Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
“Let’s direct people to what they can do, instead of can’t,” says one city commissioner.
Michael Grieco has learned again and again that clear, positive reinforcement is the best way to communicate with his autistic son. “You're taught early on not to say no,” he says, which helps make comprehension and behavior skills stick.
As a city commissioner of Miami Beach, he thinks the same logic can be applied to street signs. If you frame directions for using public space in affirmative, rather than negative, terms, people might be more likely to respond. That’s why Grieco is on a mission to rid the town of superfluous and overly forbidding signage: Miami Beach is now engaged in a full-fledged audit of its official public language, counting up and analyzing the content of every park entrance, parking pole, school safety notice, and anti-smoking post.
“I just want us to put some thought into these things,” he says. “Let’s direct people to what they can do, instead of can’t. Say when the park is open, instead of saying when it’s closed.”
It all started at the tourist-thronged Lummus Park beachfront, where the city recently posted a sign listing a long series of things “not permitted,” from bicycles and Segways to skateboards and hoverboards. He balked after a colleague sent him a picture, not because he thought people should be able to do as they pleased, but because the sign failed to encourage the desired use of the space: walking. “There’s a big difference between saying all of those ‘no’s,’ and saying, ‘pedestrian-friendly zone,’” he says.
He also felt like the declaration gave the park an authoritarian air—which isn’t exactly “on brand” for Miami Beach. With millions of annual visitors, on top of 90,000 residents, Miami Beach has to be conscientious about how it speaks to its paradise-loving guests, Grieco says. “We don’t want to say, ‘don’t smoke,’” he says. “We want to intertwine it with ideas of fitness and cleanliness and beauty. We want to talk about clean air, about the good and bad kinds of ‘butts.’”
Affirmative and even humorous messaging has been proven to change public behavior more effectively than negative language, especially when it comes to healthy behavior. There’s some science behind this: Evidence suggests that “no” words can actually mess with our ability to think clearly by triggering stress-activating hormones. Positive vocabulary, on the other hand, seems to help focus our brains and boost self-control.
Grieco says he hasn’t gone too far down the rabbit hole of behavioral psychology and neuroscience—to him, this stuff is just obvious. Once the city has completed its sign survey, the city will start by removing duplicative and outdated information and posting about things like speed limits and school safety zones where necessary. After that, officials will start to think how to reframe public messaging in sunnier terms. Grieco says he can imagine running experimental tests to see what language works best in different contexts.
And yes, he knows there may be locals rolling their eyes at all this. “People might think this stuff is corny,” he says. “But you can’t be against it. This is the kind of little thing that makes our city a more positive place.”