Matt Tomasulo explores new ways to use the negative spaces of civic infrastructure | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Matt Tomasulo explores new ways to use the negative spaces of civic infrastructure 

Matt Tomasulo is behind the Wänder Box, Walk Raleigh and other projects that envision new ways for people to interact with unused urban public spaces.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Matt Tomasulo is behind the Wänder Box, Walk Raleigh and other projects that envision new ways for people to interact with unused urban public spaces.

Raleigh was only 15,000 cubic yards of sand away from having its own beach.

On April 11, 2013, after someone launched a Facebook page for the "Raleigh Beach," a small sign for it appeared on the chain-link fence around the empty lot at 607 West Morgan Street. The poster promised blue skies, lifeguards, wading pools and even a blimp.

Within a week and a half, the beach accumulated more than 800 Twitter and Facebook followers, and what started as a joke ended up as a serious proposition. City leaders—as well as potential sponsors—began to inquire about the mystery beach.

For urban designer and activist Matt Tomasulo, who is rethinking the ways we interact with city spaces, the reasoning is simple: "Paris has a beach. Detroit is working on one. Why can't we have that in Raleigh?"

Tomasulo lights up as he finishes the sentence. He has an unassuming build and a grin that dominates most of his face. It's clear that the rhetoric still excites him, even though he's spent the last five years trying to answer the question of why Raleigh falls short of the most innovative trends in design.

In the summer of 2013, Tomasulo found a space at the base of the L building under construction at the corner of McDowell and Davie Streets. His plan was to unveil the Raleigh Beach there in September during M.A.I.N. Event, an initiative of the entrepreneurial non-profit organization Innovate Raleigh. But he struggled to acquire an alcohol permit, and the cost of importing several tons of sand eventually stalled the project for good. Tomasulo had to turn away sponsors and city officials. It was, in a sense, his first failure.

City Council member Bonner Gaylord saw the project's initial renderings, which made waves throughout Raleigh's city council. "The city needs to be incredibly receptive to efforts like the ones that Matt has pursued. We've got to be willing to fail to see if ideas work," says Gaylord. "Matt's ideas set wheels in motion for a few different things."

Tomasulo is part of a movement known by names such as "DIY urbanism" and "hactivism," where projects are quick to appear and aim to activate public spaces. The city of Raleigh is increasingly embracing these ideas. You can see them in the spindly yarn bombs dotting Glenwood Avenue or the creeping runners of a vegetable plant sowed in a public right-of-way.

You can see them in municipal efforts such as City Camp, SeeClickFix and Open Raleigh, all of which carry the stamp of Tomasulo's involvement. And you can see them in Walk [Your City], Tomasulo's citizen-focused wayfinding program that reminds Raleigh residents that it's not too far to walk.

"There's this movement of young designers and social instigators—whether it's because traditional design firms weren't hiring, or it's just the sensibility of the younger generation—to do things really quickly," explains Grant Meacci, the managing designer of the Raleigh Urban Design Center. "That immediacy has a really big impact."

Despite its initial failure, the beach project came back—or at least, the idea of creating an unusual public social space did. In May of 2014, Tomasulo partnered with restaurateurs Tyler Helikson and Niall Hanley to create the Wänder Box, a traveling biergarten built from an old shipping container.

"How could we take that experience of the beach and package it into a quicker win?" Tomasulo asked himself. "Something simpler, with fewer moving parts. How could we prove to Raleigh that cool things are possible?"

Stationed in front of Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum from June 5 to June 15 of this year, the Wänder Box transformed an empty gravel lot into a vibrant community that encouraged patrons to "make room for new friends," as the picnic tables' signage proclaimed.

CAM's executive director, Gab Smith, appreciated the effect the Wänder Box had on Raleigh's arts district. "We had more than 2,600 people at June First Friday—our largest attendance ever on a First Friday," she says. "The entire Warehouse District had a great night."

That kind of public engagement is what Tomasulo is looking for. After spending a semester in Copenhagen in a pre-architecture program, he realized he wasn't interested in buildings; rather, the spaces between them were what he cared about. Public space is often thought of as simple or passive, Tomasulo says. It's his goal to challenge that notion.

His interest in place, space and interaction led him to study landscape architecture at the NC State College of Design. He began devising ways to communicate about the opportunities and histories of cities and downtowns, using his parents as a litmus test. Building plans were an easy way to do so: Tomasulo realized that he could tell stories through maps.

In the summer of 2010, he and fellow landscape architect Ben Hood chipped in $700 to print city-planning maps of Raleigh, Durham and Philadelphia (whose grid Raleigh's resembles) on 100 T-shirts, which they sold on Hargett Street during the Raleigh Times' inaugural First Friday event. In three and a half hours, they made their money back, plus an additional $300. "We couldn't believe it," Tomasulo says, laughing at this improbable start. "We were like, 'holy shit.'"

The duo called themselves CityFabric. Tomasulo created a Kickstarter campaign for the business, and within 10 hours, they had raised $18,000. By the time the 30-day campaign was over, Tomasulo netted $36,176—almost three times his goal. Hood bowed out to accept a job offer, so Tomasulo spent his winter vacation distributing 2,000 T-shirts to backers.

Tomasulo learned just how easy it is to connect with people from all over the world and share ideas digitally. But he also realized that selling T-shirts wasn't what he went to school to do. He began to look for inspiration elsewhere.

It was the fulfillment of his final Kickstarter reward that led him to his next project, Walk [Your City]. While delivering a 50" x 30" hand-stretched canvas map of Durham, Tomasulo noticed how close together the buildings were. He was living downtown near Broughton High School at the time, and began to poll strangers near his house. "Would you walk 10 minutes to the grocery store? Fifteen? Twenty?" he'd ask. The answers were almost always yes. Then he'd say, "Well, it's only a 12-minute walk from here."

On January 17, 2012, the night before Innovate Raleigh hosted the first Raleigh Innovation Summit, Tomasulo and a team of friends installed 27 wayfaring signs downtown, hoping to catch the attention of city leaders. The signs were modeled after highway signage, color coded and equipped with arrows and QR codes to indicate how far of a walk certain destinations were. "It's an 18 minute walk to Glenwood South," read one. "It's a 45 minute walk to Five Points," said another.

Local resident Andy Little mentioned the project in the comments section on a piece about city wayfinding, which led to Walk [Raleigh] getting its own story in The Atlantic Monthly's CityLab website for urban design a week later. A five-minute segment with the BBC News (North Carolina's first appearance in two years) followed in short order.

Though the coverage of Walk [Raleigh] was positive, it didn't immediately deliver the results Tomasulo had hoped for. The media wanted to know if the signs were sanctioned. They weren't. At the request of the city, Tomasulo clipped the zip ties and removed the signs. But the press generated such interest in the project that citizens rallied to bring them back.

"Some of the advice we give [at the Urban Design Center] is, 'Don't involve the city, just go do it,'" says Meacci with a chuckle. "This was one of those times. Matt's pedestrian signs went viral on their own and ended up on the planning director's desk."

Tomasulo collected 1,300 signatures in three days and then delivered the 127-page PDF to city council. The petition presented Walk [Raleigh] as a three-month pilot educational program. The city re-installed the signs, even writing them into their comprehensive plan in January 2013.

"I was very excited," remembers Gaylord. "I thought it was a great idea, and brilliant implementation. Obviously, the city has regulation issues. Trying to adjust our signage regulations to allow for creativity is one of the things we're working on." Walk [Your City] has prompted Raleigh to create a "sign task force" to address the barriers between civic innovation and city regulations, Gaylord says.

Over the last year, Walk [Your City] signs have been downloaded more than 10,000 times and hang in six continents. Tomasulo has been approached to install 75 different campaigns. He credits part of Walk [Your City]'s popularity to how expensive and time-consuming traditional city wayfinding is. Raleigh's downtown guideposts—those big, blue signs with arrows pointing out a few choice locations—took three years to plan, at a cost of 1.3 million dollars.

"Communities who could never afford wayfinding in the past were ordering 60, 90, 150 signs," Tomasulo says. "And many of them were getting permission to do so."

In June, Tomasulo officially partnered with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina to expand Walk [Your City].

Eric Koehler of BCBSNC explains, "The city of Raleigh has picked six different communities that they want to promote walkability in. We will create signage that the city will hang and maintain, and we are funding that signage."

Over the next year, Tomasulo will work alongside community stakeholders and city staff to create between 25 and 40 wayfinding signs for each locale. The project's online software—also sponsored by BCBSNC—will allow Walk [Your City] to supply on-demand route information and collect feedback from users.

"It's still very simple. It's kind of a gateway drug to civic engagement," Tomasulo says of the signs' new implementation and feedback system. "And it is encouraging people to walk."

After 12 years of writing fiscal plans and studying city corridors, Meacci is optimistic about the project—but not necessarily because of the signs.

"Most of these types of things are pretty ephemeral, and trends will come and go. The most important thing is that it will create a culture of being able to try," he says. "People can talk to Matt, and he can say, 'Here's how I did it. Go do it with your own idea.' And that is happening in Raleigh. As long as we remain open to ideas, that's a hell of a society to live in."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Signs of progress"

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  • Urban designer and activist brings creative energy to making cities work for their people.

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