Word Eating Time: Here’s today’s menu

Whatever skills I developed in manipulating language were shaped by two decades on the staffs of newspapers and magazines. In my first interview for a newspaper job, a managing editor lectured me on the transition I should be prepared for. I could forget all that fancy writing stuff I may have learned in college. I was about to become a reporter serving customers with middle school reading skills and a lot of impatience with nuance.

Bottom line: Get to the friggin point, preferably no later than the second paragraph. So here it is: The broader you try to apply that advice, the worse it makes things.

Let me implicate myself in worse-making with a couple of examples.

When I transferred my membership from the journalism cult to the New Urbanist one, my new tasks were mostly focused on ways to explain planning approaches to community skeptics. At one point, I congratulated myself on outmaneuvering resistance to form-based coding by de-wonking the language and reframing its aspirations:

This new kind of zoning was not a government plot to impose unwanted change on home and business owners; it was a rescue strategy by a responsive government to protect “community character.” Not a hard-to-explain regulatory framework. Rather, a “character code” calibrated to reinterpret aspects of a community’s best-loved places in new development and redevelopment.

Like a lot of messing around with words for strategic purposes, there’s truth in that pitch. Just not enough to prevent somebody from reframing the reframing to undermine the original argument. It turns out that elevating the protection of community character as the nuance-free goal of form-based coding helps NIMBYs make convincing sounding claims on high ground. They fight rules that make it easier for neighborhoods to adapt and thrive in the face of inevitable change in the name of preserving character, which is often defined in ways that resist adaptation and assure the march to monoculture.

I want to apologize for that.


Also on my list of regrets: Sloppy evocations of “sense of place” and even “place” itself. Which is ironic in the extreme, I admit, for somebody from a firm called “PlaceMakers.” But stay with me here.

We can agree, I think, that a great place evokes feelings of security, connectivity, inspiration. And we can be confident, as well, that what’s evoked is dependent to a certain extent upon a combination of physical attributes and spatial relationships. But I know in my work as an explainer I’ve too-often defaulted to notions of a place as merely an assembly of static stuff — buildings, streets, landscaping — instead of a system in motion, a change-adaptive machine.

What we lose by that oversimplification is a deeper appreciation — and perhaps a better informed set of strategies — for what’s required for a neighborhood, community, region to become something other than just a sum of parts. “Place” becomes a nostalgic artifact, a preservation project. And restricted by that narrower view, concentrating only on the what of the physical and paying scant attention to the how of adaptive performance, we play once again into the hands of those determined to postpone or deny altogether the principal responsibility of planning — anticipating change.

Sorry for any support I’ve lent the postponers and deniers.

The advice I got as a journalist wasn’t wrong, just incomplete — especially when it comes to big gnarly problems. At some point, forging consensus and getting on with the work requires making choices about how much complexity we’re willing to accommodate. But when it comes to stuff with lots of moving parts, our biases tend to take us in the opposite direction of paralysis by analysis.

Sometimes keeping it simple is stupid.

Ben Brown

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  1. It sometimes seems as if journalists are not so much trying to give us a simplified version of reality as they are using reality as fodder to convince us of a distorted version of human nature. It’s hard to recognize human nature in their version of events, sometimes. This has dire consequences, since people who like to be well-informed are then the ones most at risk of being unable to understand motivations.

    Twenty years ago, I was curious about the Internet. I wanted to know why it suddenly seemed to be exploding. Journalists, when they weren’t utterly baffled, seemed to be saying that the reason the Internet was such a big thing came down to commercial interests. The fact that it had grown from a defense project into a social space seemed to confuse people who were used to uncovering dark motives. This was despite the fact that many of those same journalists were starting webpages of their own — for idealistic reasons. That is, their workday selves couldn’t explain what their nights-and-weekend selves were doing.

    • You might be giving journalists too much credit, Bruce. There’s not a lot of strategizing going on. What disciplines day-to-day journalism — especially ad-supported media — is the need to attract and hold eyeballs. That usually means defaulting to storytelling approaches with uncomplicated narrative lines and easy-to-grasp takeaways. I think we can agree that most topics we consider important and impactful don’t lend themselves to that sort of “coverage.” The challenge of dealing with complexity while holding an audience is all about how much you have to discard to get the job done. My argument in the post is about regretting throwing out too much too often.

  2. philip a. morris says

    Interesting points. But having covered the efforts of historic preservationists across the south for Southern Living — when it was just starting to spread beyond Charleston and New Orleans –chamber of commerce types called them obstructionists. Happily, HP leaders quickly responded that they were about ‘managing change’. And, indeed, they were, and most still are doing that today.

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