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The Green Life: Update: Walk Raleigh Signs May Point the Way Once More

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March 05, 2012

Update: Walk Raleigh Signs May Point the Way Once More

Matt Tomasulo (left) and Mitchell Silver (right)Lately, the term “tactical urbanism” has been rippling through the city air, passing from one civic-minded circle to the next. Also known as guerrilla or DIY urbanism, the expression signals a new approach to city planning: a method that often combines experimentation and collaboration with the element of surprise.

One such tactician is Matt Tomasulo (pictured, left), the urban planning student from North Carolina who recently installed 27 handmade signs in downtown Raleigh. The unsanctioned signs encouraged Tomasulo’s fellow residents to walk to their next destination and indicated how long it would take to do so. In February, we reported on the Walk Raleigh project just as city planning director Mitchell Silver (pictured, right) began to remove the signs.
Silver, who also serves as president of the American Planning Association, explained that his office tends to operate on a complaint basis. For this reason (alongside one city inspector’s belief that the professionally drawn signs had been installed by the city itself), the placards hovered over their intersections for more than a month. Then the first complaint rolled in. At that point, Silver walked over and personally removed 9 of the 27 signs. 
But all was not lost. Silver kept the signs safe and returned them to Tomasulo when the two met the following weekend. During that meeting, they discussed Silver’s proposal: a three-month pilot framed as a “pedestrian education” program, in which Tomasulo would donate his signs to the city and “city staff would post and maintain the signs within the public right-of-way on city-maintained streets.” Silver formally made the proposal to Raleigh’s city council last Friday. You can view the council’s current agenda (which contains the proposal).  Meanwhile, Tomasulo has collected signatures in an online petition in support of the signs. The council will vote on the decision tomorrow.

Silver believes that if the proposal passes, the pilot’s effects could reach beyond the city of Raleigh. “I certainly think that there is nationwide applicability to this program,” he remarked, although he emphasized the importance of promoting walkability in suburbs and rural areas as well. “There is a beautiful lake where I walk or jog and I have to drive there,” Silver said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
While in collaboration on the proposal, Tomasulo and Silver do not see eye to eye about everything. Whereas Tomasulo views the unsanctioned nature of his project as a response to the failure of city planning to move “at the speed of contemporary culture,” Silver believes that the old-fashioned process would have suited Walk Raleigh just fine. “Doing something unsanctioned is not the only way to get attention,” Silver said. “We certainly have a city that embraces innovation. There is no question that the city council would have sat down with Matt.”

As for complaints about bureaucratic wait time and excessive red tape, Silver feels that such concerns are overstated. “In our department, our goal is to streamline everything and move quickly,” he said, adding that the signs might have been sanctioned within 30 days if Tomasulo had proceeded through the usual channels. “To some, timing is relative, but certainly, we can get something done in a very, very short period of time. A lot of people just like to lump government into one category,” he added. “I don’t know how to be a bureaucrat. I didn’t take a class on how to do that.”

Still, Silver is enthusiastic about the energy he is discovering among young urban strategists like Tomasulo. “This was a very cool and innovative way to promote walking and healthy living,” he said. “I’m delighted to see a higher level of civic-mindedness from the younger generation than I’ve seen in a long time.”

When asked about the term tactical urbanism, Silver said: “Our profession is filled with buzz words. If that’s what it takes to call attention [to an issue] that’s fine.”

Semantics aside, efforts like Walk Raleigh are stirring up attention and questions about what it means to be an urban citizen. If you have been convinced to travel on foot by Tomasulo’s signs, checked out a free book from a bright shelf lodged between the walls of an old phone booth or stumbled across a once-aggravating pothole to find a miniature world sprouting inside, you have felt the thrill of tactical urbanism at its best. In these moments, we witness individuals changing the course of their city's future, one strategic (and occasionally illegal) step at a time.

--Jenny Slattery / photo by Manuel Monserrate

UPDATE: On March 6, Matt Tomasulo tweeted that Walk Raleigh "just passed unanimously as a pilot project."

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