Using all 26 letters of the alphabet

by Kristina M. Cerise, AICP, Seattle, Washington

When talking to a non-planning audience, planners should avoid relying on jargon and explain what terms mean.

My daughter thinks there are 23 letters in the alphabet. She acknowledges most of the letters you and I have come to know and love but consolidates L, M, N, and O into a single juggernaut she calls “elemeno.” Someday soon – when being accurate becomes more important than being adorable – I’ll help her unlearn this part of the ABC song and teach her to clearly separate, enunciate, and identify the distinct letters she’s been lumping together. Otherwise, she won’t have the tools she needs to spell essential Seattleite words like Latte, Monorail, Nalgene and Organic.

As planners, we have some unlearning to do too.

When we use terms that blur useful and important distinctions between the separate components of a concept, we are like preschoolers saying “elemeno” instead of pronouncing four distinct letters.

I would argue that walkable is one “elemeno” in the planning alphabet (we have several). It rolls off the tongue. It’s cute. It’s convenient. But, I worry that when we use this “elemeno” shortcut we lose sight of the four distinct components of the concept:

  1. Useful
  2. Safe
  3. Comfortable
  4. Interesting

In Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, author Jeff Speck outlines the importance of – and distinction between – each of the four components:

“… to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms,’ in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.”

It’s useful for planners to enunciate the distinct components of walkability (and other terms) from time to time. It’s imperative that we do so when speaking to a non-planning audience.

As Jeff Speck states, “Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient.” It is not enough to understand the gist, it is important to understand the details.

Being accurate is more important than being adorable.

Kristina M. Cerise, AICP, is a Land Use Planner at the Seattle, Washington office of Van Ness Feldman and a contributing writer for Brain, Child Magazine’s blog.

Published in the December 2013/January 2014 Issue

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