Plandemonium 2: The Language of the Planner – is it all just jargon?

Words by Sue Houseago.

On Thursday 28th January, Stroud’s Old Town Hall was again warmly lit and vibrant with anticipation, as Civic Society members and visitors awaited Rob Cowen’s second challenging talk ‘Plandemonium 2’.

After our Chairman, Juliet Shipman, welcomed us all, Tim Mars introduced our speaker through the extended metaphor of Rob and himself as institutionalised cell mates, to conjure up very effectively a picture of two Cambridge, fun loving, fast speaking young men, who contrived to use the vagaries of language to defeat the world.

Rob began his talk by making us laugh at Stroud’s local newspaper’s use of hyperbole to describe, among other subjects, the ‘absolute nightmare’ of a pair of aggressive swans making life a misery for residents living near them, one poor woman, we heard, ‘was afraid to go outside’.

However, the true focus of Rob’s talk, as he told me earlier, was to concentrate on the language of the planner, who uses, unlike the architect’s more ‘visual’ descriptions, ‘process’ to deal with the complexity of creating a successful development.

As a writer, cartoonist and director of the consultancy, Urban Design Skills, Rob would seem well qualified to comment on the foibles of a planner’s language. To add to his revelations about the latter’s cunning use of jargon, he drew much laughter with slides of often hard hitting cartoons. He was amused to add that in over 20 years of producing weekly cartoons in a planning magazine, he had discovered that the nastier they were, the more they were enjoyed!

Planning words, Rob continued, using his own jargon, ‘get professionalised’. For example, consultants were commissioned to come up with a new word for ‘sustainability’ and after two years’ struggle came up with – ‘sustainability’. Rob also told us delightedly, with an apposite cartoon, about a new word evolved in Canada – ‘Quax’ which described men shopping by bike. Another illustration, this time of a smug looking cat, illustrated the word ‘smog’. He then began to quote planning phrases like ”The window responds to the city, and the city responds to the window’, to show how planners expect words ‘to do it all for us’. 

Rob’s rapid talk took him from quoting Buckminster Fuller (an innovative American architect) to mention of the Prince of Wales, to illustrate his many diverse points. He showed, for example, how planning developers might use deceptive diagrams to reveal how easily four houses can be fitted into a space left by a bungalow.

Rob evoked a final, rather cynical laugh at the ‘inclusive’ sounding phrase – ‘Go and consult the Community’, which means, he explained; ‘I’d like to ask you about some questions offering meaningless choices about things that we have no power to do anything about anyway.

It seemed that Rob Cohen’s light-hearted and entertaining talk served the more serious purpose of alerting his audience to the linguistic deceptions of the planning world: offering through word play and cartoons, information which may help us to play the planner at his own game.


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