What Our Urban Planning Vocabulary Says About Our Cities

A look at how the words we use have evolved.

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People who know me understand that I get a little obsessed with language. I still use the subjunctive mood (something most people have never heard of); think "loan" and "impact" are verbs, not nouns; and "data" and 'media" are plural. I keep re-writing sentences whose clumsy syntax bugs me even after the article is published (something not possible pre-internet).  I even wrote a blog post about how I was going to banish the overused "vibrant" and "urbanism" from my vocabulary.  (I've been half-successful.)

So, when I ran across an article by Rafael Pereiro on his blog Urban Demographics showing how a new (to me, anyway) Google tool can track the popularity of words over time, I was like a kid finding an unexpected piece of chocolate cake. What fun!

The online program is called Ngram Viewer, and it searches Google's database of 20 million scanned books for how often words or phrases appear within it. Just for an example, I plugged in five key terms pertaining to digital media that I thought might have shown some recent movement in popularity: YouTube, iPod, blog, chat room, and iPhone.  Unfortunately, current searches only cover usage up to 2008, but here's what I found:

The graph tells us that none of these terms got going until the mid-1990s but, based on the number of appearances, eBay has been hugely popular relative to the others. eBay's popularity in the database peaked in 2005, however.  "Blog" got started late but has been in steady ascendance since 2000, even passing eBay in popularity in 2008. iPod also peaked in 2005-2006 and is now trending downward. "Chat room" was never as popular as the others and is also trending downward. Interestingly, "YouTube" and "iPhone" track each other almost precisely, both gaining currency in 2005 and moving steadily upward at the same rate since.

No surprises there, I suppose.

But things get more interesting when we start looking at the cliche words and phrases bandied about in the world of environmentally responsible place-making and community-building. (I didn't test "place-making" or "community-building," by the way, but I could have. From here on out, I took some key terms, ran them through the program, and then cropped the results to isolate the parts of the graph that showed movement in their usage.

You can also tell the chart generator to smooth out the curves a bit; in theory this gives you a more realistic graphic representation of trends than does a graph that isolates each year.

What we're seeing is that smart growth and green building both had much more currency during the measured time period than either new urbanism or sustainable community. New urbanism and smart growth both had noticeable bumps in popularity in 2005 and 2007, respectively, but neither stuck. Only green building has been in steady ascendance during the years from 1998 through 2008.

It's interesting to speculate whether the use of "sustainable communities" by the federal government beginning in 2009 might have given the phrase a boost; presumably we won't be able to tell until the database is updated.

Then I decided to take a look at some other phases that are bandied about in our world: transit oriented, walkable neighborhood, vibrant neighborhood, location efficiency, shrinking city, green community. Here are the cropped images from the graph showing the years when there was movement, first for the precise year-by-year, then for the smoothed out trends:

popularity of 6 phrases over time (cropped screen capture from Google Ngram Reader)
popularity of 6 phrases over time (cropped screen capture from Google Ngram Viewer)

Incidentally, for each of these exercises you can also call up a little numerical chart for each year showing the relative number of appearances for each word or phrase:

comparison of popularity of 6 phrases over time (cropped screen caputure from Google Ngram Viewer)

What this group of graphs is telling us is that there really hasn't been much difference among the use frequency of these phrases, with a few notable items that stand out: "transit oriented" enjoyed a bit of a spike in 1999 and again in 2007.  "Green community"" got a significant boost in 2008, the year that the National Building Museum staged its exhibit of the same name (a related book was published the following year). "Location efficiency" is the least popular phrase, followed closely by "walkable neighborhood." I would guess that "walkable neighborhood" has enjoyed a surge since this particular time period.

Finally, here are a couple of charts that combine the whole shebang. The first is spiky to show more precise year-to-year comparisons; the second is smoothed out a bit to approximate trends. In each, in addition to the 10 phrases I mentioned above, I added "gated community" just for fun.

popularity of 11 phrases over time (screen capture from Gogle Ngram reader)
popularity of 11 phrases over time (screen capture from Google Ngram Viewer)

Some of the color-coding is similar for some of the phrases, so particularly in this case it helps to see the numbers:

popularity of 11 phrases charted (screen capture from Google Ngram Viewer)

Conclusions from the combination graphs: smart growth and green building are both more popular phrases (as of 2008) than all the others, but smart growth my have peaked while green buildings is still trending upward. Both are more popular in the vocabulary than gated community, which is nonetheless enjoying a bit (not much) more currency than new urbanism or sustainable community. All the others - transit oriented, walkable neighborhood, vibrant neighborhood, green community, and especially location efficiency - have essentially negligible currency in the vocabulary. 

There are lots of obvious limitations - this Ngram Viewer measures only Google's books database, presumably leaving out things like blogs and journalism. The current search period only extends through 2008. Exact language can affect the results: for example, "transit oriented" scored better "transit-oriented" with a hyphen. "Sustainable cities" or even "sustainable communities" might have yielded different results than "sustainable community." 

But if you like language it's great fun to play with,and you might even learn something, such as that you might want to start couching your favorite projects of advocacy pitches as "green building" when possible.

On point, here's "Blah Blah Blah" by Ke$ha:

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.