The phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” was coined in the 1919 Supreme court case of Schenck v. United States. In this case, Justice Holmes makes in his analogy that the protest of the WWI draft by Charles T. Schenck was akin to shouting fire in a crowded theater. In other words, it was the creation of unnecessary panic. To quote the indelible Wikipedia:
“Holmes wrote of falsely shouting fire, because, of course, if there were a fire in a crowded theater, one may rightly indeed shout “Fire!”; one may, depending on the law in operation, even be obliged to. Falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, i.e. shouting “Fire!” when one believes there to be no fire in order to cause panic, was interpreted not to be protected by the First Amendment.”
Over the past week, I have been muddling over this phrase and its function. If Holmes is correct, then we should assume that false claims are careless. This I can agree to. But as designers, could it also be argued that we make false claims on a regular basis. The livelihood of many designers relies on their ability to stir a frenzy and need in the masses. In fact, many professions rely on this. From politicians and journalists to advertisers and lobbyists, these parties thrive off of bringing order to disorder but are often the creates of the disorder in the first place. That’s what makes them good at their jobs.
How, then, do we distinguish from a farce and the truth? When we are surrounded by the next best solution to a problem that didn’t exist in the first place, how do we know when there is a problem in the first place?
This brings me to today. I recently began a summer internship, and will likely be working on a project with the city of Atlanta’s transit department (I’d love to say more, but cant disclose any details yet!). In planning our proposal, the design team met with local designer and transit advocate Alison Tallman.
We talked at length about applicability of good local transit and the public reputation of Atlanta’s current system. Alison turned me on the phrase “Transit Oriented Development,” or TOD, and one of its biggest supporters Jeff Speck. In his TED Talk, Speck eloquently talks about the radical changes that can happen in a city when we start to prioritize people over cars, sidewalks over turn lanes, bus routes over rush hour traffic. He advocates for building centers around transit stations, rather than supporting urban sprawl. In his aptly titled book, “Walkable City” he goes into detail about the revitalization of urban communities and the importance this will have as record numbers of people move back into urban environments.
My research also led me to a talk by former New York City transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan. She echoed Speck’s sentiments and furthered by highlighting examples of New York investing in pedestrian and bike traffic over that of cars. I highly recommend watching both of their talks if you are interested in transit issues.
Commissioner Sadik-Khan and Speck bring up incredible valid concerns and make compelling calls to action. They present a very real need for TOD and support it with substantial research. So, why then, is there not a greater alarm. Who is shouting fire? Perhaps this is the greatest issue. We as a culture are saturated with calls to action. At every turn our attention and heart strings are asked of. Sometimes for very real causes, and sometimes not. Its left to us to wade through the pool of marketing to figure out what is actually a fire, and what is just hot air. Its exhausting and overwhelming.
I truly believe that at the end of the day, the public wants to do the right thing. How then, can design communicate the importance of TOD without overwhelming. How can we empower the residents of urban communities to advocate for walkable cities, and in turn allow them to live more productive and health lives.
Well, sound the alarm. It’s time to light a fire. We just want to make sure that no one is burned in the process.