Can You Get People To Walk More, Simply With Smart Signage?

The successful Kickstarter campaign hopes handy signs will get people walking.

It all started with a series of unsanctioned signs in Raleigh, North Carolina. Matt Tomasulo wanted to encourage residents to rediscover the joys of walking around town, so he put up notices that stated how long it took to get from here to there—"here" and "there" being any number of specially selected locations—on foot. People paid attention, and Walk [Your City] was born.

Kickstarter was a natural choice to help fund WYC’s development. Tomasulo had previously launched a successful project on the site with Wear You Live by CityFabric so was familiar with the system, and wanted to gauge interest for WYC on a scale that expanded far beyond his own county line. It turns out there was—and is—an active audience for widespread tactical urbanism. After a vote of confidence from Kickstarter staff, who emailed it out as a "Project We Love," support from across the globe poured in and WYC reached its goal in a mere eight days.

Despite the obvious appeal that most campaigns give you something—some "thing"—for your investment, almost half of the 550 backers requested no physical reward, with another 200 pledging above and beyond the established amounts. "We realized that multiple languages could make this project that much more accessible, so we added that as an option if we hit $10,000," Tomasulo tells Co.Design (which they did).

"The larger goal of this project is to create healthy places for people—socially, economically, and environmentally," he says. So how does it work? Walk [Your City] is an open-source platform where people can create their own "guerilla wayfinding" signs that state the time it takes to wander from any given point A to point B. The locations on the original Walk Raleigh were "deliberate," Tomasulo says. "We wanted to reach different demographics—downtown business people, university students, and people going to the grocery store—with a collection of recognizable places and cultural assets that are perceived to be much further away from each other than they really are." The Kickstarter, however, will enable users to customize, choosing their own tos and froms through the online platform, which can then be easily exported, printed, and installed in their very own neighborhood. "The goal is that they can take these projects on as their own—to help pedestrians and drivers reach that ‘aha!’ moment, discovering ‘its only that far to walk there?!’"

The signs themselves had to be attention-getting but not aggressive. "The design of the signs is intentionally, and deceivingly, simple," Tomasulo explains. "But the process was a lot more difficult than you would think. We embedded a lot of information while keeping them as easy to digest as possible." Bold, minimal text increases legibility for both pedestrians and drivers, while bold color coding corresponds to the type of destination: green for public spaces, blue for civic or institutional landmarks, purple for commercial districts and centers. Each sign is enhanced with a QR code that links smartphone users with a pre-curated "Google Maps Walk," even those lacking that tech can interpret the analog directive and find their way.

Now, Tomasulo is working to develop the user experience and back-end functionality for WYC. "We are creating educational and instructional documents and guides to help users better instigate and create signs (or campaigns of signs) for their community," he says, in addition to pulling together a business strategy for the Code for America Accelerator. "Our challenge is to keep citizens as the main instigator and creator of the signs and campaigns, with cities welcoming and supporting the efforts. By keeping citizens at the heart of the project, they’ll become much more engaged stakeholders in their community." Until everything is up and running, however, his advice for citizens around the world is easy. "Take a walk!"

[Image: Pan Xunbin/Shutterstock]

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  • Sgrsfunbox

    Believe it or not, more cities are feeling the pressure to create walkable cities.  You would be amazed how much influence a community has simply by showing up at a Council meeting.  Granted many sign ordinances are restrictive but the reason is to limit visual clutter, not that the current regulatory signs aren't but they are a matter of public safety.  Also consider that sign audience-drivers who have limited time to read (hence the short signs) versus the pedestrian (can take a moment to read longer).

    SO be proactive and show up to a meeting prepared...find a local artist to create some cool looking signs, create a map of where they should be located, figure out the distance and time to get there and figure out a cost.  Bam! you've done alot of the work that staff would have to do.

    Community influence through non-combative, consistent pressure can work wonders.  Oh, one more thing, show by example.  Take the lead and start walking yourself and encourage others to do it.

  • Howard Freeman

    As a born-and-bred New Yorker who gained weight when he lived in the suburbs and lost it when he returned to the city, and as a supporter of both these campaigns, I think this effort is worth paying attention to from a physical wellness standpoint alone, not to mention all the other sociological, commercial/entrepreneurial and community benefits.

  • Yakster

    I used to live in LA, Venice Beach exactly.  The idea is shop and dine locally, and even in a city like LA there are walkable neighborhoods.

  • Guest

    This is one of the few Kickstarter campaigns that I don't find stupid. If you've ever spent an extended period of time in a major metropolitan area you noticed just how terrible the wayfinding (or lack thereof) is. 

  • intudes

    It's a cool idea, but how much better would it be if city planning policies could be influenced to embrace the principles of a walkable city from the outset. So often there are missing pedestrian links, personal safety threats and no-go zones that prevent walkability. Unfortunately, many cities have very restrictive signage policies that will result in take-down of guerilla signs by city maintenance crews. It then becomes a cat and mouse game to try to keep the system up and intact. Wayfinding systems with gaps will be confusing for users, undermining what's trying to be achieved here. This project seems like a good way to demonstrate what could be to city planners, but as a long-term solution, it's probably doomed by bylaw enforcement. 

  • Howard Freeman

     I agree.  Unfortunately, so much urban planning at least until recently used to accommodate cars and drivers coming to the city (to work or shop), that pedestrian concerns were of secondary importance at best.

  • Ilie Ciorba

    I would love to see these kind of signs in US. Every time I come here I'm amazed how in a huge city like Los Angeles or San Francisco can be so few people on the street. Where is everybody? Which overpopulated city you're talking about? It feels like desert sometimes. And if you decide to walk you end up on the street with homeless people, all kind of crazy and suspicious individuals. There is no life on the streets anymore, american life now shifted to cars and restaurans. 
    It is not about the directions in the city, not even about time it is about making people walking again, exploring the city they live in, not the car they live in.

  • Evan Jacobs

    From what I understand, practically everything in LA is separated by a 20 minute drive, with highways in between.

    Buses or cars are a must.

  • Eric

    Great idea!  As someone who relies on their feet for travel about 70% of the time, I've perfected the art of calculating how far it takes me to get from point A-B with only a tiny margin of error.  Some folks would be surprised how far in their city by foot they can get in X amount of time.  Things that seem out of reach often are not.