Urbanwords: the website of The Dictionary of Urbanism

The word on the street


urbanism 1 The study or appreciation of the processes of change in towns and cities; making towns and cities work; town (UK) or city (US) planning. 2 The process of becoming urban. 3 The product of town planning or development. 4 Patterns of social life characteristic of urban areas. 5 Architecture in an urban context. 6 A building’s characteristic of having internal spaces that create something of the sense of being in a street, square or other external urban space. See the dictionary for a fuller entry.

What is the difference between arcology and archaeology? Why did Hitler use Baedeker? What are the blue banana and the blue carrot? Who was Bungalow Briggs? Who lives in Cactusville? Who or what would you call café creep? What is the difference between a car ban, a car barn and kan-ban? Who asked: Can Man Plan? Who is white van man? Where is the city of magnificent distances? What is the difference between disurbanisation and desuburbanisation? What is wrong with dingbats? Where are Dulburb, Dullborough, Dullsville and Dulston? Who suffers from link wilt? What are muesli, spotted dick and Spam Valley?
    Is there a connection between noli me tangere design and a Nolli diagram? What is the difference between personalisation and personification, or between planning permission and planning consent? What is rear-view marketing? What difference is there between urban regeneration and urban renewal, or between topology and typology? Who or what is a rural buffer? When is a square not a square? What or where is subtopia? When does suburbia become slurbia? What are twocking and triple convergence? Is there a difference between an urbanite and an urbanist?
    ‘Every language is a world,’ George Steiner declared. Welcome to the world of urbanism: the world of people who think, talk and write about towns and cities in all their ever-changing complexity; who plan, manage, design, administer, celebrate, build, govern, study, engineer, survey, embellish and portray them; and who campaign, teach and sing about them. That, come to think of it, is everyone.
    The language of urbanism is a rich one. We communicate about the built environment with an astonishing wealth of words and concepts, from dry legalistic formulae to street slang. There is the language of statute (like conservation area), professional practice (like park and ride), design (like massing), academia (like proxemics), polemic (like gnomescape), politics (like positive parochialism), the arts (like lipstick on the face of the gorilla), popular culture (like Stepford Wives), marketing (like kerb appeal), science (like ecosystem), slang (like derry), theology (like strangeness) and warfare (like mousehole). The categories overlap, intersect, collide and merge into one another, and into the everyday language that we all use in talking about the places where we live and work.
    Specialists develop specialist languages. They do so because they need to talk about specialised matters, but that is only partly the reason. Language is constantly evolving, and any group – whether a family, a tribe or a profession – that is to some extent living in a world of its own, isolated from other groups, will adopt some ways of speaking and writing that are unique to itself.
    Different types of specialist often fail to understand each other, and fail to communicate with non-specialists. It is even worse than that. Each specialism has a language that its own practitioners only partly understand. They pick it up gradually throughout their training and career, but learning the language is not easy. First, meanings change. Second, any one term may have several different meanings, even though those who use the term may not be aware of it.
    Academics coin new terms for new concepts, or for repackaging old ones. Politicians find new terms to make their ideas seem fresh. Drafters of legislation need them for new laws. Polemicists need them to get their ideas noticed and to ridicule their opponents. But many terms appear seemingly from nowhere.
    At conferences of urban specialists of one kind or another it is common to hear a word or phrase that an attentive listener can be fairly sure has never before been heard by most or all of the audience. The speaker is not trying to confuse anyone. He or she is probably using a term that is current in their own office or among fellow members of their own particular specialism. Occasionally, searching for the right expression to express a thought, the speaker appropriates a word or metaphor that just happens to come to mind. Unfamiliar though it may be, the term may yet be understood in its context. If it is not understood, it merely joins the other 98 per cent of the content of the average conference presentation that passes by the audience without making any lasting impression at all. Occasionally an unfamiliar word or phrase will – consciously or not – stick in someone’s memory. It may even enter their vocabulary, and possibly eventually that of their office, of their specialism, of their broad professional field or, ultimately, of the common language.
    This dictionary records current meanings and tracks how some of them have changed over the years. It may encourage people who write official documents to define their terms. The development plans of a few local authorities already do it. Generally, though, the writers leave their readers to puzzle out meanings for themselves, and the unfamiliar language helps to exclude many of them from joining the debate. Sometimes this is deliberate. More often it just does not occur to the writers that they are communicating in anything other than plain English.
    ‘Ignorance is power,’ a Liverpool councillor once told me. ‘If you don’t understand what someone is saying, it probably means that they don’t either, so you are doing them a favour by pointing it out.’ That may well be true, but this book is for those who would rather not risk a punch on the nose.

In 2000 the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions published the report of a research project that its Sustainable Development Research Panel has commissioned with the title ‘Towards a language of sustainable development’. The oddly-worded brief was ‘…to identify a coherent language for the education of Sustainable Development…’ The researchers identified the problem as being that, although the term ‘sustainable development’ was well known, too few people were acting in a sustainable fashion.
    The researchers saw their job as being either to find better ways of explaining the term, or to find an alternative term that would provoke people into action. The project’s aim was to find or develop a language that would help government departments and other agencies educate people into behaving in ways that would support sustainable development. ‘This culture shift will not happen overnight,’ the report declared. ‘Indeed the creation of a new and relevant language for sustainable development will not alone automatically lead to the desired culture change’.
    It is extraordinary that anyone could have suspected for a moment that it might. Sustainable development is not a specialist topic that can be communicated in a few carefully chosen phrases. At that time the government’s definition of sustainable development, as quoted in the report, encompassed ‘better education, learning resources, training, health services, safer communities,… limiting global environment threats, protecting human health and safety, wildlife, landscapes and historic buildings from natural and man-made hazards,… preserving natural resources… and [enabling everyone to] share in higher living standards and greater job opportunities.’
    The challenge is not to persuade people that those are worthy aims, but to help them make choices that support a sensible set of priorities. The best language for English-speaking people to use in discussing what those priorities might be and what choices will support them is plain English. After a year’s work (during which they consulted focus groups), the researchers failed to achieve to their satisfaction the aims of explaining sustainable development or finding an alternative term. This led them to the fatal error of concluding that the concept of sustainability was too complex to communicate through words alone.
    So they invented a translucent plastic three-sided pyramid. Each face of the pyramid would bear an image representing, respectively, society, economy and environment (which their research concluded were the three elements of sustainability). Eureka! ‘The Sustainable Pyramid is translucent, so that when it is viewed through the base, all three elements are seen coming together,’ the researchers wrote. ‘The power of the pyramid lies in its simple approach to communicating what is otherwise too complex to articulate in words.’ They recommended that the pyramids should be manufactured and distributed in a variety of sizes as ‘creative learning tools’, and that 2-D versions could be marketed as jigsaw puzzles (‘large pieces for young children, small pieces for adults’).
    The researchers could not have been more wrong. Communication is not like that. A concept ‘too complex to articulate in words’ is unlikely to be understood by looking up the backside of a mass-produced plastic pyramid.

Most languages are collections of dialects. The language of urban specialists is itself a collection of different dialects spoken by, for example, planners and architects. As with all dialects, there is a limited degree of mutual understanding between their speakers. Within each dialect group the degree varies from speaker to speaker, depending on the extent to which each has been exposed to other groups.
    All languages and dialects change continuously. They change for a variety of reasons. First, they absorb words and ways of speaking from other languages and dialects. Second, new linguistic complexities emerge, often for no identifiable reason at all, and become standard, making the group of speakers progressively less intelligible to outsiders. Third, a group of speakers will sometimes cement its own identity – and distance itself from being understood by outsiders – by deliberately adopting usages special to itself.
    The language and dialects of urbanism change for all these reasons and more, though the processes are hard to follow. For example, if you hear the phrase ‘horses for courses’ spoken at a conference on urban regeneration, the speaker is likely to be a planner, or possibly an engineer, but not at all likely to be an architect. Is this because the concept of means being appropriate to ends is particularly important in planning? Or because planning attracts people with a particular propensity for thinking in such terms? Or has the particular phrase become part of planners’ dialect by chance, giving them a warm sense of belonging when they use it, whereas for architects it has not?
    To take another example: if you hear the phrase ‘urban intervention’, the speaker (unless an academic) is likely to be an architect. Practising planners, though they spend much of their lives talking about what architects would call ‘urban interventions’, hardly ever use the term. The details may not matter. The important point is that what might at first seem to be a common language has much that is not held in common at all.
    Cities are the most complex of artefacts. They are matched in complexity by language. In the language of urbanism the two complex structures – of language and cities – collide, with the variously illuminating, exasperating or entertaining consequences that this book records.
    Some urbanists regret the lack of precision with which their subject is discussed. American new urbanists such as Andres Duany see part of their mission as being to provide precise definitions of urban elements. Terms such as avenue, boulevard, drive, lane, road and street once had specific meanings, they say, but are now used more or less interchangeably. Yet each element has a specific role in helping a particular urban place to function in a specific way. Abandoning the precise definition, the new urbanists argue, deprives planners and urban designers of the ability to make intelligent use of the available urban elements. If these elements are the words, they explain, then there is a grammar and syntax for joining them together.
    The new urbanists’ solution is to compile lexicons. These prescribe precise definitions for each urban element, explaining in words and diagrams exactly what each element is, and how it should be used in each of a range of precisely defined urban and semi-urban contexts. There are some ways of arranging urban elements that will work in a specific context and some that will not, the new urbanists say, and it is the duty of those who understand the difference to explain it.
    Such an attitude makes sense for a group of people with a fully worked-out view of how to create the type of urbanism appropriate for a particular context and culture. This dictionary has a different aim. Recognising that all languages change continuously, it describes how words and phrases are actually used. The aim is to help people understand what they are hearing and reading, and to show how clear thinking and effective communication depend on defining our terms wherever there is a danger of ambiguity.
    Urbanism has faced the problem of how to define its terms for at least a century. The garden city movement defined what a garden city was with some precision, but the more successful the pioneers were in building the movement’s credibility, the more house-builders gave the name ‘garden city’ to developments that met few, if any, of the pioneers’ criteria. The same thing happened when the garden city movement moved on to advocate new towns. At first a ‘new town’ was one designated under the New Towns Act – Stevenage, Bracknell and the like. These government-sponsored initiatives were the new town movement’s idea of good planning. To the public and the sponsors of a wide variety of kinds of developments, though, new town was a convenient term to apply to a scheme of any sort. Consequently the term bore the weight, not just of public disapproval of the towns developed under the New Towns Act – which was itself considerable – but of a wide variety of other urban discontents.
    Language is seductive, and like all good things it is in danger of being borrowed and debased. Half a century later, the British advocates of urban villages were aware of the problem from the start. They dismissed as too complicated the idea of establishing a detailed test (a ‘sieve’, as the abandoned prototype was called) of what could and could not be called an urban village. Instead they published a simple list of criteria. The urban village concept was successful in attracting professional as well as Royal approval, but before long the Urban Villages Forum was complaining that housing developments meeting none of the urban village criteria were appropriating the name and threatening the movement’s credibility.
    A few years on, the same is happening with ‘urban extension’. The term is used approvingly by the UK government and the Prince’s Foundation, among others, to describe well-planned developments at the edge of urban areas. But already sharp developers are using the term to give spurious credibility to ill-conceived examples of suburban sprawl.
    It was the realisation that unregulated labels are public property that led, for example, to the term ‘architect’ being regulated by statute and the term ‘planning for real’ being copyrighted. In the latter case the originators of the participation method had become concerned that the term was being applied sometimes to cynical exercises that merely went through the motions. They now insist that it can be used only to describe programmes run by people with the appropriate training. But for few other urbanistic terms is such an option available or, probably, desirable.

Perhaps the most important question to consider in discussing the language of urbanism is the extent to which specific words relate to specific things. The answer, as the entries in this dictionary show, is that the relationship is often not very close at all. Avenue, boulevard and street sometimes have inconsistent meanings. A square may or may not have four sides. A new town or an urban village may or may not conform to any official definition. The meaning of amenity may be whatever is in a particular planner’s head at the time. Sustainability may be used in any one of the 500 different senses identified by Heather Cruickshank, or in another sense entirely. Renewal may or may not be a synonym for regeneration.
    A great deal of discussion about urbanism uses abstract words as though they were concrete things. Amenity, community, quality, sustainability and urban renaissance, for example, are spoken of almost as if they were physical substances so familiar that there is no need to define them. Such use of language may make life simpler for the specialists who speak and write it, but it does not match the complexity of the urban experience. Language, as Simeon Potter (1950) noted, does not offer a simple relationship between words and things. If it did, there would be no need for language to be so complex. Nor would a dictionary of urbanism be so long, or such fun to write.
    Speaking and writing effectively about urbanism depends on defining terms for specific contexts. Urban movements need their lexicons. Planning documents need their glossaries. But individual words can not do the hard work for us. Specifying in a plan that development must be sustainable, for example, is no more useful as guidance to a developer than describing a piece of music as beautiful tells us anything about what it sounds like.
    Communication depends on taking the trouble to explain what we mean. The rich resources of the language of urbanism are there to tempt us from empty abstractions and from the sterile wastes of professional jargon. This dictionary is offered as evidence that we are spoiled for choice.

A note on the entries
Words printed in small capitals refer the reader to other entries, where further information on the topic or a related topic will be found. Dates in brackets immediately after a name – such as Patrick Geddes (1905) or (Patrick Geddes, 1905) – refer to a work listed in the references. Bracketed dates that do not follow a name serve to date an example or a publication, but do not reference it. Semi-colons are used in listing different ways of describing meanings that are the same or similar. Bold numerals indicate different meanings of the same term.
    Many of the terms described in the dictionary are used internationally. There are many, though, that relate to the law or practice of a particular country. Unless otherwise indicated, references to statutes and regulations are to law and practice in England; England and Wales; or the United Kingdom (UK). For example the letters (US) indicate that the meaning is specific to the United States. Terms in languages other than English are included only when they are used (at least occasionally) by English speakers and writers. Acronyms are included only when they make words.
    A few of the entries are distinctly rural. This reflects the fact that urban and rural issues are inextricably mixed. Large parts of rural Britain are within city regions. According to many definitions urban design includes design in villages. And at the UK government’s Urban Summit in 2002, deputy prime minister John Prescott defined the event’s remit as including villages and rural areas.
    Many of the entries could be classified as slang, being very informal words or phrases that readers would be unwise to use in professional writing or polite company. But to mark them as such in this dictionary might suggest that all the other entries are part of the mainstream language – or at least of a specialist language of urbanism. In reality, a large proportion of the entries are likely to cause bafflement, confusion or offence if used in the wrong context. So instead of classifying each problematic entry as slang, jargon, dialect, legalese, obfuscation, technospeak, govspeak, regenbabble or anything else, readers are advised that in communicating with words, context is everything.
    The dictionary is not prescriptive. It describes how words are used, on the basis of the evidence of the contexts in which they have appeared. It does not lay down how the words should be used or define correct meanings. A word means whatever the person who speaks or writes it intends it to mean. The only real test is whether that meaning is understood.
    The scandal of urbanism is how often that test is failed. Like any language, the specialist languages of urbanism are full of multiple meanings, changing meanings and neologisms. Like any foreign or specialist language, they are heard by many people who only dimly understand what they are hearing, and spoken by some who find themselves using words and phrases they barely understand. Catherine Croft (2002) reports ‘a cheerfully laconic guide’ at the Urbis centre in Manchester explaining that, in his words, ‘the building responds organically to the surrounding streets. I don’t know what that means, but it’s what it says on the website.’






Metropolitan space may habitually be pictured in the form of skylines, but the real magic of city living comes from below.
Steven Johnson

illustration from the Dictionary of Urbanism