Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pittsburgh City Planning Strikes Again!

A few years ago, the Department of City Planning in Pittsburgh managed to frighten many homeowners with a badly written letter about a new zoning initiative called "Map Pittsburgh." The letter used lots of jargon, passive voice, long words and sentences and a demeaning tone. Homeowners who tried to read the letter, like my (then)86-year old mother-in-law, thought they were breaking the law. Many of these people complained to the City and the letter had to be re-written and re-sent (your tax dollars at work).

That letter served me very well in my role as writing teacher to public policy and public management graduate students at the Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University. I have used the Map Pittsburgh letter in my classes for years as an example of how not to write. I'd share it with you here, but I have another, a 2009 version of equally awful, bureaucratic writing. This one arrived, again, at my mother-in-law's house, and she had no idea what it meant. I offer it here for your enjoyment:

"Dear resident:
A bill has been introduced in City Council and referred to the Planning Commission for a report and recommendation. The bill proposes a text amendment to the Zoning Code that revises sections in the Code governing uses permitted in the UI, Urban Industrial District; GI, General Industrial District; and EMI, Educational/Medical Institution District. The proposed amendment would require that a number of uses in those districts be permitted as conditional uses. A copy of the proposed text amendment may be reviewed at the Zoning Office on the 3rd floor of 200 Ross St., Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.

The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed text amendments on: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 @ 2:00 p.m. John P. Robin Civic Building, 1st Floor 200Ross Street, Pittsburgh, PA.

Testimony presented by individuals will be limited to 3 minutes each. Testimony presented by a spokesperson representing an organization will be limited to 5 minutes each, and the spokesperson shall provide a “Letter of Authorization” from the appropriate officers. Prepared comments may be presented in lieu of testimony, and testimony should not be read from a prepared statement but may be summarized as testimony with the prepared statement handed to the Commission for their review."

Is that a beauty of bureaucracy and befuddlement, or what!? Can any of you tell me what that first paragraph says or what it asks a (now) 94-year old widow with an 8th grade education to do? I read it a few times and had little understanding. Because I know the area, however, I had a clue. It involved the following language: "uses permitted in...Medical/Educational". I had a sense that Allegheny General Hospital had something to do with this zoning business since my mother-in-law lives half a block away from AGH.

But, really! Is this the way to communicate with people? Does this sound like "newspeak" from the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's Oceania? If nothing else, it borders on the kind of messages sent to the Proles by Big Brother in the novel "1984." That language was meant to conceal, not reveal. It depended on passive constructions where the doer of action is anonymous and buzz words are empty of meaning.

I copied the language of the city's recent letter into a Word document and then did a readability scan of it. My computer, using the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Index told me that the writing is 50% passive with 26.1 words per sentence (15 is recommended), a grade level of 14 and reading ease of 31.3 (100 is best). Many newspapers recommend a grade level of 8-11 because, despite gains in literacy, people do not read well. In fact the New York Times published an article recently stating that "Literacy Falls for Graduates from College."

A letter such as the city's, if it is to be mass mailed to blocks of residents, must aim for the 8-11 grade level readers. Hell, I have a Masters degree in English and I have little idea what the letter says. Whatever the reading levels, our democracy depends on the free flow of information between government and its constituents. We must know what our public servants are doing and we must easily understand what they are telling us. Of course, this isn't possible in the anonymous letter above sent by the Department of City Planning to "Bloc & Lot: 23-H-151 Welty Dorothy F."

The recent letter was not signed (even Patrick Ford, despite his failures, signed the earlier letter). I don't blame the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning writer (likely a lawyer) for being anonymous in this year's version. I wouldn't want anyone to know that I had written it either.


  1. Hi Ed,

    I passed this on to a friend of mine who works in City government --I'm sure he didn't write the letter-but maybe he can pester the person who did!


  2. Wasn't it a doozy!? BTW, I love that photo of you! Enjoy the vacation! Are you taking your Levi?