Greater Greater Washington

Development


Dead ends: Euphemisms hide our true feelings about growth

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. Vicky Hallett also discusses the book in today's Express.

Ross is giving a book talk on Tuesday, April 22nd, 5:30 pm at APTA headquarters, 1666 K Street NW. Afterward, GGW is cosponsoring a happy hour at the Meeting Place, 1707 L Street NW, at 6:30pm. Stop by for just the talk, just the happy hour, or both!

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."


Photo by Michael Patrick on Flickr.

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.

Land use disputes thus come before the public veiled in a thick fog of evasion, euphemism, and flat-out falsehood. From this miasma rises a plague of obscurity that infects the language itself. Terms devised to conceal reality become so familiar that they are uttered without thinking. Critics find themselves unable to question received dogmas for want of words to express their thoughts.

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." The word is notably unpopular with New Urbanists. Faced with such an obvious case of incompatibility, in the literal sense, as a parking lot in a walkable downtown, they call it a "disruption of the urban fabric" or a "wasteful use of land."

Compatibility may be the most pervasive linguistic deformation, but it is hardly the only one. Homeowners will complain about the impact on their neighborhood when basement apartments are rented out or high-rises are built nearby. This word conflates purely psychological desires, among them the wish to keep away from people with lower incomes, with physical detriments like smell and shade. Its value lies in its vaguenessobjectors can make a case without saying concretely what their objection is. ...

Another slippery phrase is public use. Here the word use conveys almost the exact opposite of its common meaning. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, has a definition: public use space is "space devoted to uses for public enjoyment, such as gardens, plazas, or walks." A common example is the empty plaza that sits between an office building and the street, elevating the status of its surroundings through the display of conspicuous waste.

The operative word in the definition is not "use" but "enjoyment." In other words, no productive work can be done in the space. By this definitional sleight of hand, disuse becomes a kind of use, and indeed the only kind allowed. In one case in 2011, the planning board forbade the placement of a barbecue in a public use space when a neighbor complained that it would encourage the public to use the space. ...

Our linguistic tour would hardly be complete without a visit to the greedy developer. The key to decoding this phrase is that the word "greedy" lacks semantic content. Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avariceif anything, non-profit builders of low-income housing encounter more hostility than the truly greedy. The ostensible target is the wealthy entrepreneur who builds new houses. The real one is the people who will live in them.

The builder stands accused, often enough, of the sin of manhattanization. When first used in San Francisco in the late 1960s by opponents of downtown skyscrapers, this was a vivid and descriptive coinage. But just as the developer's first name lost its connection to avarice, manhattanization became unmoored from New York City. The term, in current usage, can refer to almost any structure that rises above its surroundings.

A campaign against manhattanizing Menlo Park, California, objects to two-, three-, and four-story buildings around the train station. The movement's leader explains her goals by asking "Are we going to remain a small town, with low-density development, or are we going to be more like Redwood City and Palo Alto?"

Manhattanize might seem an odd choice of word to convey the meaning of "make it look like Palo Alto," but stale metaphor, as George Orwell pointed out years ago, does a service. It releases the speaker from the need to explain, or even figure out herself, exactly what she means to say. The premise of the argument against density is left unstated and thus immune from challenge.

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," Orwell warned in his famous essay Politics and the English Language. For a half-century and more, deformed language has made it hard to think clearly about the communities we live in. Our system of land use will be the easier to understand, the more we use words that say plainly what we mean.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 

Comments

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Building a bigger road is invariably an '"improvement" whereas building a bigger building will "destroy the neighborhood".

by renegade09 on Apr 18, 2014 1:03 pm • linkreport

"Affordable" is the same problem.

And while I agree with Ben that talking about housing is rarely direct, I notice he doesn't use the word "race."

by charlie on Apr 18, 2014 1:07 pm • linkreport

Look forward to reading the book!

by egk on Apr 18, 2014 1:15 pm • linkreport

Yea, charlie brings up an important point here. A lot of these rhetorical phrasings and metaphors (including manhattanization, in some ways) have a thinly- or barely-disguised veneer covering what is in many ways a racial (or, more accurately in this day and age, socioeconomic) agenda.

The reason you don't want certain things In Your Back Yard - apartment buildings, especially of the 'affordable' variety, mass transit, free entertainment venues like skate parts or basketball courts, etc. - is because they attract people of a lower Socio-Economic Status than you. You must protect yourself, and most importantly your children, from their corrupting influence.

Some variation of this dynamic, which is a spectrum that tends to scale with one's level of liberalism/progressivism, drives much in the way of housing choices and neighborhood/civic advocacy. At one extreme, you have Giant Inflatable Rat Man driving around in his pickup, warning people that the Silver Line will turn Loudoun County into Sodom & Gomorrah. And even that is not all that extreme by historical standards, which not all that long ago saw redlining and blacklisting obliterate blacks' and some other groups' ability to build up wealth and equity for decades.

Toward the other end, you have the brave gentrifying gays of Dupont, then Logan, then Truxton, and perhaps now to Benning and Beyond.

Still, even the most liberal of folks around these parts ain't sendin' their kids to Ballou or choosing to settle down among "the lost, the last, and the least."

by Dizzy on Apr 18, 2014 1:58 pm • linkreport

I have genuinely heard 'urban' used as code for 'there are black people there'.
e.g. "Columbia Heights is similar to Bethesda, because both have bars and restaurants, but Columbia Heights has a more urban vibe."

by renegade09 on Apr 18, 2014 2:21 pm • linkreport

Arlco has (not very tall) residential high rises close to the metro stations in the RB corridor. They have made a point of zoning for townhouses as a buffer between the denser spots and the SFH's. The SFHs are still only a couple of blocks from the taller buildings, but they aren't in the shadows, are somewhat buffered from noise, etc. IE they have kept "incompatible" uses apart, and provided a variety of housing styles. (it has the added bonus of concentrating the highest densities where the transit mode share is going to be highest) I think it works pretty well. We can spend hours arguing about why SFH owners should welcome a ten story building next door and how their concerns are codes for racism, or we can accept that compatibility arguments, within reason, though subjective, are "compatible" with urbanism.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 2:29 pm • linkreport

renegade - that may be because "urban" has been used as euphemism for black in US pop culture - urban radio, urban hair styling products, etc.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2014 2:31 pm • linkreport

@ AWalkerInTheCity; agreed that on the R-B corridor ARL has been successful in this model. Not sure if it applies to say, Lee Highway, Rt. 50, or Crystal City.

But yes, as I keep saying a mix of housing is essential for success.

by charlie on Apr 18, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

Another term that obfuscates reality: "inner city." In the context of DC, at least, the connotation of the term is not really consistent with its literal (geographic) meaning.
I've read about 'urban' Walmarts but I've yet to read anything about the 'inner-city Burberry' slated for CityCenterDC.

by Brett on Apr 18, 2014 3:51 pm • linkreport

The reason you don't want certain things In Your Back Yard - apartment buildings, especially of the 'affordable' variety, mass transit, free entertainment venues like skate parts or basketball courts, etc. - is because they attract people of a lower Socio-Economic Status than you. You must protect yourself, and most importantly your children, from their corrupting influence.

Sorry, but I don't think this is a negative. I worked really hard to get away from those people (I grew up in a rural area devastated by thievery, drunk driving, and heroin) and I want to keep it away from me now too. I don't think there anything wrong with wanting to live around people that have the same lifestyle that I have...which is not one of domestic abuse, the police showing up all hours of the night, and smashing people's car windows for fun.

by Another Nick on Apr 18, 2014 4:41 pm • linkreport

I prefer an urban environment, because I grew up in a medium-sized city. But, there's lots people who don't like living in cities, and prefer the suburban setting, and you know, this shouldn't be a battle between the two groups. For those who like the suburban or even the rural areas, cities are actually a good thing! If more people move into dense areas, that means more open space becomes available for those of us who want to live in open areas. Think about it.

by Mark R on Apr 19, 2014 8:58 am • linkreport

I would put "smart growth" in this category. It takes a pretty dumb developer not to call its project smart growth.

by Jack on Apr 19, 2014 9:40 am • linkreport

Urban gets used in more than one way. Sometimes it means black but sometimes it means hip and modern. That's usually how the term is used in real estate such as Eya's urban luxury developments or the website urbanturf. Urban is both a euphemism for black and "stuff white people like".

As for not wanting to live with people from a low socioeconomic status, talk to some people who live in cheap apartment buildings in places like EOTR and PG. They'll tell you the worst thing about living in those buildings is not the lack of maintenance or amenities. It's some of the other people living in the building and some of the crazies who accost them on the street.

by Falls Church on Apr 19, 2014 11:12 am • linkreport

Also, the litter and dog poop. For whatever reason, the places I've seen with a lot of low SES folks often have a lot of those things on the ground. I remember reading about some poor guy living near the Shrimp Boat in SE who was so frustrated by people letting their dogs poop on his lawn and not cleaning it up that he approached someone doing that one day with a knife and was shot by the dog owner. While there's no excuse for ever wielding a knife, I can understand his frustration.

by Falls Church on Apr 19, 2014 11:27 am • linkreport

My own pet peeve is "appropriate", which is used often by government officials working on zoning. I can't think of another lawmaking body who would ever contemplate using that word.

by bk on Apr 19, 2014 1:09 pm • linkreport

The reason you don't want certain things In Your Back Yard - apartment buildings, especially of the 'affordable' variety, mass transit, free entertainment venues like skate parts or basketball courts, etc. - is because they attract people of a lower Socio-Economic Status than you. You must protect yourself, and most importantly your children, from their corrupting influence.
Sorry, but I don't think this is a negative. I worked really hard to get away from those people (I grew up in a rural area devastated by thievery, drunk driving, and heroin) and I want to keep it away from me now too. I don't think there anything wrong with wanting to live around people that have the same lifestyle that I have...which is not one of domestic abuse, the police showing up all hours of the night, and smashing people's car windows for fun.

I've lived in poor neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods and I agree that rich is nicer than poor. What's frustrating though is the knee-jerk reaction of many people in rich neighborhoods against any sort of public amenity. So we can't have public transportation, or ball fields, or swimming pools -- and heaven forbid restaurants or stores -- all because it might lead to "people from outside the neighborhood" being drawn in. Meanwhile it means we all have to hop in our cars and go somewhere else to shop, eat or exercise.

This is why we can't have nice things.

by contrarian on Apr 19, 2014 3:11 pm • linkreport

So we can't have public transportation, or ball fields, or swimming pools -- and heaven forbid restaurants or stores -- all because it might lead to "people from outside the neighborhood" being drawn in.

I know what you mean but rich neighborhoods often have the best public amenities and I've never heard of any that are in food deserts. The Potomac and McLean Community Centers, libraries and parks are all top-notch. McLean and Bethesda have Balduccis to meet their gourmet grocery needs and giant/safeway for when they're slumming it. Montgomery Mall and Tyson's are are great for more serious shopping but admittedly, a little inconvenient from Potomac/Great Falls. A big part of the reason why Potomac/Great Falls don't have the same level of amenities as Bethesda/McLean is that they're too spread out and a little far from the core.

by Falls Church on Apr 19, 2014 4:32 pm • linkreport

I know what you mean but rich neighborhoods often have the best public amenities and I've never heard of any that are in food deserts.

Come to DC. In neighborhoods like Tenleytown, AU Park, Foxhall Village and Palisades the thought of a restaurant opening throws busybodies into a conniption, the notion of children enjoying themselves in a public park sends shivers down people's spines. Have you ever been to the Palisades Safeway? There are better-stocked 7-11's, everything about the building is a tribute to ugliness. Yet there are signs on MacArthur Boulevard rallying the neighbors to "save" the Safeway from "greedy developers."

by contrarian on Apr 19, 2014 7:23 pm • linkreport

"I would put "smart growth" in this category. It takes a pretty dumb developer not to call its project smart growth."
by Jack
I'd say that, too.

by asffa on Apr 19, 2014 8:03 pm • linkreport

The great thing about Smart Growth though is that it is definable. If someone is calling something Smart Growth and it isn't then you can call them out on it. It's a specific style (or set f styles) and must meet many of the criteria.

The people I usually see abusing the term smart growth are usually using it to fight a development rather than trying to push one.

by Drumz on Apr 20, 2014 5:12 pm • linkreport

@bk: "the President is authorized to use all
necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001" -- PL 107-40 (Authorization for Use of Military Force)

So, as you can see, "appropriate" is a well-understood phrase used by all levels of government to define clear parameters and objectives.

by Mike on Apr 21, 2014 9:04 am • linkreport

sitting in public use space and enjoying it not a DISuse of that space. He's reaching here. He also reaches for his thesaurus more often than I enjoy, although I thought this was written as a blog post when I read it- before going back and reading the intro.

by Tom A. on Apr 22, 2014 6:27 am • linkreport

Drumz The phrase "smart growth" means anything, it's meaningless.

by asffa on Apr 22, 2014 3:36 pm • linkreport

No, it's a specific term of art and set of design criteria.

It's not exactly the ten commandments but here's an actual book that codifies the smart code.

http://www.smartcodecentral.org/

and a more accessible version is the EPA's 10 principles.

http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/about_sg.htm

Between these two we can generally measure most projects. Obviously there will be borderline cases but that doesn't mean the term is meaningless.

by drumz on Apr 22, 2014 3:42 pm • linkreport

drumz Wow, those are principles anybody can claim to be support.

"road diet" = a plan for anyplace less dreadful to drive than Northern Virginia

by asffa on Apr 25, 2014 11:04 pm • linkreport

Yes, anyone can (and should) support these principles. But eventually the buildings have to look like it as well.

by Drumz on Apr 25, 2014 11:37 pm • linkreport

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