Katie on Silly Planning Jargon

Happy new year!

To start off the blog in the new year, I want to address how people talk about cities, what buzzwords exist in planning, and what words I think should be tossed or at least redefined when it comes to talking about cities structures and its people. Planning-related jargon is interesting to think about, because I believe that planning should be very accessible to the residents of a city. Thus, the words planners use should be specific enough to the profession yet also understandable to the average Joe participating at public meetings about the city’s next infrastructure project, for example.


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This post was inspired by this article, and I want to challenge a point the article makes: what I didn’t agree with was its stance on the use of ‘pedestrians’ and ‘cyclists.’ The author suggests that instead of using these catch-all terms, it is important to make a more human connection when describing a person on a bike or a person walking down the street, and that ‘pedestrian’ or ‘cyclist’ promotes a faceless and unknown entity without feelings or opinions.

I find this just silly. When someone describes a person walking on the sidewalk as opposed to driving on the road, it is important to make that distinction, especially when planning for the future of cities and their neighbourhoods. To call motorists and cyclists and pedestrians all ‘neighbours’ or ‘city residents’ or just simply ‘people’ really loses its meaning when you require the distinction in order to understand where sidewalks are more important than wide roads and where cyclist lanes are needed. Without specifying that there are a lot of cyclists riding along a certain avenue, it is difficult to plan for the future infrastructure of that area. I think attaching a ‘human aspect’ to these words is asking for a little too much when simply describing a city, and is a little irrelevant. It isn’t too hard to remember that someone who is a pedestrian can also be a cyclist next day and a motorist the day before. Of course, the author suggests that ‘people on bikes’ and ‘people walking’ is a better alternative, but what is the difference? They are completely synonymous with saying ‘pedestrians’ and ‘cyclists.’ It’s also important to consider that being concise is key when discussing planning related issues. Call them what you will, but I will be continuing on with ‘pedestrian’ and ‘cyclist’ for a long time.

I know a friend who will thank me for putting this on my list: ‘Creative Class.’ Creative Class is a term defined by urban theorist Richard Florida as the collection of professionals who think, work, and act in a way that is creative, innovative, and contemporary and who Florida predicts will revitalize America’s post-industrial cities. People living within this psuedosocioeconomic class are theorized to be working in occupations that concern graphic design, programming, and engineering (as part of the ‘Super Creative Core’ subset) or more knowledge-based jobs including healthcare, business, law, and education (as part of the ‘Creative Professionals’ subset).

I don’t sit well with this theory. I don’t think it accurately encompasses one socioeconomic class like Florida suggests – think of all of the people working as engineers, graphic designers, lawyers, business owners, nurses, and teachers – would you think that they can all be defined within the same boundaries? I don’t really think this is accurate. Also, something that seems odd to me is Florida’s ‘Gay Index’ (yes, you read that right) with which he suggests that cities who are more tolerant of gays have a higher proportion of people who fit the Creative Class definition. Whether this is true or not, it would be irresponsible of planners to plan for gay people while attracted to the correlations between the gay population and the city’s innovation through a pseudoclass of people. I mean, that’s just way too specific of a thing to even attempt to integrate and promote within the city’s infrasturcture and policies anyway.

I suppose it helps my argument (to say this classification of people needs to be tossed) that some social scientists have debunked his theories (even with his own metrics – whoops!) If you are also interested in the criticism of this theory, please read one of my favourite readings from first year: The Ruse of the Creative Class. In the meantime, it’s definitely been my opinion for a while that this theory is rather baseless and vague; ‘Creative Class’ needs to be tossed.

Another word that makes me feel like I have an itch I can’t scratch is when developers and politicians say that when they build developments they are ‘building communities.’ Something important to understand is that a community is not simply built when a bunch of houses are built in a row. A community is a social element constructed over time from neighbourly interactions. A community is not created by the developers. A community is created in part by you. It’s great of developers to have that idea in mind, but the wording should be changed as it is misleading: they are simply setting a precedent for the existence of a community which will consistently evolve over time. It is similar to realtors selling ‘homes;’ they just aren’t the same thing.

Another word is vibrant, as in a city is ‘vibrant.’ What does that even mean? How does a city become vibrant? Isn’t every city ‘vibrant’ in its own way, anyway? How can you attached one city-related definition to this?

I think the problem with city planning jargon is that its definitions are loose. This makes sense, because every city is different. Each city has people, districts, highways, and neighbourhoods, however they are all structured differently which attract people in different ways. Thus, the transferability of these words can become foggy, but at the same time it is a whole new difficult task to come up with jargon for each city, which just would not work. I am not super happy with terms like ‘new urbanism’ or ‘smart cities’ because their definitions are so vague, but it’s important to consider that their definitions have to be vague so that each city can use them in the way that optimizes how the public understands it. To me, that’s the most important part, because I think public understand is a part of public participation: when a resident is able to actually understand what the heck their politicians are talking about, they can appreciate their city in new ways.

Some extra links to enlighten the way you think and talk about planning:

Planetizen – Good Jargon and Bad

Smarter Growth – Urban Design Buzzwords to Know

Spacing – Before Participation, Education

Mez Dispenser – Attack of the Three-Storey Podium