Doublespeak Guide

Often one gets a sense that George Orwell provided the guide for lingo at City Hall. Below we attempt to decode the doublespeak. Please use the comment function to suggest new terms and concise definitions. Grab a cup of tea, then read on (and laugh and cry). Our theory is that the users of jargon and doublespeak do not necessarily lack communication skills, but rather, are not willing to state the true meaning, for various reasons. For the lighter side of jargon and doublespeak, enjoy this animation.

“Protected view”
Usual usage: A critical and precious public view that is protected for public enjoyment.
Actual meaning: The small section of sky or mountains indicated is protected from encroachment by new buildings, but everything else is completely up for grabs. The flip side of “protecting” a miniscule view is implicit permission to destroy all that is not “protected.”

“Landing density”
(This is reference to the 1.2 million square feet of “heritage density” currently “banked” by developers in Vancouver.)
Meaning in English: The City’s Planning Department grants a developer (usually a large amount of) additional floor area into a rezoning application to allow for a larger building than might otherwise have existed” somewhere else.
[CityHallWatch comment: Click here for example of actual usage. Note that this Shannon Mews project is a precedent for a change to Vancouver’s Transfer of Density policy that allows “density” to be transfered from the “Heritage Density Bank” into neighbourhoods outside of the allowed “landing” areas of downtown and Central Broadway. Neighbourhoods, be forewarned! This precedent will have implications city-wide.]

“Urban containment boundary” (Metro Van Regional Growth Strategy)
Meaning in practice: “Urban sprawl expansion line”

“Urban sprawl”
The spreading of urban developments (as houses and shopping centres) on undeveloped land near a city. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Note 1. Expect a lot on this topic in January 2011. Officials are telling media that the Metro Vancouver Regional Development Plan (before the Board on Jan 14) does NOT promote urban sprawl. Reporters, please ask how the your interviewees define this term, then show them the pictures.]
Note 2. The alternative for urban sprawl is often said to be greater urban density, which then becomes a justification for forcing extreme changes on communities in the city, but good thinkers know that there are many ways to achieve density, and the topic requires good discussion in a civil society of the options, pros and cons, costs and benefits.

“Discretionary height”
Regular meaning: In contrast to “outright” height (the maximum height normally permitted for a building on a site) “discretionary height” is the greatest height permitted after applying “discretion.” For example, Section 4.3.2 of RM5 Zoning (much of the West End) says “The Director of Planning or the Development Permit Board, as the case may be, may permit an increase in the maximum height of a building to a height not exceeding 58.0 m provided that the livability and environmental quality of the surrounding neighbourhood is not unduly harmed and provided that it first considers: (a) the intent of this Schedule and all applicable policies and guidelines adopted by Council; (b) the submission of any advisory group, property owner or tenant; and  (c) the effects on public and private views, sunshine, privacy and open spaces.” Factors also influencing the granting of any additional height above the outright permitted height include good design and a very solid case as to the net benefit to the community, only awarded with careful discretion and deliberation.
Meaning as used by planning department: The starting point for negotiations between the City and a developer. Developers also get additional height from heritage density transfer, purchased density, amenity contributions, and, well “just because,” and no attention is paid to decades-long practices such as in the Burrard slopes 3-A guidelines. Nor is any consideration required for “character of place.”  A tall slim tower works anywhere and always has “considerable merit.” This is how the site at 1569W 6th Ave (rezoned Oct 2010) started with an “outright” height of 9.2 meters and maximum 30.5-meter “discretionary height,” but the approved tower ended up as 47.16 meters, a 54% increase in height over what is supposed to be the maximum discretionary height. See our pages on “1569 West 6th” for a expert presentation by a retired city engineer and more.

Usual meaning: Something done or said that may serve as an example or rule to authorize or justify a subsequent act of the same or analogous kind. A convention established by such a precedent. (Context: Bonuses to developers for additional height and density of a building)
Planning Department: Precedents do not exist. It is suggested that the fact that a 70-storey building permitted on one site will have absolutely no influence on the land speculation, developers’ requests, council decisions, or planning department staff recommendations.

“Public Support”
Usual meaning: A statistically relevant percentage of the public that supports something. E.g., “69 percent public support” would normally mean 69% of a statistically relevant sample of Vancouver’s 580,000 residents.
Their meaning: Fudged numbers, not statistically relevant. Example, a councillor elect on CBC Radio “On the Coast” (6pm, Dec 16, 2010), when he said “69 percent of the public supports the [Vancouver Views] policy,” actually meant that 69 percent of the roughly 70 written responses that made it through Planning Department screening (we know for a fact that some comments were shredded or ignored) from people who chanced to notice a small (and inaccurate) advertisement in a local newspaper and were able to attend one of three Open Houses held only downtown, and of which numerous responses are suspected to be from development industry employees.

Proponents’ meaning: A high human population unit of urban area, which theoretically reduces the ecological footprint. According to Wikipedia, Vancouver was the first city in North America to unapologetically accept increased density as official city policy.
Actual meaning in practice: No eco, all density. The term is often used to greenwash large construction projects that dramatically increase the population by increasing the permitted height and floor space on a given site or area, often at the expense of many other important values in a community, including livability, affordability, solar access, and character of the neighbourhood, and often without a meaningful public discussion about the costs, and even the actual environmental benefits.

As used by staff in Council presentations, this means that what is being said now does not have to be held accountable of applied to any other specific situation. Closely related to the use of “precedent.” Creates wiggle room and soothes listeners.

“Public consultation”
Provision of jargonistic and somewhat factually-challenged information to the public, often by obscure newspaper ads, receiving responses from the people who happened by chance to find out about the opportunity, and then summarizing any opposition in a few words as “concerns.”

“You can legally set up a structure for political expression”
(Mayor Robertson wrote in an 20 April 2011 e-mail message to supporters, “Vancouver is now the only city in North America where you can legally set up a structure for political expression. In cities like Ottawa, Toronto, San Francisco, Portland, Washington DC, it’s illegal.”)
Our take: That’s doublespeak at its best. Who writes his material? The definition of what is legal creates a huge domain that becomes illegal. “Giving” here equals “taking away.” It appears that Vancouver’s Mayor fully intended to approve amendments to the Street and Traffic By-Law (after a confidential meeting of 3 parties, including the government of China) on April 7, after only about 24 hours after the text was made public. But a public outcry resulted in some amendments, which the Mayor’s regime forced through council against strong opposition late at night on April 19. [Correction: According to CBC, Vision Clr Raymond Louie voted against the motion, to be confirmed when minutes are issued.] The Mayor claims that the bylaw enhances freedom of expression, but after the dust settles, things will be clearer. The bylaw could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression of current and future generations — with a mandatory advance permit process (which means the likelihood of rejection), an inadequate description of criteria and appeals processes, fines of up to $5000, and more. Our society has given absolute power to one political “party” (Vision Vancouver, with 8 of 11 votes in Council, and which still has not fully disclosed the lender that covered its 2008 campaign debt of a quarter-million dollars) during this three-year term, and they have voted as a bloc in most of the critical votes this year. Information on important council decisions has repeatedly been provided to the public at the last possible moment. With absolute power comes great responsibility. Is this regime using its power responsibly and in the public interest? What matters not is the intent of a bylaw, but the bylaw’s actual, exact words. How can our society today ensure that future councils will not take a hard-line stance of intolerance against citizens who wish to communicate in public? This bylaw is something we should all continue to monitor closely.


Process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces earlier use, usually poorer residents.

Coming soon.

Randy Chatterjee I didn’t note, but do you wish to be on this committee, Rand?

One thought on “Doublespeak Guide

  1. “Ecodensity”
    Usual meaning: Greenwashing eco-babble.
    Actual meaning: All density, no eco. Generally used to obfuscate the standard blockbusting development tactics of city politicians/staffers in league with developers (see Vancouver laneway housing) to promote neighbourhood/community densification at the expense of livability.

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