Two bad words

Michael Lewyn's picture

Often, participants in public debates use words to mean things very different from their common-sense meanings, in order to manipulate the public's emotions. Two examples in the field of urban planning come to mind.

Road lobby supporters claim to be for "mobility." In their lingo, "mobility" means "the ability to drive as fast as possible." But in common English, mobility means the ability to move from place to place generally. The two concepts are quite different because sometimes, policies designed to improve drivers' mobility impede mobility for others. For example, if a two-lane, slow-traffic street is widened to ten lanes, pedestrians may not be able to safely cross that street. Thus, those pedestrians are actually rendered less mobile by ostensibly pro-"mobility" policies. Similarly, if a new road shifts development to a place without public transit, transit-dependent job-seekers are effectively rendered less mobile, since they cannot easily reach jobs in the newly created "edge city." Fast car traffic may have its virtues, but it is not the same thing as mobility for all.

But environmentalists are also adept in manipulating the language. A common environmentalist buzzword is "sustainability." In environmentalist lingo, "sustainable" really means "environmentally sound" - a policy that ought to be adopted or a design that ought to be imitated. But according to, "sustainable" does not mean something that should be sustained; rather, it means "capable of being sustained. " Now, I would love to believe that sprawl cannot be sustained. But if I did, I probably wouldn't waste time writing about why it shouldn't be; instead, I would declare victory, seek an alternative career, and spend my days in giddy celebration of our glorious (or at least pedestrian-friendly) future. By confusing what ought to be sustained ("sustainable" in the sense environmentalists use the term) with what is likely to be sustained ("sustainable" in the dictionary sense of the term) environmentalists mangle the English language.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



"Sustainable" is what you like

The word “sustainable” is greatly overused in our discourse and elsewhere. Strictly speaking, an unsustainable practice is one that cannot continue indefinitely because it depletes natural resources faster than they are renewed. Period. Clearly, we should minimize unsustainable practices, but that does not imply the converse – and fallacious – inference that any and all sustainable practices are worthwhile. Unfortunately, this is the road planning rhetoric has traveled, such that to append “sustainable” to an idea or project is little more than a lofty way of saying “I like this.”

I had an eye-opening experience in planning grad school when we were asked to compare two forms of affordable housing: one, a highly praised mixed income development directly subsidized by the government that was not finished because money ran out; two, an ongoing program to assess impact fees on market rate development to subsidize affordable housing throughout the city (generally away from high-income areas). Which was a more sustainable model? our professor asked us. I found the question irritating because we were given zero information on the comparative use of natural resources in the two models, but it seemed self-evident to me the second program, which had actually been “sustained,” was more “sustainable” than the one that had failed, so I raised my hand and said so, and was greeted by a roomful of jaw drops: I had bestowed the sacred “I like this” epithet on an un-politically-correct program that fails to integrate residents of different income levels. Which of course, has everything to do with sustainability. Really.

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