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Urban Development

Walk [Your City]

The guerrilla wayfinding project helping towns take quick steps toward walkability

The Doable City Reader

There is so much that can be done to make our cities happier, healthier and more prosperous places. Every day in cities around the world, citizens and city planners alike are showing us how small actions can scale up to have massive impact. And they can in your city too.

That’s what the Doable City Reader is about. In June 2014, 8 80 Cities, in collaboration with the Knight Foundation, brought 200 civic innovators from around North America together in Chicago at the Doable City Forum to share and discover methods for rapid change making. The Doable City Reader is inspired by the rich conversations amongst presenters and participants at that forum. It is a resource for any and all people who want to make change in their cities and is meant to educate, inspire and empower anyone to do so.

Many surveys have shown that one of the key barriers stopping people from walking more often is distance. The amenities they want to reach, they report, are simply too far.

Or so they think. While North American cities are ever more dispersed and distance is a genuine barrier some of the time, in many cases the distance may actually be a false perception. Studies show that city dwellers frequently overestimate the distance or time it would take to walk to where they want to go. So while improving walkability is, in most cases, something that must be fixed through design, other times all it takes is helping people understand that “it’s not too far.”

That’s why that phrase has become the tagline of Walk [Your City] (WYC), an initiative that is dedicated to helping citizens understand the walkability of their communities more accurately. WYC is an online platform that enables any community to quickly and cheaply produce accurate wayfinding signs that can be temporarily installed to show residents and visitors how quickly they can walk to various locations in their neighbourhood.

It is an example of how a small, informal and temporary project can not only spark profound change in the mindsets of a city’s residents, but also have a deeper impact within the formal city structure and policy.

WYC started as a DIY or guerrilla intervention in Raleigh, N.C. when landscape architecture and urban planning graduate Matt Tomasulo and his friends polled people in the city about why they don’t walk more often. Many of the people they spoke to felt that things were “too far to walk to,” but Matt knew this wasn’t true — he and his friends walked places all the time. So they went out one night and strapped 27 corrugated plastic signs to lampposts downtown. The signs stated the walking distance, in minutes, to various destinations — such as the rose garden, or a good cup of coffee.

Eventually the city took the signs down because they hadn’t been pre-approved. Recognizing their value, however, the city later reintroduced them through a pilot project where staff installed and maintained the signs themselves. The city has since written Walk [Raleigh] into their official pedestrian plan with a recommendation to expand the program to other neighbourhoods.

Image courtesy of Walk [Your City]

Tomasulo and his pals have now launched a website that enables anyone, from a single citizen to a government agency or community group, to take on a similar initiative. On the WYC website, groups can plan and design their signs and have them printed and mailed with all the necessary pieces for installation, including straightforward directions, materials, and tips to make the process smoother.

Cities have used these for various reasons. Mount Hope, a community in West Virginia, wanted to encourage walking on their main street for health purposes, but had limited financial resources to do so. A WYC campaign was an affordable start. The North Hills neighbourhood of Raleigh used to be large shopping mall, and is currently transitioning to become a more walkable neighbourhood with mixed retail and residential development, offices and more. However, due to its transitionary nature, the community core is disconnected from other areas of the new development, which created a mental barrier to pedestrians. The real estate company used a WYC campaign to try and break these perceptions. And it worked. Many residents of the community reported that they were surprised by how close destinations on different sides of the development were, and had begun to walk more often. One retired couple even reported that they had never realized the cinema was close enough to walk to from the grocery store — even though they were across the street from each other.

During the North Hills campaign an executive from the insurance agency Blue Cross Blue Shield walked from one big box store to another only because she learned for the first time via the WYC signage that it would take just ten minutes. That inspired Blue Cross Blue Shield to partner with WYC to expand the project’s technology and bring it to other communities in North Carolina.

Hear Matt speaking candidly with us at the June 2014 Doable City Forum in Chicago about the process of going from staging a guerrilla intervention to getting WYC officially recognized by the city in the video above, and learn more about how to produce a WYC campaign on their website.