Down With Plannerisms

Mega-Mouth-Hand-Puppet_cc_300x200.jpgSeveral weeks ago while checking out the latest discussions at Wayne Senville’s Planning Commissioners Journal, my eye was drawn to the headline: “Plannerisms we can do without!”

Why is it, I’ve wondered, that planners and a myriad of other professionals rely on their own ingrown jargon to communicate with the rest of the world?

And, professional jargon aside, have you ever noticed that the more formal or professional the situation, the less direct the language? It’s almost that simple.

It is a power play, whether conscious or unconscious—a way to imply, “We have the data and the understanding, therefore we have the best answers. If you don’t understand, that’s OK, because we do.” It’s one reason residents so often shut down or become defensive or frustrated during typical “public” meetings and hearings, just the times when understanding and listening are so important.

Here at the Foundation we consciously try to stick with plain English, no matter the topic or the situation, but we still fall into jargon pits. Our most successful path toward the use of direct, clear language is by encouraging neighbors in our Heart & Soul Community Planning towns to tell each other personal stories. Not speeches. Not position statements. Not replies to loaded questions. But stories about individuals’ experiences and memories from living in a place they care about. That’s when buzzwords like “sustainability” and “robust” and “incentivize” and “silo” or, worse, “siloed” go unspoken. It’s when square feet and building footprints and setbacks and zones go unmentioned. And it’s when people sit up toward the edge of their chairs and listen. And then stand up to share their own stories.

Speaking in plain English about what matters might help residents and planners alike gain a clearer understanding of issues and solutions. And I bet it would encourage more folks to pitch in and help make their towns better places to live (or, jargonese, “engage in robust public participation to tear down silos and create sustainable communities!”).

Let us know some “plannerisms” or other “isms” you’d like to banish. And don’t forget to offer a simpler, clearer way of saying the same thing.

Myron Belej on December 7, 2011

I agree that there are too many "plannerisms". Planning jargon and approval processes confuse, bore and even discourage well-intentioned members of the public who simply want to get involved in fixing their communities.

Too many public meetings and Council meetings are poorly attended. Too many cities continue to approve socially, economically and environmentally harmful urban sprawl.

This is despite the obligation of professional planners under their Codes of Ethics/Practice to prioritize the public interest. It's about time more of them did.

Back before urban planning was formed into a professional association, "civic improvement" was the name of the game. The principles, practices and straightforward objectives of civic improvement are needed today more than ever.

John Barstow on December 9, 2011

Thanks, Myron, for weighing in. I agree with your points, which is why it's so important to start taking language seriously. And stop spouting dense jargon. I'd not heard about "Civic Improvement" in the context you bring up, but it resonates with me a lot more than "planning". In two simple words it implies the idea of civic (citizen) responsibility for the common good, and improvement, a word that aspires to make towns better places to live and work for all.

Many planners are turned on by process; no wonder, they're planners, and it's a good thing they are. But they are in the minority. Most residents glaze over as soon as they hear about an "exciting process". They want to hear about how change might effect them—their livelihood, their family, their neighbors, and the place they call home.

We all need to start using words that can't be buttonholed: talk with fellow residents about the outdoors, wilderness, the mountains, but NOT "the environment". Ask them how easy it is to get around in their town or what their commute is like or whether they bicycle, NOT what they think of "public transportation". Talk about the cost of heating a home or driving a car, NOT "energy". These few examples show that striking a more personal chord can connect to an individual and avoid the baggage certain words carry, along with the knee jerk negative reactions such baggage elicits.

More ideas for more engaging, lively, direct use of language, anyone?

Myron Belej on December 14, 2011

Great thoughts John - But "civic improvement" isn't jargon. There are civic improvement associations throughout the United States, and many everyday citizens are members in them.

Granted, there aren't as many as there used to be a century ago, but the hundreds of "neighborhood improvement associations" in existence can be added to the same category.

The civic improvement movement reached the peak it did (around the 1910s-20s) precisely because it resonated with people, as it resonates with you, and as it still resonates with people today.

A common objective of civic improvement associations was promoting and securing the development of a plan for their city. So civic improvement led to more planning, and ironically, now we need planning more than ever to lead to more civic improvement. :-)

Laura on December 19, 2011

I'm so glad that this is being addressed. When I was hired a few years ago to work in the Planning dept, I had to learn a new language. Then try to explain it to my clients. It kind of makes a person feel stupid. Then the perception of talking down to a person, and you don't want to do that, or even make people feel like that either.

But absolutely on target as to why the regular citizens don't attend public meetings. Never underestimate our residents; they are smarter than we all think, but just need to speak their language.

You can use the words, like energy or environment, but need to break it down to which parts are being addressed at the time. NO generalizing. Thanks again.

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