I’ve been walking around my city of Raleigh recently, thrilled with new signs telling me how long it will take me to walk hither or yon. I could see from the signs – simple design, plastic construction, strapped to utility poles – that they weren’t a civic undertaking.

Amazing: guerilla direction signs.

A culture in which you need signs to show you where to walk – and you only get them by covert action – could be cause for despair, but most of Raleigh, including its planning department, sees this as further good news for a city trying to reclaim its scale and sense of place. This terrific video by the BBC tells the story.

How to get America to walk

The undertaking was little short of brilliant. Matt Tomasulo, a graduate student in landscape architecture and urban planning at NC State University and UNC-Chapel Hill, has created a little enterprise called Walk Raleigh, and in that guise installed 27 signs around downtown Raleigh, strapping them to poles under cover of darkness.

“It’s an 18-minute walk to Glenwood South,” says one in purple, with an arrow pointing to one or Raleigh’s popular entertainment districts; “It’s a 7-minute walk to Raleigh City Cemetary,” says a green one, its arrow pointing to the oft-overlooked site of the remains of some of Raleigh’s earliest citizens. Each sign, of course, has a QR code linking to a map.

Tomasulo’s idea is to get people thinking in minutes, which makes walking seem sensible, rather than miles, which instantly evokes cars. Though the signs were unsanctioned – and have come down – they stayed up for more than a month, called by Raleigh Planning Director Mitchell Silver “very cool.” The Atlantic, the local paper, the Sierra Club, local TV, and a local culture website all weighed in to kvell, and a city already planning along Complete Streets guidelines gets another jolt in the right direction.

Tomasulo’s company, cityfabric, has worked to engage people with their surroundings before, by using city maps as fodder for clothing and décor. He's also just undertaken a project in New York called North Is That Way, involving signs pointing north. The story in Atlantic CIties talks about other guerilla civic projects -- gardens, signs, and so forth -- but misses another one: guerilla libraries in unused New York pay phone kiosks.

Those kiosks and other guerilla projects are reminders that though so much of the movement towards improved cities -- and improved walkability -- focuses on health and efficiency, there's more to it than that. Tomasulo has entered North Is That Way into the Venice Biennale as a Spontaneous Intervention. That is, Tomasulo's point is less utilitarian than artistic: it's important to know where you are. It's important to know which way you're going. And walking is just better.