Should words other than ‘Master’ be used to describe long-range plans?

Community activists say some African-Americans find the term Master Plan offensive. Some PCPC members say using another word is worth discussing, not only for the activists’ reasons, but because the term’s outdated.

A group of African-American community activists wants the city to stop using the phrase “master plan,” saying an adjective other than one that evokes slavery can be used to denote important planning documents.

The term “master plan” has long been used by planners everywhere to describe large, comprehensive, long-range plans mapping out goals that will not be quickly realized.

But Tiffany Green and Tim Hannah of Black Communities United said as they’ve talked about planning efforts in their communities, people have found the word “master” offensive. “Many African Americans find that word to be insulting,” Green said. “It is a word that was used at a time that was a very bad experience for the black community,” she said.

Green and Hannah, who are both also part of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, told the commission BCU would soon be sending a letter to Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and City Council President Darrell Clarke, asking that “the master word be scrapped.”

During the meeting, Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger, who is also deputy mayor for economic development, said it was an interesting idea.

Greenberger said he has his own issues with “master plan,” in part because the term makes it sound as though the goals and ideas within are carved in stone. “It’s an old school term that makes it sound as if everything has been sorted out in advance,” he added after the meeting.

Greenberger said he wasn’t certain whether the PCPC would have a follow-up discussion on abandoning the term.

At least two planning commissioners are open to discussing a new word choice.

Commissioner Beth Miller, who is also executive director of the Community Design Collaborative, said her organization sometimes uses the adjective master in front of plan, and called it a “term of art” of planning. “But maybe there is a better word,” she said. “Maybe we could be the first city to stop using it.”

Commissioner Manny Citron said there were discussions of abandoning the term because it’s outdated when he was working on his masters degree in planning at Ohio State University. He graduated in 2008.

Citron, (who is also the city’s assistant managing director, but made it clear he was not speaking for the administration), said it wouldn’t make sense for the city to just replace every “master plan” with another single term, he said. But some documents could be comprehensive plans, some plans of development, and some area plans, depending on context.

He said it’s not just the plannerly reasons, but cultural ones, that make choosing other words “an idea worth pursuing.”

People in planning pay attention to the impact of words and language, he said.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal