Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Vibrant Alert

Not vibrant, transit-oriented development

Jack Bog provides his readers with a useful Vibrant Alert:

Whenever you read "vibrant," you know the writer is either a smug urban "planning" overlord or a reporter who doesn't know that he or she is being taken in by one.

That's when I first discovered the meaningless buzzword, in a 2004 Planning Dept. document that signaled UC that City Hall would let it cash in on the Extension property on lower Haight Street---which it had had tax-free for 50 years because of its education "mission"---by jamming 500 housing units onto six acres that had been zoned for "public use" for 150 years

When you're trying to sell a bad idea, your language will be bad, and the author of the document wrote opaquely about "vibrant local services," and "robust access to public transit," and "a vibrant mix of [housing]unit types."

But the term has spread like a virus since I first blogged about it in 2005. A Republican politician used it the other day in an unexpected context:

Saying he could "bring a different face" and a new GOP message to California, [Abel]Maldonado told The Chronicle in an interview that he is strongly mulling a run against the three-term Democrat---not only to strengthen his party, but also to encourage the kind of vibrant two-party political debate that makes for "a better state."

And presumably a more "vibrant" state.

And there's even a new "urbanist" blog called Vibrant Bay Area.

Thomas Frank in The Baffler analyzes the use of the word by boosters at some length in "Dead End on Shakin' Street." He's good on the whole, sketchy concept of vibrancy:

Your hometown is probably vibrant, too. Every city is either vibrant these days or is working on a plan to attain vibrancy soon. The reason is simple: a city isn’t successful—isn’t even a city, really—unless it can lay claim to being “vibrant.” Vibrancy is so universally desirable, so totemic in its powers, that even though we aren’t sure what the word means, we know the quality it designates must be cultivated. The vibrant, we believe, is what makes certain cities flourish. The absence of vibrancy, by contrast, is what allows the diseases of depopulation and blight to set in.

...As with other clichés, describing a city as “vibrant” was once a fairly innovative thing to do. Before 1950, the adjective was used mainly to describe colors and sound—the latter of which, after all, is transmitted through the air with vibrations. People’s voices were often said to be “vibrant.” As were, say, notes played on an oboe. To apply the adjective to a“community” or a “scene,” on the other hand, was extremely unusual back then. In fact, the word “vibrant” does not seem to appear at all in the 1961 urban classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, even though that book is often remembered as the very manifesto of vibrancy theory. How the expression made the leap from novelty to gold-plated bureaucratic buzzword is anyone’s guess. It is a cliché that I personally associate with NPR—not merely because announcers on that network tend to hymn the vibrant with complete indifference to the word’s exhaustion, but because they always seem to believe they are saying something really fresh and profound about a place or a “scene” when they tag it thus...

Even ArtPlace, the big vibrancy project of the NEA, the banks, and the foundations is not entirely sure that vibrancy can be observed or quantified. That’s why the group is developing what it calls “Vibrancy Indicators”: “While we are not able to measure vibrancy directly,” the group’s website admits, “we believe that the measures we are assembling, taken together, will provide useful insights into the nature and location of especially vibrant places within cities.”

What are those measures? Unfortunately, at press time they had not yet been announced. But a presentation of preliminary work on the “Vibrancy Indicators” did include this helpful directive: “Inform leaders of the connection between vibrancy and prosperity.”

Got that? We aren’t sure what vibrancy is or whether or not it works, but part of the project is nevertheless “informing” people that it does. The meaninglessness of the term, like the absence of proof, does not deter the committed friend of the vibrant...

This is not the place to try to gauge the enormous, unaccountable power that foundations wield over American life—their agenda-setting clout in urban planning debates, for example, or the influence they hold over cash-strapped universities, or their symbiosis with public broadcasters NPR and PBS. My target here is not their power, but their vacuity. Our leadership class looks out over the trashed and looted landscape of the American city, and they solemnly declare that salvation lies in an almost meaningless buzzword—that if we chant that buzzword loud enough and often enough, our troubles are over...(emphasis added)

[Later: The Morning after I posted this, the Chronicle's John King has a column with this head: "Vibrant cities roll with the punches." Good comment: "When you have to write an article to convince everyone that your girlfriend is actually pretty, chances are she isn't." Click on "John King" below for more vibrancy from King.]

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At 11:59 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The King hed has both a single word cliche (vibrant) and cliched metaphor (roll with the punches).


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