Walking the Walk

Urban design from the front lines

Kevin Klinkenberg

Using urban design to make our lives more enjoyable and create wealth

This site is for all those interested in the making of cities and towns, and especially the lives of the humans that inhabit them. Kevin Klinkenberg is an architect and urban designer who's practiced from coast-to-coast. 

The power of language

The late comedian George Carlin was a master at dissecting language, and especially the propensity to twist it to suit our own selfish purposes. He loathed euphemisms, and did this famous NSFW bit on it:

The world of planning and transportation is no stranger to euphemisms and jargon, with its own long list of phrases twisted to serve an agenda. Two pieces this week discuss different efforts to bust through the jargon wall. Ben Ross gets into ideas of language about growth:

A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land use regulation. In the narrow sense, incompatible uses are those that cannot coexist, like a smokehouse and a rest home for asthmatics. But the word has taken on a far broader meaning.

Compatibility, in the enlarged sense, is often thought of as a sort of similarity. But if two things are similar, they are both similar to each other, while with compatibility it is otherwise. A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is incompatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.

Compatibility, in this sense, is euphemism. A compatible land use upholds the status of the neighborhood. An incompatible one lowers it. Rental apartments can be incompatible with a neighborhood that would accept the same building sold as condos.

The euphemism is so well established that the narrow meaning has begun to fall into disuse. Neighbors who object to loud noises or unpleasant odors just lay out the specifics; incompatible has come to mean, "I don't like it and I'm not explaining why."

Angie Schmitt and Ian Lockwood discuss how language is twisted in the world of traffic engineering, with my favorite word, "improvement":

AS:Can you give us some examples of biased words?

IL: Probably the one we hear the most is “improvement.” When a conventional traffic engineer talks about an improvement, often it might mean a widening. It’s hard to argue against an “improvement,” because it’s a subjectively labeled word and it implies it’s getting better, even though it might not be getting better for all the user groups. It contains a bias for the automobile user over and above the other folks.

AS: Does that word have a really technical definition?

IL: No, it’s just the habit. But it’s used in definitions, like the “Transportation Improvement Plan.” Quite frequently those transportation improvement plans are mostly widening plans. And transportation improvement sounds like an inherently good thing to a layperson or a politician, but if they knew it was just a set of widenings, perhaps they would think differently.

The word “upgrade,” when you talk about changing a street from a collector street to an arterial street, it implies things are getting better. Why would you argue against an upgrade on a street –unless you’re a business person, or a cyclist, or someone that lives in the neighborhood that thinks the neighborhood is going to get worse because of it?