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What's in a Street Name?

This article was written by Geoff Manaugh in November 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

The Economist reports that a "massive street-renaming project" is now underway in Shanghai. "Some 838 streets are involved in the overhaul," the article explains. "Many of the names will be changed completely, others will be altered and a few, somehow, will be eliminated altogether." Incredibly, the project will involve "the revision of 106 traffic signs, 1,667 road signs, 9,807 personal-identification cards, 10,726 building address plates, 17 bus lines and 972 bus signs." There's no word how much all that will cost, nor whether individual residents and businesses will foot the bill, but, in the interest of clarifying the city, Shanghai's Municipal Urban Planning Bureau is determined to see the program through to completion.

For me, this story raises the larger and more interesting question of how streets are named in the first place – including what effects new names might have on the public's sense of the city. If 5th Avenue in New York was renamed The Avenue of a Thousand Buddhas, for instance, or London's Tottenham Court Road became, say, The Way of Quantum Electrodynamism – or Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin turned into Tongue-Of-The-Silver-Dragon-Allee... clearly, people would see these streets somewhat differently.

New names can stultify or invigorate whole neighborhoods – or do nothing at all, as streets named after Ivy League universities and Greek philosophers seem destined to do. Living on Harvard Street sounds imaginatively bankrupt at best, whilst Euclid Avenue does little to raise the intellectual hopes of the local community.

In any case, this revision of names, signs, and other urban orientations is certainly not unique to Shanghai. Right now, for instance, at New London Architecture, there's an exhibition called Legible London.

Legible London confronts the city on the level of typography: focusing almost entirely on graphic design, the exhibition hopes "to make it easier to walk in and around the capital by developing a coordinated wayfinding system to serve Londoners and visitors alike."

Rather than rename entire districts or sections of streets to make the city more coherent, Legible London convincingly argues that you just need to install better signage.

As the exhibition guide points out:

London is one of the most beautiful walking cities in the world, but it’s often hard to navigate above ground. Many people use the tube map to find their way walking the streets, even though it distorts our perception of distance and direction. As a result, people often use other transport modes even for short distances, when walking would be quicker and more pleasant: 1 in 20 people exiting Leicester Square tube station were found to have travelled a distance of less than 800 metres.

To combat this over-use of motorized transport, and to get people out there using their feet, the exhibition proposes that London unite its myriad of bewildering street signs both typographically and formally: the same height, dimensions, fonts, terminology, etc. This will make it harder to lose oneself – and, in theory, it will also encourage people to go for a stroll around "one of the most beautiful walking cities in the world," without relying on mechanized transport.

However, not being able to lose oneself in the city does have drawbacks; there is psychological value in not knowing, or even understanding, where you stand. In a review of Iain Sinclair's new book, London: City of Disappearances, for instance, we read how London "is a city of the forgotten," where anyone "can still disappear without trace."

Indeed, the reviewer claims, London "calls to those whose one desire is to vanish," because it is a city "built upon lost things." London "towers above forgotten underground rivers and discarded tunnels. It is built upon old graveyards and burial pits."

Without turning the city into an encyclopedia of itself – or some massively cross-referenced self-documenting archaeological site, inspired by Borges – these things will never receive their own signage. They exist between addresses, in the general atmosphere of the city, and it would seem no amount of urban typography could satisfyingly locate them.

Further, entire streets have disappeared: "Catherine Street, Jewin Street, Golden Place are just three of the vanished thoroughfares named in a litany of sorrowful mysteries," our reviewer explains. "Other streets have been curtailed. Swallow Street has been swallowed by burgeoning London. Grub Street has been renamed Milton Street."

The city erases itself as it expands through history; its continual self-renewal leaves behind old signs like fossils in the midst of untrafficked junctions, where obsolete arrows point to sites that no longer exist.

Of course, the purpose of Legible London is not to signpost every square inch of the city, marking every historical artifact in every remembered location. Its purpose is altogether more simple and municipally well-timed: through signs, Legible London hopes to make London more accessible to pedestrians, to get people off of public transport and into the streets together.

If the everyday poetry of losing oneself in the city is not something we should design out of the human experience, then we need to recognize that, if no one bothers walking at all because they don't know how to get anywhere – and so they simply take a bus – most people will never find themselves pushing the boundaries of urban familiarity in the first place.

A good pedestrian sign system will show us the way, providing enough information for us to set off on foot – whilst leaving specific incidents and exploratory details up to the walker's own mood and imagination.

Walking in the City
is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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