The Definition of Suitable: Not “common”


You may have read that title and thought “Uh, Jeff… did you mean to publish this post somewhere else? Some kind of dictionary blog?” Yes, definitions of words not related to sustainability might seem a bit outside of our purview… until you read the story of Julie Bass, and the legal battle she’s fighting with her city government. After sewer repairs earlier this year resulted in a torn-up front yard, Julie decided not to replace her lawn, but to put in several raised beds for vegetable gardening. Seems innocuous enough, but Julie is now facing prosecution for her front yard garden… and that prosecution is largely based (you guessed it) on the definition of the word “suitable.”

According to Oak Park, Michigan’s city code, unpaved portions of front yards must be planted with grass, ground cover, trees, shrubs, or other “suitable live plant material.” Julie’s citations and prosecution are based on this part of the code; Technical and Planning Director Kevin Rulkowski argues that her gardens don’t conform to the code because the definition of “suitable” is “common.” Rulkowski cites “the dictionary” in one article, and “Webster’s dictionary” in the video above as the source of this definition.

So, I put my former English professor hat on and did just a little digging… and can’t find any dictionary that defines the word suitable as “common” or anything remotely like it.

  • According to the most recent online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (the standard for English language scholars… which is only available by subscription), the only current acceptable definition of “suitable” is “That is fitted for, adapted or appropriate to a person’s character, condition, needs, etc., a purpose, object, occasion, or the like.” In short, appropriate. Some obsolete definitions might suit the city’s purpose, but even they don’t mean common; rather they mean conforming to or agreeable with things nearby, adjacent to… so, complementary colors of clothing are suitable to one another. Again, this is not a meaning in common use any more.
  • Dictionaries that are used more broadly also don’t support Rulkowski’s definition — I’m assuming most people now use online dictionaries, so here are entries for “suitable” from Google dictionary, Dictionary.com, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online (which I assume is what Rulkowski meant by “Webster’s dictionary”… an imprecise use of the phrase that I’ve seen in countless freshmen essays… any publisher can call their dictionary a “Webster’s dictionary.”)
  • I have no doubt that Rulkowski and others at city hall liked “common” because it’s (to some degree) quantifiable: the prosecutor could than argue that “no other home in the city has a garden in the front yard” or ” a large majority of homes don’t landscape this way,” and they’d have a reasonable argument. But the current acceptable definition, as well as the synonym “appropriate,” are value judgments, and thus subject either to individual values or community-held values. So, the prosecutor would have to show (in my perception, anyway — I’m not an attorney) that the unsuitability of vegetable plants was a commonly-held perception (which, given the reactions from the news report above, seems unlikely), or that Bass’ choice to act on her own values did harm to others.

I’m still a bit aghast at this whole situation… as are others around the green blogosphere (see what Treehugger and Grist, for instance, had to say, as well as my post at SUNfiltered)… but, if it goes to trial, I hope Julie’s lawyer calls a linguist to the stand.

Let us know what you think… is there any situation in which a vegetable garden would be unsuitable…?

UPDATE: If you’re interested in supporting Julie, you’ve got a number of options. She’s started a blog about the legal battle over her garden, and a Facebook page (both of which have become very popular), so let her know you support her. You can also sign Care2’s petition to Kevin Rulkowski, or contact him directly to express your displeasure with Oak Park’s choice to prosecute based on a non-existent definition of “suitable.” Finally, you can donate to her legal defense fund.

Image credit: Ajith_chatie at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

  1. eou

    “…is there any situation in which a vegetable garden would be unsuitable?”

    Perhaps in hard vacuum?

    The argument of the City, as reported anyway, is completely specious.

    Hopefully a positive precedent will arise from this situation. I’d love to see some civil disobedience in support of Mrs. Bass; perhaps those in the area who have a patch of front yard available can set up gardens of their own?

    Thanks for the blog.



    1. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

      It is.. and what’s sad is I really didn’t have to dig that deep: I just had to look up the word to confirm my suspicion that no definition of “suitable” means “common.” I really don’t think this guy looked the word up… he just assumed no one else would, either.

  2. Deborah

    You ask: is there any situation in which a vegetable garden would be unsuitable…?

    And a fine question it is! Apparently it is unsuitable in certain areas where uniformity of appearance, action, and thought are prized.

    I posted about this bizarre city complaint on my blog earlier this week, and commenters have expressed incredulity. In a world where obesity and related health problems are rampant, in a world where millions are starving because of drought, fire, floods, and other disasters, in a world where children (and many adults) don’t know where food comes from, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would object to a home garden.

    Perhaps Oak Park’s city manager owns Monsanto stock? Or perhaps he objects to vegetables in general? Or to self-sufficiency?

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