Atlantic Cities
Year in Review

Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink in 2014

Writing about urban policy issues, as we do here at The Atlantic Cities each day, can often be an exercise in translating wonky terminology for the everyday reader. The kinds of issues that these terms bring up –– how and where we live, get to work, and enjoy our free time –– are far too relevant to be the victims of off-putting technical jargon and lame buzzwords. Below, some of the worst offenders we hope urbanists (that one, too) think more carefully about deploying in 2014, including some New Year's resolutions of our own.

Urbanism: At first glance, this word might seem utilitarian: urban is a perfectly fine word, and -ism, meaning a "distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement," a frequently helpful English language suffix. But this particular combination never fails to makes me cringe when I hear it spoken aloud. Not only does it imply that there exists some universally accepted ideology of the best way to construct, organize, and manage any given urban area, it's frequently misapplied as a term for the study of urban issues (shouldn't that be urbanology?) or the basic interaction of people and things within an urban environment. Deploying this word should be undertaken with extreme caution, and always with the understanding that it almost never carries real meaning.  -Sommer Mathis

Bus Rapid Transit: To me, Bus Rapid Transit sounds like some kind of near-future transportation fantasy that involves tubes and electrons. But really, it describes something pretty simple –– a bus that goes faster because there are fewer and more efficient stops, and no other traffic in the way. This jargon-y expression obscures BRT's real selling point: it's a relatively affordable public transit solution that even a non-urbanist can love. My nomination for a replacement term? Traffic-free express buses. Still long, but a lot more lovable-sounding. -Amanda Erickson

Everyone hates congestion. Why burden a good idea with a bad name? (Shutterstock.com/chungking)

Congestion Pricing: Congestion pricing may be the best hope for reducing city traffic, but despite popularity abroad it hasn't caught on in the United States. Part of the public perception problem may be tied to the term itself. A far less wonky alternative is road fares: it's sharp, adaptable, and best of all draws a parallel between driving on public roads and riding on public transit. -Eric Jaffe

Placemaking: This word (which Word doesn't believe is a word) fails the repetition test. Say it out loud, over and over and over again, and whatever meaning it originally had evaporates entirely. Placemaking, placemaking, placemaking. Isn't everywhere a place? Then how exactly would you make one? Worst of all: What does it mean to be a "placemaker?" If a placemaker comes into a place and placemakes it, then what was that place before the placemaker arrived? What advocates of this idea really support is a particular kind of public place: one that's lively and welcoming, that attracts people instead of repelling them. It's somewhere –– a plaza, a park, a street corner –– where you'd actually want to spend time. Its antonym: a poorly lit, empty park that no one wants to use. None of this, though, is intuitively implied by "placemaking." -Emily Badger

Sometimes unapproved beautification activists aren't as great. Stop the yarn bombing already. (Courtesy Flickr user Twilight Taggers.)

Tactical Urbanism and “Guerrilla” Anything: Ho Chi Minh was a guerrilla. Julius Caesar was a tactician. People who paint bike lanes in the dead of night and plant flowers where there previously were none, are neither. That doesn't mean these unapproved beautification activists aren't great, only that we should describe them using language that reflects the peaceful nature of their activities, and save the militant words for the military. -Mike Riggs

Big Data: Are any two consecutive words more useless than "Big Data"? It's like using "Internet" to describe every activity that takes place on a computer network. "People are connecting on Internet. People are buying things on Internet. The Internet is changing the way we live." The next time someone talks to you about "Big Data," they're either trying to sell you something or they have no idea what they're talking about (possibly both). Demand nuance. Demand details. -Mike Riggs

Built Environment: There’s a whole category of words that people who write about cities love to use that you could probably dub "academic-ese." Built Environment is one of the worst offenders. It describes something that’s both fairly important and rather mundane: the physical stuff of our cities –– the streets, the buildings, the sewers, the parks. Really, anything man-made that we interact with on a regular basis. But using the term "built environment" mostly sounds to me like you were an expert at looking like you’d done the reading in Sociology 101. Even worse, the second search term that Google auto-complete offers when you begin typing is "built environment a.p. human geography." Can there be any worse endorsement? -Stephanie Garlock

The abandoned Packard factory in Detroit, Michigan –– the Rustbelt poster child (Shutterstock.com/Atomazul).

Rust Belt: Historically a disparaging term to describe old industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest, post-recession changes around the country have now made the term 'Rust Belt' pretty useless. Which is why I've personally finally stopped using the term. Las Vegas still struggles with housing foreclosures and private companies are demanding ridiculous public subsidies in Atlanta. Up north, where similar problems persist, Google now employs hundreds in inner city Pittsburgh and insufferable newcomers are as easy to find in a Detroit coffeeshop as anywhere in San Francisco. ‘Rust Belt’s’ connotations have become as far-ranging and meaningless as calling someone a 'Hipster' (are you trying to say Toledo is really cool or terrible? I have no idea anymore). No one region in the U.S. has a monopoly on urban decay, inequality, or economic failure. North, south, east, west, we all live in moderately struggling places. -Mark Byrnes

Gritty: Gritty is one those condescending terms in the urbanist lexicon that can often say more about the writer’s preconceptions than the place they’re describing. For me, it implies an attitude posed between admiration and fastidiousness: inner city ‘hoods are great and all, but a few extra little farmers’ markets and independent boutiques for People Like Us wouldn’t go amiss. It’s also way too vague. Does the perceived grit come from a place’s poor state of repair? Or is gritty just a shorthand to describe a place inhabited by the urban working class? It’s time we got a little more specific. I must confess that I’ve been guilty of employing the term myself in the past. From now on, I’ll only use it to describe gravel or undercooked rice. -Feargus O’Sullivan

Stakeholders: Planners and architects and government agencies know that they are supposed to care about the opinions of the vast mass of people who are not planners or architects or bureaucrats. That’s what the now sacred “community input process” is supposed to be for –– to gather those opinions, presumably with the ultimate goal of producing something (say, a building or a park or a “sustainable future”) that is informed by them. But some professionals will confess privately that the real reason for the community input process is to make people who aren’t in decision-making positions feel like their input is important. What better way to accomplish that than to honor those folks with a fancy business term like “stakeholders?” The word conveys a flattering sense of value, and it’s vague enough to fit anybody who’s interested enough to care. The problem is, while so-called stakeholders in many of these processes may have a vested interest in the outcome, they don’t actually have the rights of a traditional stakeholder –– i.e., someone who has invested money in something. But hey, it can’t hurt to give them a title that makes them feel like they actually have some influence over the process. Can it? -Sarah Goodyear

Smart Growth: We get the allure of these two words. "Smart growth" is so much more succinct than "compact development that keeps housing, jobs, transportation, and amenities in close proximity, reducing pressure on the environment and public services." The idea is a valid one. But the phrase itself awkwardly implies that all other ways of living are "dumb." And, surprise, people who don't use terms like "smart growth" in casual conversation don't like to feel like they're dumb. In short, this may be useful code for talking to other people who already know what you mean. But it's a freighted way to communicate a good idea to everyone else. -Emily Badger

Gentrification is maybe the most overused word to describe cities today. (Shutterstock.com/SeanPavonePhoto)

Gentrification: Unless you live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, someone has likely described your neighborhood as 'gentrifying.' Higher rents? Gentrifying. New yogurt store? Gentrifying. The word is so ubiquitous that it's lost most of its real meaning. That's made it hard to talk seriously about the different ways neighborhoods change and whether those changes might benefit a city's less fortunate. -Amanda Erickson

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