Atlantic Cities

Raleigh's Guerrilla Wayfinding Signs Deemed Illegal

Raleigh's Guerrilla Wayfinding Signs Deemed Illegal
Matt Tomasulo

UPDATE (3/2): City staff in Raleigh have come up with a plan for accommodating Walk Raleigh's delightful but dubiously legal guerrilla wayfinding signs, which have become a cause célèbre for walkability enthusiasts far from North Carolina. The city notes that the intent behind the project (if not its tactics) was in fact consistent with Raleigh's long-term goals to integrate travel modes, enhance bike/ped infrastructure and even expand wayfinding signage. And so officials are proposing to put the signs back up in a three-month pilot "formal public education campaign."

Since the signs are meant for education and not advertising, Raleigh planning director Mitchell Silver tells us the city staff was able to think a little more creatively about how to re-hang them without requiring a permit (governments, he says, can be innovative, too!). Under the plan, Matt Tomasulo will "donate" the signs to the city as a gift, and city staff will post and maintain them. This recommendation goes before the Raleigh city council next Tuesday, March 6. If it's approved, Silver says, the signs could be back up within a week or two.

"Sometimes something surfaces that forces you to reconsider [ordinances]," says Silver, who is also the current president of the American Planning Association. "This is one instance that said 'what’s going on here?' This wasn't advertising per se. Yes, you need a permit. But we have not seen this level of this civic participation in my lifetime."

He was talking here about the broader tactical urbanism movement in Raleigh and around the country.

"And we don't want to discourage that level of creativity."

Here's a look at the proposal (in PDF form) on next week's city council agenda.

 

Since we first heard about a series of stealth wayfinding signs appearing around Raleigh, North Carolina, several weeks ago, the project has drawn national and international attention. The BBC came to town to see the signs. NPR then ran part of the segment. People in other cities started contacting Matt Tomasulo, the grad-student mastermind behind the escapade, to figure out how to replicate it in their hometowns. In short, the project accomplished exactly what a good guerrilla campaign is supposed to: it got people buzzing (and, in this case, about the otherwise unexciting topic of walkability).

This means, of course, that city officials then had to take the signs down.

It finally happened late last week. Tomasulo explained to us what happened this way, following the BBC production (which went online with the unflattering headline "How To Get America to Walk"):

"It got a lot of the local reporters calling city officials asking if they were sanctioned, and if they were legal," he says of the signs. "And they said they were not sanctioned. 'Well then they’re illegal?' 'Well, technically yes.' 'Well then why are they still up?'"

In the predictably persnickety world of municipal bureaucracy, those questions essentially constituted an official complaint against the technically illegal signs, and city officials were then required to address it. Many of the signs were taken down by City Planning Director Mitchell Silver himself. Silver told local reporters he was a fan of the project, though, and Tomasulo says he personally saved the signs in his office for him, suggesting they may live to see the Raleigh streets again.

Tomasulo hopes to go before the city council next week (supporters are invited!) to search for a way to put the signs back in place. Perhaps he'll wind up "gifting" them to the city in a slightly less guerrilla way. In the meantime, he hopes to launch an open-source website that would provide a template for would-be wayfinders in other cities who want to copy the project.

All of this may sound like a lot of work when the project, Walk Raleigh, could have just sought permission to hang the signs in the first place. But sometimes bending the law to draw attention to a problem is the fastest way to address it. Asked if the project would have been worth doing if he had gone about it the legal way, Tomasulo says, "I think it would be entirely too much work."

And that's really saying something about the slow pace with which cities often move. It was easier to do all this – design the signs, produce them, post them around town, watch them come down and fight the city council to preserve them – than to tackle the permitting and paperwork that would be required to mount them legally.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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