Colleen Ryan knew she was on to something when she asked everyone in the room to each raise their left hand.
While Ryan was pitching the idea for “Walk Your City” to fellow members of the Heritage Tourism Working Group, she asked them all to raise their hands. “They all had FitBits on,” she said. Drawing attention to the fact people are more health conscience today and love to track how many steps they take, she said “Everyone is tracking their steps. People want something interesting to do, they just don’t want to trudge through.”
Last week, the City of Albany unveiled 100 new “smart” signs across 16 intersections throughout downtown, directing pedestrians to 50 different points of interest.
Each sign, mounted at eye level, shows that it’s just a short walk to some of the city’s premier destinations, such as: “It is a 13-minute walk to Albany’s skyline-defining Egg,” or “It is a 15 minute walk to a revolutionary hero’s home.” Signs also point to other ways of getting around, including Capital CarShare locations and the Greyhound/Trailways bus terminal. The signs are color-coded — green for open space, for example, and orange for arts and culture — and the roll-out this fall is considered a pilot project that could lead to more signs down the road.
“We couldn’t possibly include every interesting thing in Albany, but we hope that this will inspire people to walk our city – whether they’ve lived here for years or just have an hour between meetings,” said Ryan, who is also Chair of the City’s Historic Resources Commission. “The signs point to the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence in Arbor Hill, provide directions to the closest post office, and invite people to take in dinner and a show downtown. They highlight the wide variety of interesting things to see and do – only a short walk away.”
In all, the signs fall within a mile radius, or an estimated 25-minute walk. According to Walk Score.com, some Albany neighborhoods are ranked in the 80s and 90s, making them among the most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in the country.
Ryan said she gleaned the idea from a similar project in Raleigh, N.C. that was published in The Atlantic. Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan had challenged the group to devise something exciting, but cost effective for the city. Ryan later shared the article with Mayor Sheehan, and the dye was cast.
Each of the corrugated cardboard signs has a limited lifespan. Fixed on existing roadside poles with plastic zip-ties, Ryan estimates it will be about a year before they fall away. “There is a bigger effort under way,” she said. “This is a pilot program. I hate to say it’s just a pilot program. But, this is a way to get out of the gate and to generate a little bit of a buzz.”
The signs have directional arrows and include QR (Quick Response) codes that can be scanned with a smart phone to load a live Google map, turn-by-turn directions to the destination, and information about the attraction including street address, a link to a website, hours of operation, and admission prices. Ryan said the QR codes also enable the city to keep track of the queries, to gauge popular interests, which signs are scanned more often and at what times; information that can be helpful towards tourism and marketing efforts.
The signs could also help with incoming residents.
There has been a push for more residential development in downtown Albany. A recent study commission by the Albany Business Improvement District declared the demand for residential property increased 83 percent since 2006. Similar signage would benefit new residents as they move in. It’s with that in mind that, within the information shared through the QR codes there are the locations to find one of the five of community car shares, for those who are without access to an automobile.
Users can also provide feedback on the Walk Albany effort when they scan the QR codes on signs or visit the Walk Albany page. The Mayor’s office will also post photos on its Facebook page of people in front of some of their favorite walking destinations in the City. Just take a selfie on your smart phone, tell us what you liked about your walk or what you learned, and email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. To view a map of the locations of Walk Albany signs and see the destinations featured, visit https://walkyourcity.org/campaigns/1573.
“This project was a grassroots effort by a creative group of volunteers who are devoted to Albany, and on behalf of all those who love to walk our City, I thank the Heritage Tourism Working Group for these fun new signs on Albany street corners,” said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan. “The signs and the smart phone connections wake us all up to the rich destinations that make Albany a great walkable city.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.