Why We May Never Have the Right Words for the Places We Live

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Previously, I’ve written about why words matter. Especially when we talk about what’s a town and what’s a suburb. Once again, people are people and places are places. So how should we talk about places?

First of all, if you have a city, with either two large cities, that are economic powers surrounded by several small towns with less economic power, then you have a metropolitan area. If you have a larger town with economic power, with smaller towns around it, you have a micropolitan area, the Census Bureau’s new word for smaller areas of concentrated economic power. A farm is still a farm.

I know, sounds technical right? And maybe a bit harsh. After all, one of my good urbanist friends reminded me that economically, some larger metros are justifiably suburbs. Yet, we’ve never really been good at this labeling the places we live anyway. Are all our streets streets? Or are they really roads, highways, boulevards, avenues,courts, ways, alleys, etc. Oh and some of those alleys aren’t really alleys. And when do you know when a road is a street? What if the road turns into a freeway after that traffic signal up ahead. Or is it a stoplight.

Anyway, thanks to our nuances in language by region, we don’t all use the same names for the places we live. And that’s ok. As long as you don’t make the racial euphemism mistake, you are ok by me. However, it’s worth checking out the thoughts of Ben Ross, the author of the new book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. This excerpt published on Greater Greater Washington has a lot to say on the many euphemisms we use in urban planning and other more casual conversations about place.:

In Briarcliff, New York, a spurned builder once wrote, the aim of zoning is to guarantee “that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they.” 

Such frank talk about land use is rare indeed. If you don’t want something built, an honest statement of objections invites defeat in court. If you do, plain speaking is unlikely to convince the zoning board, and it risks offending any neighbors who might be open to a compromise. 

Each party has an illusion to maintain, so words become tools of purposeful confusion. One side directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Rowhouses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined.

I couldn’t have written a better paragraph. Check out the rest of that excerpt here for more euphemism fails.

Another great wordsmith of place is my friend and colleague Steve Mouzon. When asked to not write so technically about the urban to rural transect and its effect on how people chose to walk, he went back and crossed out the technical language and added new, more concise and friendly language. Need I mention that this article is about a concept he calls Walk Appeal,  one of his many catchy phrases that help us all learn about how to live in and create better places.

I end with one more reminder for all of us to be literary when it comes to describing people and places. Add as many adverbs and adjectives as you need. Say what you really mean, even if it is slightly mean. It’s better than empty euphemisms, with meanings that come back to haunt you later.

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About Kristen Jeffers

I'm Kristen. Almost five years ago, I got tired of not seeing black women as nerded out about trains, better streets, riding bikes, walking not just out of necessity, tall buildings, old buildings and honestly a lot of other things. I was in grad school for community and economic development (ok, it’s actually an MPA), and I wanted to make sure people knew I existed and that I could help them do this thing called placemaking better. Five years later, I’m still doing that, although not from my hometown of Greensboro, NC, but from Kansas City, MO. I spend most of my time in Kansas City promoting better biking and walking infrastructure metro-wide with BikeWalk KC and the Kansas City B-cycle. But I also wrote a book A Black Urbanist (you can grab that over on the right) and sometimes I give speeches and help other communities tell their stories at design charrettes and public meetings. I’ve also written or appeared in all of the major “urbanist” publications, either as a subject or as a writer, as well as most of my hometown papers as subject or writer as well.