Regulating Place: Standards and the Shaping of Urban America

By Eran Ben-Joseph; Terry S. Szold | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2

Design Standards

Whose Meanings?

JOHN R. STILGOE

A study of the changing meanings of words repays the attention of anyone interested in design standards and regulations. For instance, in an early edition of Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) the word truth had a fixity and authority about it. Webster defined it as “conformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been, or shall be.” By 1997, truth had acquired a more socially rooted definition. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary included truth as “a judgement, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true.” The American Heritage Collegiate Dictionary (2000) concurred: truth is “a statement proven to be or accepted as true.”

Thus, the American lexicography of truth suggests that truth is out there, removed from human construction, while simultaneously it lives as a creature of people who agree to believe something as true. So, too, “standard English” turns out to be something very nonstandard indeed, but rather something all too easily agreed upon by the upper middle managers of United States culture. 1 It forms a useful portal not only on urban design standards and regulations, but also on their perception by various publics who read them.

Urban designers now confront the insidious impact of standard English, shaping almost the entire fabric of urban design through its shaping of the wording of urban design standards. Enacted into law or into codes having the impact of law, urban design standards by definition prove accessible to anyone,

-17-

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