The 'Garbage Language' of Planning

The language we use as planners can serve many purposes and often hinders good communication rather than fostering it.

1 minute read

March 16, 2020, 5:00 AM PDT

By Camille Fink


Public Meeting Speaker

NRCgov / Flickr

Daniel Herriges writes about planning’s use of "garbage language," the vague, confusing, jargon-filled language that is too often a part of corporate communications. "Sometimes, garbage language is a display of power. Sometimes it's a shibboleth, a form of in-group signaling. Sometimes it's a way of pre-empting and shutting down objections to something that, if described in plain terms, would be clearly objectionable."

In planning, garbage language is reflected in "aspirational buzzwords" that mean little in terms of tangible, measurable outcomes. This language can also mean very different things to different people, even as it is used to seemingly convey a universal notion. "The point of using livable is to stake a claim to moral authority, not to convince anyone or communicate anything. 'I’m for livability; you’re whatever kind of monster would be opposed to that,'" says Herriges.

Technical jargon can turn into garbage language when it is used to foster a sense of expertise that distances the public from the planning process. And in some cases, useful new terms are not part of the popular lexicon yet, and this can create barriers to inclusion, notes Herriges. "This is the difficulty in simply saying, ‘Jargon is bad and plainspoken language is good.’ Sometimes a highly specific, less known term actually conveys a specific meaning better than any other word could. This does, however, result in a learning curve."

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