‘Walk The Burg’ Project Aims To Combat Car Culture
Earlier this spring James Madison University students armed with paper and zip ties took to the streets, starting an unusual kind of guerilla war. The goal was to change the ‘Burg for the better, and in more ways than one.
“We’re really trying to push against car culture,” Kyle Byrd, a senior at JMU, said. “In general, but especially in Harrisonburg, there is a huge car culture. People just don’t know how close things are, so they jump in their car; it’s the default.”
Byrd and a cadre of 13 other students in Professor Audrey Barnes’ Design + Sustainability class at JMU undertook a mission to encourage people to walk short trips across the city that they are typically inclined to drive. Their tool of choice? Simple, clean, eye-catching signs.
The project, dubbed ‘Walk The ‘Burg,’ began through a collaboration with Suzi Carter and the Northend Greenway. Carter and Barnes were inspired by the Walk [Your City] movement, which originated last year in Raleigh, North Carolina. WYC aims to foster civic innovation, social health and economic growth by “getting more feet on the street.” The project has spread rapidly across America, even reaching cities as far-flung as Kiev, Ukraine since its conception.
Barnes took the walk your city concept but altered it slightly to fit JMU and Harrisonburg. In addition to encouraging walking, Barnes also wanted to “bolster Harrisonburg and JMU’s love for each other.”
“[Our goal] was definitely multipurpose. The obvious aim was to encourage people to walk these smaller distances, but even larger than that was rearranging our understanding of distance in time. Most people don’t realize how reasonable and easy it is to walk from JMU to downtown. We also wanted to target students to be more engaged in the Harrisonburg community, and make them aware of what’s in Harrisonburg. Many of them just don’t know what’s here,” Barnes said.
As a JMU student Byrd acknowledges that there is a disconnect between the University and City communities, in part because of students’ housing location and general misunderstanding about distance and time. The class’ first step in countering that disconnect was to educate the public about the basics.
“Things are rarely as far as people think. If someone says that Court Square is 1 mile away that sounds a lot farther than saying it’s a 15 minute walk,” Barnes said. “We specifically used minutes instead of miles on the signs because that’s how we speak. People think and measure distance in terms of time.”
The signs had to appeal to students and citizens alike, making their physical design and selected location crucial.
“First and foremost we wanted to catch peoples eyes, make them stop and look at the sign. Second we needed to simply and boldly display the information. Third, we wanted something different that would really stand out from everything else on a street and sidewalk,” Byrd said.
With the design complete, the signs were placed across the city, especially near student apartment complexes, JMU campus, and the downtown area. Posting signs in the City of Harrisonburg is technically illegal, which added an extra ‘guerilla’ spin to the project that both Byrd and Barnes enjoyed.
“It’s always fun to do something subversive,” Barnes said chuckling.
While almost all of the signs have been taken down by now, there was no initial blow back from city officials, perhaps an indication that the project succeeded in piquing the interest of a large portion of the Harrisonburg community. JMU administration also took notice. Byrd presented the Walk The ‘Burg project to the University’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee this past May.
Barnes is hopeful that Walk the ‘Burg is one of many projects that will push Harrisonburg away from car culture.
“Cultural shifts are about changing social norms, and those shifts have to come from multiple angles. This project, and the Greenway are pushing that shift in the Harrisonburg community,” Barnes said. “I’m hopeful that there’s a scrappiness to Harrisonburg that can propel [alternative transportation] forward.”