Eden Prairie doesn't want to be known as the city where people get lost.

Visitors and residents exiting freeways to get to the mall or Costco in the outer-ring suburb, which wasn't built on a traditional grid system, got lost on the curvy streets so many times that the situation spawned the newspaper headline "Lost in Eden Prairie" and a city study to fix the problem in 2005.

Since then, the city has added more than a dozen way-finders and started marking specific areas with tall monument signs. Now city leaders want to add wide entry signs with the city's motto and distinctive prairie grass to make sure people know when they're entering the suburb.

"Eden Prairie is a premier place, and it's to make sure people are aware they're in Eden Prairie and have a positive image of Eden Prairie," said Janet Jeremiah, the city's community development director. "You want to be visually memorable and have positive branding."

Despite the increasing reliance on GPS and smartphone maps to digitally guide us everywhere, more cities from Eden Prairie to Elk River and Mound are adding signs to help navigate drivers, encourage walking and biking and brand their communities.

"All cities are looking for identification, and these cities in the suburbs are becoming very important destinations for people," said Richard Lang of Visual Communications in St. Paul, which has worked with cities like Eden Prairie. "For instance, how do you know it's 50th and France [in Edina]? It's not because of the street signs, but the signs that have been there for 25 years that tell you're in a retail area."

In Elk River, the city plans to review designs in January for new park and downtown signs, along with "gateway" signs that welcome visitors to the city. In Mound, it's about directing boaters, not drivers, as the city looks to add signs to its Lake Minnetonka pier indicating how to get to restaurants and other amenities.

And in Minneapolis and Richfield, the state Department of Transportation recently installed 19 stone pillars marking entry points to neighborhoods along Interstate 35 and Hwy. 62. MnDOT said it's part of aesthetic and landscaping improvements that follow major road construction, and will support neighborhoods and help people navigate. Some residents, however, have criticized the look — one said it looked like it fit in a "suburban water park" — and cost $953,000.

Branding a community

So why are more cities taking the seemingly simple step to put up signs now? And does it matter in a digital age?

Frank Hickey of Signia Design, which has worked with local cities like Bloomington, said it's about creating a sense of place in communities. People also expect convenient access to places, he said.

Lang added that, with an aging population and increased emphasis on walkability and biking, not all people are connected digitally all the time. "It's [about] welcoming and creating a state of mind," he said.

In Wayzata, the city has held off on signs as basic as marking the city's parks because of limited time and money, city engineer Mike Kelly said. But now, as the lakeside town of 4,200 residents grows and the city tries to draw more tourists, Kelly said it needs to do more to direct people to facilities and attractions.

The city has approved a $100,000 budget for way-finding initiatives and has installed blade signs in its downtown, directing people to places like its docks and library. Next year, the city plans to install about a dozen park signs and signs on city history.

"As the city grows and changes, we want to make sure people continue to access and use Wayzata," he said. "We want to draw people to the different places; we have this huge amenity — Lake Minnetonka."

The city is also working with some of the other 13 Lake Minnetonka cities to market and brand the area as a regional destination, looking to add signs to direct people along the lake to cultural and natural attractions.

No longer lost in Eden Prairie

In Eden Prairie, visitors who exit Interstate 494 or Hwy. 212/Hwy. 5 end up on the city's curvy "ring road" in the commercial area. On Flying Cloud Drive, no signs even said the street name for years.

So, the city installed about 15 signs helping direct traffic, from simple green signs directing drivers to the mall, to street signs naming Flying Cloud Drive, and a tall monument sign marking its Town Center. Jeremiah said the city plans to install more of the monument signs marking areas of the city as it makes street improvements.

And it's not just for drivers. The city also plans to do way-finding signs for bicyclists and pedestrians, developing a "destination loop" across the city that connects places like Miller Park, Purgatory Creek Park and other trails.

"It's easy to get lost in Eden Prairie because we have lots of lakes and wetlands, so we have a lot of dead ends," public works director Robert Ellis said. "There is no direct path."

Now that the suburb of 62,000 residents is mostly developed, the city also wants welcome signs at its borders. In November, the City Council gave the green light for the city to start exploring, adding up to six entry signs at major intersections starting in 2015, branded with the city's motto and prairie grass. No cost has been given yet, and the city would need MnDOT approval.

But City Council Member Ron Case said it would help the city brand itself with its values, natural characteristics and culture, helping differentiate it from other suburbs.

"I don't want Eden Prairie to be a Woodbury or any other town you just drive through," he said. "If we're going to attract people and make people proud of living here … you have to put out that personality and culture. And I think signage can help do that."