By Anne Trubek
As an editor whose work intersects with that of urbanists, I am often required to clarify prose for readers. And let me tell you this plain: clarifying the words urbanists use is a lot of work. Consider the following common words and phrases*:
None of these words make sense. None can be understood by those who do not read city planning articles. They are all fuzzily abstract, and they all obsfuscate meaning.
Let’s take the list of nominalizations — nominalizations are words that are originally verbs (action words) made into nouns (static objects). “Walkability” takes the verb “to walk” — a very nice, useful word that connotes a specific, intimately familiar activity and makes it into some abstract concept — “the ability to walk,” that excites neither the mind nor the body. Then the now-muddy idea of an action is shortened into one word that neither means nor conjures much of anything: “walkability.”
By making a verb into a noun, a writer avoids doing a host of difficult but important tasks. Instead of saying, “Millennials like to live in neighborhoods where they can walk from home to a grocery store,” you can say, “Walkability is a trait Millennials desire.” And voila! An interesting, provocative point in transformed into a obtuse, lifeless, passive generalization.
“Liveability” is similar, if even more absurd. The action the word makes into a thing is “live.” Or living. The very action that undergirds all others. Pretty central, right? But what does “liveability” mean? Technically, it means nothing. According to urbanists, it means, basically, “a nice place to live.” Which, according to the assumptions behind what a “nice” place is, usually involves sidewalks and bike racks and buses and trees. But it is impossible to imagine a leafy, congenial neighborhood in the word “liveability.” Plus, nominalizing obfuscates a host of possible objections — in what kind of place is it impossible to live? Are, say, section 8 apartment buildings far from any bike lanes “unliveable”? If so, what do the folks making dinner in such kitchens say about that?
[blocktext align=”right”]Shorthanding complex ideas into one muddy word strips people of individuality and renders unique cities into generic concepts, negating the intentions of many well-meaning urbanists.[/blocktext]Accessibility and placemaking are similarly wretched terms. “Placemaking” particularly irks me: How does one make a place? Are there places one cannot make? What exactly is a “place” and what does the act of “making” it entail, anyway?.
Those in the know — those who use terms like “placemaking” — usually all agree that, whatever it means, it is good. Other terms, such as gentrification, make a tangible set of actions into an abstract concept that, bonus, is also highly charged and controversial, while still remaining vaguely defined. No wonder debates about gentrification often seem to go in circles.
Sure, it is easy for me pillory these terms; I understand coining jargon often makes it easier to fit ideas into the required 500-word-maximum grant proposal box. But shorthanding complex ideas into one muddy word strips people of individuality and renders unique cities into generic concepts, negating the intentions of many well-meaning urbanists. (Don’t even get me started on the term “urbanist”.)
In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell exposes the insidious ways language is misused, often for nefarious purposes. The passive voice, he points out, can change the sentence “the cops pushed the protesters against the car” into the less clear, responsibility-avoiding “the protesters were pushed against the car.” By eliding agency — the cops who pushed — the passive voice covers up crimes.
Shouldn’t those committed to healthier cities work to make their language friendlier and more active too?
Anne Trubek is the Founder & Publisher of Belt.
*Thanks to my friends on Twitter, @thestile1972, @skorasaurus, and @Greene_DM for helping me compile this list.
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I hate jargon and wholeheartedly agree with both the intent and the examples Ms. Trubek sets out here except for her headliner: walkability. I am not an urban planner, not even close. I read Belt to learn about how the Rust Belt is changing, but I was attracted to this item because of a (somewhat misleading tweet) about walkability, a term that makes perfect sense to me, and it has nothing to do with Millennials. To this outsider, it describes a place where I don’t have to walk from one place to another along breakdown lanes, overpasses — to places that can be safely and easily reached on foot. Millennials might like that quality but, increasingly, elders consider it a deal-breaker when choosing places to live, and they know perfectly well what it means. Additionally, I think a writer, especially one as well-placed and articulate as the founder and publisher, has some responsibility to suggest or at least call for alternatives to the hackneyed terms she rightly abhors. So, allow me: how about some specific words or phrases that would make more sense to the lay reader such as myself?
Thanks for the comments!
You make good points about the meaning of walkability being pretty clear to many. But it is also fine to say “within walking distance,” which is less jargon-y.
As for specific words and phrases–excellent point. Within walking distance would be what I would use instead of walkability. The others are hard to give examples for, because the words themselves defy easy definition. When I read the word “placemaking” I often think the writer is referring to creating a charming public square, with nice landscaping, and where people can mingle,…but maybe I am wrong? At any rate, why not just describe what the place one is making would be (and why it is desireable)
It is not a question of liking or disliking the concepts the words imply; it’s about making language more felicitous.
I agree. This is an important topic to address. Although all professions have their own jargon, urban planning is especially rife with it.
“Livability” and “placemaking” are two especially problematic terms. Full disclosure: being an urban planner myself, I use these terms as well. But I often use them simply because I am talking to other urban planners/urbanists and we all “know what they mean” (or think we do).
But what do they really mean?
“Livability” usually means “the kinds of places that urban planners, urbanists, and urban advocates would like to live.
“Placemaking” usually means “creating the types of places that urban planners, urbanists, and urban advocates would like to live.”
Now, as an urban planner, urbanist, and urban advocate myself, I want to help create these types of places. But, as useful terms that inspire or illuminate concepts or ideas that a lay person can either embrace, reject, or be challenged to think about, both “livability” and “placemaking” are pretty awful.
It would behoove us to take the time to elucidate and inspire others by talking more about the types of places we would like to live and would like to create (and why we think those types of places are important) rather than throwing out these vague concepts like “livability”.
Any place that has people living in it, is, strictly speaking, livable. Similarly, every place that exists has been “made” by someone.
So, it’s not really a question of having “places that people can live” or “places that are created by human effort”. It’s more a matter of creating places with the attributes that we feel are important for both individuals and society to flourish.
That’s what we should spend our time on as a profession – we support places that look, feel, and function like “this”, and here’s why.
Of course, this all presupposes that urbanists and urban planners agree on which types of places those are. We don’t (and neither does everyone else). But that’s all the more reason not to use these terms.
As I argue in this blog post, we urban planners, as a profession, should be systematically challenging ourselves to improve. Eliminating jargon and replacing it with terms that everyone can understand is a worthy goal:
Thanks for writing this piece. It’s a topic worth addressing.
Yes! Great points. Also to clarify: I was writing about editing urbanist prose for general readers. Within urbanist circles, these terms might well save time, if everyone does agree on their definition. l
First of all, this is a great piece – well done. To nit-pick a little about using “walking distance” as a useful equivalent for walkability…the trouble is that distance isn’t the only factor that people use when choosing to walk to a given destination. I agree with your overall point and that most of the terms you’ve listed are problematic (some highly), but “walking distance” goes too far in the other direction in that it doesn’t capture the nuance of the concept.
James: Right! something can be less than a mile away but impossible to walk to. I wonder if comparing what people mean by “walkable” to a place that is familiar would work better–as in, it’s as easy to walk from x to y as it is to walk from Washington Square Park to Bryant Park….or using other similar analogies, as in “Savannah-esque squares”…
Accessibility needs loads of discussion! Does it mean vehicular access or access for all or inclusive or universal design. Article does not discuss real effects on professionals of this stuff who seem to lose ability to think things through and check their assumptions
You need to add “density” to this list! Great article, I like the points made.
Follow the Center for New Urbanism and the Project for Public Spaces on twitter and your blood will boil. Making Places Great! Sustainable, Walkable New Urbanism!
Often, I think these terms obfuscate what is really going on in a “place” that has been successfully “made.” What are the tangible, measurable benefits of a neighborhood that has become “walkable?” Is it safer? Is it quieter? Is it more economically vibrant? What is happening to the property values? Overgeneralizing these important trends, goals, themes and impacts, even in professional circles, may dilute our focus and confuse priorities, and these terms make the general public roll their eyes.
As maddening and mushy as most of the words on your “hit list” might be, I think you miss the larger point. Most of these terms encapsulate concepts that never would have been considered thirty to forty years ago, so we had to come up with a name for them. Thirty or forty years ago the built environment (another one of those terms!) reflected a total lack of consideration for walkability, place-making, sustainability, etc. The result-ugly strip malls, soulless public spaces, isolated neighborhoods, disposable development.
I am glad these terms have crept into everyday usage and our consciousness. Planning and development in the past two decades, while far from perfect, has improved immensely, even if the language used to describe it bugs us a bit.
That’s a good point, Steve. I still think the terms could have been coined with more attention, but I would rather live in a livable city than a strip mall, even if “strip mall” is more concrete.
This is why I love Belt. Anne raises good points about the use of language, and reasonable people comment in illuminating ways and we have a civil discussion.
And I walk away having learned something.
Within walking distance is good alternative for walkable (an adjective), but not for walkability (a noun). Walkability equates to pedestrian-friendliness, a term that should carry a penalty of caning for anyone who uses it. More to the point: Walking distance is one of many factors that make up walkability. The reason for the creation of tortured jargon is that it has to describe many things with a single word, often in response to emerging needs or conditions. Maybe crappy words are a good sign, a sign that a group of people (damn urbanists!) are identifying and trying to solve a problem for which precise, elegant language doesn’t yet exist.
Pedestrian-friendly is a nice equivalent to my understanding of both walkable and walkability. Thank you, Joe B. Now I can go back to referring to my dog as “walkable.”
The one I can’t stand the most due to its phoniness is smart growth. Is that to be distinguished from stupid growth; and “smart” by whose definition. Just saying it implies the deponent knows something we all are supposed to know, that is, unless we are all not smart.
Close second is “placemaking.” It is also particularly loathsome.
Thank you for the challenge and the thoughtful use of language! What might you use rather than placemaking which, seems to me, is a slightly more complicated term than the others? I get the sense that it is an inclusion of the entire community, inclusion of artists and/or design, and the idea of being thoughtful in the planning of a space, whether indoors or outdoors. It seems like it is a call for actually making a place rather than just letting a place develop without thought. Ideas?
isn’t “actually making a place rather than just letting a place develop without thought” the same thing as “city planning”? “City planning” uses two fairly specific, concrete terms (yay!)
Is “placemaking” really one school or theory of city planning? One that has been in shorthanded in a way that is unintelligible to those not in the know? What *does* placemaking mean beyond city planning?
Definitely needs to be less clique -ish when talking to those outside of the work, I guess. Introducing new terms can be helpful and interesting but I see your points!
I wish you would remove the word “sustainability” from the list. Although the definition below may be long and complicated, it is pretty well established. So people who work on sustainability issues, need to constantly reinforce that this is not a fuzzy concept. It is a clearly defined one. Just like the difference between “theory” in science, and “theory” in common use, just because some people are too lazy to look up the definition doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
This term has conceptual definition, and a technical definition. Sustainability is defined as living and growing in such a way to preserve resources (all resources) for future generations. Technically this is achieved by submitting all decisions to triple bottom line accounting: Economic, Environmental, and Equity. Economic accounting is very well established. Environmental accounting has been around for 40-50 years (see CEQA or NEPA), and equity accounting is admittedly challenging. In the private sector organizations should apply this accounting internally to their production processes and materials, and to their policies and impacts on their employees; and externally to the impacts their products have on their customers. Public agencies should apply these three metrics internally to their business operations (employees and operations); and externally to their policies (rules and regulations) and to the impact their policies will have on the future. Lastly, the conceptual definition has a temporal component, so sustainability needs to be analyzed in the short-, mid-, and long- term.
interesting and helpful.
When it is necessary to use “sustainability” instead of “sustainable”?
Thank you for shining a light not just on the language of city planners, but on the assumption that the idea of the city is a set of ingredients just waiting to be implemented…A dash of walkability here, some place-making there, and voila, urbanism! Jargon can be a useful thing as short hand for complicated ideas. However, more often than not in the planning/design field (being in it myself), it is often the opposite. Jargon is used as a placeholder for an assumed, uncomplicated, and washed down concept of identity, politics, and culture. To create a true civitas, we need to be more discerning.
Very interesting article. While having these terms become standard in the professional lexicon/jargon may be an indicator of progress, (i.e., general concepts of livability, placemaking, etc), this article is a good reminder to speak clearly. For example, if ‘low-impact development’ or ‘green infrastructure techniques’ will help keep water out of people’s basements in urban areas – than perhaps that is exactly what we need to say! There is something to be said for clear, plain language!
It’s always good to think about clear writing–there’s too little of it in urbanism.
But there’s a difference between jargon and useful terms in the field. Jargon and pretentious language happens when there’s a simpler or equally simple word or term. “Implement” tells me nothing that isn’t part of “do.” “Utilize” is just a Latinate form of use.
But take “mixed use.” It’s not so simple to replace mixed use as a term. If you want to describe a mixed use building without that term you have to say something like “building with apartments, offices, and stores in it.” Maybe you want to say that in your second sentence about a building but it’s nice to have a simple shorthand to begin with.
In some of the cases listed, the issue is that people disagree on the meaning of the word/term. If “gentrification” is unclear, it’s not because people don’t get the concept, it’s because they have different understandings of the word. Is it a neighborhood getting wealthier? Is it a neighborhood changing from from majority black to majority white? Is it fancy new buildings being built.