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.