
NAC: How have CityFabric projects changed the way people walk and experience the city of Raleigh?
Tomasulo: Walking is now a topic that citizens and civil servants are both talking about.
Before we launched Walk Raleigh, walkability and quality of life were not part of the conversations around Raleigh’s future social and economic potential. Within a few weeks, city councilors were discussing traffic calming initiatives, pedestrian safety and citizen health as a direct result of the project. As a result, other, more formal projects and proposals are now putting pedestrians and citizens at the forefront of Raleigh’s plans to shape the future of city streets and neighborhoods.
Citizens continually come up to me and are so supportive about the project, telling me they signed the petition, that they see the signs and are actually deciding to walk different places throughout Raleigh that [they had] never considered a possibility before.
NAC: Currently, you are working on exporting the ideas behind Walk Raleigh to other cities. How are different cities responding, and what have been some of the difficulties?
Tomasulo: Other cities see this as a very quick and simple way to raise awareness for walking in their city. They see the signs as a simple solution to help bridge the psycho-geographic perceptions around the difficulty of walking and navigating a place. Cities are starting to see this as not only an awareness tool but also as a civic utility.
Difficulties include other cities wanting to turn these signs into traditional way-finding signs. Downtown organizations want to brand the signs, make them their own and point the signs to specific, finer grain points of interest, instead of easier-to-recognize areas and destinations. Translating our simplified interpretation of Raleigh to other cities has been difficult as well. We have found that a lot of different organizations are not thinking at the city scale, they are thinking at their organizational scale and exactly what they need to get out of the project.
With that, we are having a blast learning from the different interested groups to better understand how our Walk [Your City] platform can bolster city and citizen efforts to shift perceptions about walkability and focus on building healthy places to live.