Over at Belt Magazine, editor Anne Trubek is fed up with the overuse of planning cliches in writing about cities. She’s asking, nay demanding, that everyone stop using ten words:
She’s put her finger on something. These words are used, and over-used and sometimes abused. We share Anne’s pain–especially when it comes to the vague and elastic way in which the term “gentrification” is invoked in all kinds of different contexts. Its natural to be frustrated that a complex, multi-faceted concept can’t be boiled down to a single word that can be universally used with precision to mean the same thing to everyone who encounters it. And it’s inevitable that some words will become, in sequence, fashionable and popular and then trite and shop-worn. To be sure, when we turn dynamic verbs into prosaic nouns (walk to walkability), we almost automatically make ourselves more pedantic and boring.
Even so, we must politely, but firmly disagree that we ought to stop using these words.
Why? In a world where 140 character-at-a-time communication is increasingly the norm, having a simple, evocative way of stating your case is imperative–even if it isn’t as precise and nuanced as it might be, and even if some people will occasionally or often misuse the word.
Words have weight and meaning: We need to use them well and wisely, and back them up with powerful illustrations and compelling stories, and where possible, data.
Let’s take walkability. Its a passive, noun-ified, mouthful. But it captures in 11 precious characters a key notion. Its intuitive and resonates with most people. We can illustrate it with images and stories, and thanks to our friends at Walk Score we can measure it (roughly and imperfectly). By giving at name, illustrating with pictures, and measuring it with data, we can raise its profile the the debates and discussions about cities.
We’re fully aware of the consequences of the sloppy use of terms. Take gentrification: Critics of the process rightly assail instances in which the entire population of a neighborhood is dislocated by the in-migration of the wealthy (like say SoHo, in Manhattan). But then people apply that same term to any time any new development occurs in a previously high poverty neighborhood. As we pointed out, Governing employed a definition of gentrification so sweeping that it classified neighborhoods with increasing poverty rates as “gentrifying” because of small increases in property values and educational attainment rates.
But the problem is not the words: its how they’re defined and used. And banning the words serves no useful purpose, and perhaps sets back the conversation, by eliminating some sign posts (and frankly, bumper stickers) that can succinctly raise attention and start conversations. In many urban policy debates banning these words wouldn’t so much enrich the conversation as cede the rhetorical advantage to those who use other words that are not benign and helpful.
The trouble is urbanists (or as Anne might have us say “advocates for building great cities and interesting diverse neighborhoods where people can easily bike and walk to schools, parks, and shops”) are engaged in extended conversations and frequently adversarial debates with others: road builders, neighborhood groups, developers, mayors, city councils and legislators, and the general public, about hard policy decisions. In many cases, its a war of words. And banning just these ten words would be the equivalent of unilateral rhetorical disarmament.
As we pointed out in our essay on “Rules of Thumb” in transportation planning, there is a conventional wisdom about how we design roads that has subtle and profound biases. Words like “level of service” and “functionally obsolete” have embedded, but largely hidden value judgments that greatly influence policy decisions.
Consider how the media has come to use the term “accidents” rather than “crashes” to describe the death and carnage that cars inflict.
We call subsidized, socialized car storage in the public right of way “free parking,” ignoring or minimizing the substantial costs it imposes on everyone.
Highway planners talk about enhancing “mobility”–by which they mean making cars go faster, which paradoxically, thanks to induced demand and sprawl, often causes a decline in accessibility–the ability to reach destinations–especially by means other that a private automobile.
And occasionally, we cripple our own advocacy by using jargony, non-euphonious terms that obscure our message. For example, we use the ugly, unwieldy term “transit-oriented development” to describe neighborhoods and housing where people can easily walk and take transit to many common destinations. (Please, somebody, come up with a better moniker for this!) MobilityLab tells us of efforts to re-brand the mouthful “transportation demand management” as “transportation options” in hopes of getting greater acceptance and more funding.
So we should continue to use all ten words on Anne’s proposed banned word list. But we should take pains to explain them, illustrate them and where possible measure them with data so that they have a depth of meaning that will add to the discussion. And in addition to quantifying, we can use pictures people what some of these seemingly lifeless, technical terms mean in the real world. Take GranolaShotgun’s compelling photo essay on infill development, showing how denser, but still small scale new residential development in cities can enliven streetscapes pockmarked with vacant lots, parking, and auto oriented commercial uses.
But imperfect as they may be words have value and convey meaning. So rather than ban them, we should nurture and polish them, using them carefully and with due care; there are important conversations ahead.