How To Talk About Cities Without Ticking Off Folks Who Don't Live There
Mitchell Silver spends a lot of time traveling the country in his role as the president of the American Planning Association. In that time, he has learned that there are certain words you just don’t use with audiences outside of the urban core. For instance: urban.
“The minute I open about ‘urban,’ they say it’s time for me to leave,” Silver says, referring to crowds in smaller towns and rural communities. “When we say ‘urban,’ they hear it as ‘anti-rural.’”
It’s possible to forget amid all the talk about our increasingly urbanized world that not everyone lives in urban settings, or wants to, or even wants to hear about urban problems as if they were the only problems on earth. That’s not to say we shouldn’t talk about cities (Atlantic Cities would never suggest that!). But there is a way to do so without patronizing or triggering the defenses of people who don’t live in large metros (or the politicians, like Rick Santorum, who do live there but like to pretend that they don’t).
So how exactly should city-lovers navigate this linguistic minefield? Silver suggested we talk to Chuck Marohn, the executive director of the non-profit Strong Towns, about what kind of language prickles non-urban ears.
We asked him, for starters, if he’s run into this same problem. “I don’t think I’ve run into it,” Marohn says, “as much as I’ve lived it.”
He grew up on a Minnesota farm about three miles outside of the town of Brainerd, population: 13,700. You couldn’t even buy shoes there when Marohn was a kid.
“Once a year, we’d take a trip down to the big city and buy all our clothes,” he says. “When we got a Walmart, it was this great thing, because now there was shopping up the road.”
He became a civil engineer and then started building the kinds of places he saw around him: strip malls, big-box stores, suburban subdivisions. He thought this was great stuff, the stuff that people wanted. But he would frequently encounter engineering and planning literature that insisted it was not.
“I kept getting hit with stuff that was ‘new urbanism,’ the whole environmental debate,” he says. “Quite frankly, I stayed away from it. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want anything to do with ‘new urbanism,’ and it was largely because I looked at it as a left-wing, urban-oriented, make-me-ride-the-bus kind of movement.”
In retrospect, Marohn blames some of his own ignorance. But he also blames the language of urbanists: sprawl, smart growth, transit-oriented development. This language can seem fundamentally antagonistic, Marohn says (yes, yes, it’s equally antagonistic to describe cities as “elite,” as somewhere “real” Americans don’t live, but we’re practicing introspection here, not finger-pointing). “Transit-oriented development” assumes that people have transit to start with. “Smart growth” implies all other living patterns are stupid. “Density” sounds a lot like “sardines.” And “auto-oriented” anything can come with a whiff of condescension.
“That antagonistic language keeps us from having this broader dialogue,” Marohn says. “It allows us to remain polarized round issues that at their central core are universal. We all want to live in places that we like. We all want to feel safe. We all want access to food, shelter, recreation, entertainment. These are things that are essentially universal.”
In his own writing for Strong Towns, Marohn never uses any of these terms.
“To me, it seemed a little preachy,” he says. “These people who lived in urban areas would come out and tell me how to live, tell me that you shouldn’t enjoy living where you do, you shouldn’t like your job, you shouldn’t feel good about the lifestyle that you’re living because it’s bad, and what we’re doing is good. What you’re doing is dumb and what we’re doing is smart. What you’re doing is sprawl, and what we’re doing is smart growth.”
(It’s interesting here to pause and ponder if “sprawl” is one of those words that naturally sounds odious – like “phlegm” or “yuck” – or if it has just taken on that connotation as a result of so much sneering).
Marohn says he has realized over the past decade that he and the New Urbanists are actually often talking about the same thing. The urban experience and the small-town experience have more in common than people think. And they’ve both been distorted by the suburban experiment. The picture looks different. In cities, it looks like an army of surface parking lots has devoured our downtowns. Small towns have also been hallowed out at the core and nipped at their edges by encroaching subdivisions.
But the effect is the same, Marohn says: an erosion of civic space, which has led to an erosion of the financial viability of communities. And this is the language he uses to talk about planning – the language of economics, of debt and prosperity and gas prices.
Sure, economic arguments are often environmental ones, too (saving on gas also saves the environment!). But Marohn only ever mentions this under his breath, like, “oh, by the way, reinvesting in our existing infrastructure is good for the environment, too.” He says he sometimes ticks off environmentalists by acknowledging their worldview as an afterthought instead of up front.
“The ones that are intellectually honest kind of get it, that we’re talking about the same thing, we’re just starting from a different place,” he says. “If we want to reach the mass of humanity in this country, we need to start somewhere else.”
To Marohn, differences in terms can obscure the fact that our fundamental problems require similar fixes. It’s not that cities need “smart growth” and rural towns are destined to die in the mass exodus from dumb farms to sardine-like urban apartments. Rather, everyone needs to figure out how to rebuild communities that aren’t caught in the trap of endlessly expanding development – not because this pattern is morally or environmentally problematic, but because it's financially so.