Communicating the City With a Shirt

Company prints images of cities to spark conversation

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Courtesy CityFabric

People know cities, but they often don’t really know or understand the nuts and bolts that build them: urban design, planning, development patterns. Communicating these concepts and processes to a wide audience can be difficult, even for a knowledgeable person like Matt Tomasulo, who’s pursuing a dual master’s degree in landscape architecture and urban planning from North Carolina State and UNC Chapel Hill, respectively. His own parents couldn’t really wrap their heads around it.

“They never understood what I was in school for,” Tomasulo says.

Communicating the process of change and design, he says, is crucial for getting people involved in the decisions that determine the direction of their cities. Seeking to start that conversation, Tomasulo has created a small company that brings the discussion of cities and urban design to the general public. His tool: t-shirts.

CityFabric is Tomasulo’s company, and with it he creates screenprinted t-shirts of various cities. They’re like aerial maps of the city, but boiled down to the very basic forms of the city. They show the mass of buildings and the void of streets and other non-building spaces. Known as a Nolli map, this form of city representation has been used by architects and planners for centuries. Tomasulo says this type of map, with its simple forms and clear grid-like representation, is easy for people to understand.

“I feel like they’re so potent because they’re so beautiful, and they’re abstract enough that most people might not even realize they’re maps,” Tomasulo says.

He and a partner started printing the shirts over a year ago, and brought a small batch to a local arts market in downtown Raleigh. They quickly sold more than half of their inventory. In addition to proving their marketability, the interactions they had with people showed that the shirts were also a good instigator of communication.

“We realized it was a simple way to talk to people about where they live,” he says.

People could look at the shirt and see the main downtown area and its historic grid, and then moving farther out they’ll see the suburbs appear, and then how the ridgelines and topography determine where development can happen.

“You can really read the city decade to decade,” Tomasulo says.

Tomasulo then expanded the scope of the project, producing maps of 15 different cities for t-shirts, tote bags and art prints. To scale up, he launched a Kickstarter campaign, which nearly tripled its $13,000 fundraising goal. (Along with other Raleigh-Durham area small businesses, CityFabric is now part of a new business incubator covered recently by Sarah Rich in The Atlantic’s Start-Up Nation series.)

Later this week, Tomasulo will be launching an online CityFabric store, featuring prints of Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Durham, Manhattan, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. More cities are likely on their way, eventually. Los Angeles, Tomasulo says, is the most requested.

“It’s so big,” he says. “I’m still trying to figure out how to manage that.”

Though he’s less than a year away from holding two master’s degrees, Tomasulo is planning to stick with CityFabric. He says the t-shirt business is good, but also that he hopes to expand its reach in other ways to help communicate about cities and development.

“It’s not necessarily just for people who are urban planners or designers or people who live in downtowns,” he says. “The core focus is to engage people in conversation about their place.”

CityFabric recently won the Honor Award for Communication from the American Society of Landscape Architects, and is seeing more demand. With more than 4,000 products sold, Tomasulo says the conversation is starting and spreading. Even his parents are talking.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.