Along with direct messages such as signage, the actual physical environment sends cues about who is welcome in a space. If a space is not accessible, is poorly lit, too noisy, has nowhere to sit, or only allows pedestrians 10 seconds to cross the street, it effectively tells children, older adults, women or those with disabilities that they are not welcome in a space. Conversely, having amenities that encourage people to linger and attract a wide variety of individuals to actively use public spaces create a compounding effect—in short, people are drawn to other people.

There are several ways of evaluating your built space; the 8 to 80 cities and AARP Livable Communities programs provide some tools for evaluating the current infrastructure and identifying easy strategies for improvement. These programs suggest that creating spaces that work for both people who are age 8 and those age 80 or over will result in spaces that accommodate all types of users in comfort.

These types of amenities are perhaps most appreciated by visitors to a community. If someone is new to your community, what type of messages do they encounter when arriving? Are they encouraged to go places and do things that help them experience the community or do messages largely tell them how NOT to behave? The example images at right were all taken within a five-block area in one community. There is significant signage that tells people what they are not allowed to do, but very little in the way of welcoming narrative, or helpful signage. It would require only minor changes to post similar helpful signs in lieu of the regulatory ones. For instance, No Parking signs become Public Parking Lot signs with helpful directional arrows elsewhere, and No Public Restrooms signs can instead say Public Restrooms Available at the Library on Pine Street, for instance.

As further incentive to remove the negative signs, it turns out that they are generally ineffective at deterring behavior in the first place. A 2013 study by the Australian government found that simple warning signs did not change behavior, although signs with more specific cautions or reasons for the prohibition were effective, such as “Crosswalk slippery when wet.”

If you are unsure about the culture of your community, consider participating in the First Impressions program. This program, coordinated by the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension, matches similar communities in different geographic areas of the state to perform an exchange program. A group of community and business leaders from one community schedules an exchange, whereby they visit the other community and take note of their perceptions within several sets of questions—from the perspective of prospective residents, business owners and visitors. These perceptions, including both marketing, interactions and physical observations, provide a fresh perspective on your community that is the first step toward changing the culture.