From Knute Berger comes an idea that is sheer brilliance: re-naming city streets. Because the places we love should be named not for integers, but for people.
Just for example, would not Seattle be a better city if “Northeast 125th Street”—a memorable name to be sure—were named for the poet Gary Snyder, who wrote much about the Northwest, and who lived in the area as a child? Or might not “12th Avenue East” sound better as Bruce Lee Avenue—I mean,right? — to honor the Seattleite who once lived nearby, and is buried in the cemetery that interrupts the street?
Plus, there’s a sustainability dimension. Great cities—the kind of places that can last, and that foster thriving communities—are forward-looking. And yet they are also densely layered with history and context, with echoes of the people who lived here before us.
Unfortunately, nowadays the city streets are mostly relics that commemorate the standard crew of 19th century white guys who founded the place. That, or worse: they’re just a bland exercise in sequential counting. With a few notable exceptions, street names in the Northwest are devoid of local distinction, and they ignore the rich histories that unfolded long after the city fathers laid down the grid. It’s a sorry lot: uncreative, disappointing, and overwhelmingly Eurocentric.
Yet re-naming is entirely possible! Both Seattle and Portland boast a major thoroughfare named for Martin Luther King Jr, and there are a handful of small scale examples scattered about. But it hasn’t happened often enough.
To correct things, Knute has developed a terrific list of iconic personalities that deserve recognition on Seattle’s streets. To me, it seemed like such an obviously good idea that I was almost surprised it hadn’t been done before. I mean of course Seattle should have streets named for Denise Levertov, Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Bernie Whitebear, Bertha Knight Landes, Harvey Manning, Bill Boeing, Patsy Bullit, and so on. (You can listen to more discussion in a KUOW program this morning.)
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Are there problems with the idea? Sure, but they’re surmountable. Re-naming streets need not be a terribly costly endeavor, especially if executed in tandem with other projects, and carefully planned. It might cause a little navigational confusion for out-of-towners, but GPS technology and other automated systems have obviated some of the need for numbered streets anyway.
And if officially re-naming streets seems too intrusive, there are alternatives. We might begin by naming alleyways, some of which have the potential to blossom as pedestrian corridors with small-scale retail. Or we might assign unofficial honorific names to street segments. (Perhaps the street’s unofficial name might appear on distinctive signage and enter local parlance, but go missing from official maps and addresses.) Or we might take a cue from my neighborhood’s preservationists who quietly add tile mosaics on sidewalks to indicate the old names of the City of Ballard, names that were erased in favor of digits following the long-ago annexation by Seattle.
I’m less familiar with the street names and histories of other Northwest cities, but a cursory review tells me that they’re in pretty much the same boat as Seattle. Here’s a very brief look at the downtowns of the region’s three biggest cities, with sincere apologies to the other great cities. (I hope residents of those places will chime in, in comments!)
In Portland, the east-west streets north of downtown are ordered alphabetically, starting curiously enough with a B: Burnside (unless you count Arkeny Street, which extends a scant 5 blocks west from the river.) But through downtown the streets are a mishmash of flora and fauna (Pine, Alder, Salmon), Oregon-centric names (Yamhill, Columbia), and American legacy names (Washington, Jefferson, Madison)—but these appear in no particular order. The north-south streets are simply numbered, starting with 1st Avenue one block inland from the Willamette.
In Seattle, the named streets downtown, which run east-west, appear to be jumbled randomly. In fact, locals resort to the curious mnemonic device “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Pressure” to recall the order of the streets, though the device has a margin of error of 1 block. (Some people use “protest” instead of “pressure.”) The north-south streets are numbered, starting with First Avenue a couple of blocks up from Elliott Bay. (East of I-5, however, a patch of the Capitol Hill neighborhood boasts named streets running in both directions.)
Vancouver’s downtown peninsula proves that you can dispense with significant digits and give every street a proper name. Beyond downtown, however, Vancouver uses the more common system, numbering east-west streets and naming those that run north-south. Perhaps an indicator of national character, Vancouver’s street names exhibit a preference for order that seems to have been lost to the south. All the tree-named streets appear together, then as you move east, all of the province-named streets; then the names of English historical figures.
The Northwest can do better. Urban sustainability initiatives are taking root across the region — and there may be no better time to design truly great cities. Just as geographers have better honored the region’s heritage with the term “Salish Sea,” so urbanists should relish the chance to enliven cities with better names for the places we live. Our cities should burst with the legacies of their people, not replicate the tired old names of other places or settle for dreary integers intended mostly to aid auto navigation.
Since re-naming streets is partly an exercise in poetry, I’m going to induldge myself by closing with an excerpt from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Perhaps it will inspire us.
…sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communicating among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place. It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them…
It’s an interesting idea. But personally I rely on numbered streets to get around, even in my own city. That’s why I love NW Portland, where alphabetized street names crossed with numbers ensure easy navigation.Another thing to consider, picking names may not be as easy as you think. Look at the Cesar Chavez Blvd debate in Portland for one example. Sure, not all names are going to spark controversy, but it’s something to consider.
“Because the places we love should be named not for integers, but for people.”Yes, but what your favorite people ARE integers?
What’s interesting is that some neighborhoods in Seattle originally had non-integer names which eventually were replaced with numbers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Seattle_map_-_Sanborn_Perris_1893_-_U._District_v2.jpg
Personally, I would like to live on Sonny Sixkiller street, a Husky quarterback from my childhood.
Personally, I’ve found that people generally navigate in two ways: by landmarks or by streets and cross sections. The people who navigate via landmarks would probably appreciate more memorable street names, but those who navigate by thinking of the street grid find the sequence of numbers very helpful. Regardless, any time you change a street name you’ll upset someone. I like street numbers but I wasn’t happy when the street I grew up on was changed from “Nolwood Drive” to “950th street.”
I like the alley naming idea best because very localized names would focus improvements. And you know if the city was in charge we’d end up with Starbucks Ave and Amazon St.
I can’t think of any reason that a street shouldn’t have both a number and a name. I have a SSN and a name.Streets would just need to be a little bigger18th: Sonny Sixkiller Ave NW
“Street signs would just need to be a little bigger,” I meant
Boy, you’ve got great timing.Just last week I landed in Seattle and decided to take the light rail to downtown, then walk to my hotel. I’m not familiar with the city, really, so when I started out on foot I knew that I needed to go from 5th toward the lower street numbers, eventually to Alaskan Way. No gps, no device necessary….just a little planning beforehand and thinking about my task before I left for the city. I appreciated the logical numbers and felt a goofy sense of accomplishment for navigating the old fashioned way. Names AND numbers is my vote.
Matt the Engineer
Although I appreciate the idea of historical naming, I really like order in streets. I’ve lived in Seattle for 7 years, 4 of those working downtown, and I still can’t remember the names of all of the E-W streets. I wish those were alphabetical.[Alan] Not a terrible idea, although addresses might be confusing. Writing the whole thing out would be a pain “35442 18th: Sonny Sixkiller Ave NW”, or “the corner of 18th: Sonny Sixkiller Ave NW and 128th: Governor Eric De Place Place NW”. Plus the name part of the street becomes non-useful and therefore may not be used. I would imagine it would go like this: people wouldn’t bother writing it on their return address, they’d give people directions by number, and they’d get in the habit of ignoring the name. This being said, I guess it wouldn’t hurt.I do like that buildings in Seattle generally have names (and wish they’d stop naming new ones after their short-lived owners: what’s WaMu Tower called now?). Maybe I should name my house.
To me, one nasty hallmark of sprawl is illegibility: there’s no rhyme or reason to street names so you don’t know where you are.To me, numbered streets are part of the solution: I wish every American city had them.And remember, pedestrians need legibility more than drivers do- if a driver goes 10 blocks out of her way, its not nearly as big a deal as a pedestrian going 10 blocks out of the way!
It’s nuts that Seattle’s streets are numerals in all directions—numeral ‘avenues’ one direction, numeral ‘streets’ the other, all more confusing with NW, SW, NE, SE with no clear dividing lines or landmarks. Seattle is pretentiously provencial. “This is how we do things heah. You’d understand bettah, if you lived heah.”
Given that mapping/ geolocative technology is so cheap it’s being built into the next wave of pretty much every mobile technology and transportation system, the idea that people will wander around hopelessly befuddled if we gradually change the names of streets doesn’t seem very realistic. On the other hand, people are dumb: I’m fairly wired yet I still manage to mess up the logistics of my life at least once a week.
Frankly, I prefer numbers. Perhaps it’s because I was born in Utah, land of planned cities. Wide boulevards with Olmstedesqe parks and lots and lots and lots of trees. Old trees now. http://www.flickr.com/photos/angelawagner/171011756/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/chickadeetrails/3377569677/They also centered it on a grid. No namby-pambying about. You have east, west, south, and north. 9th east and 9th south? I know exactly where to go in Salt Lake City despite never living there. Now tell me to go to 72nd and Sycamore (literally two blocks from my work, where I go 5 days a week) and I would’ve never known where the heck that was until I looked it up on Google Maps.However, if we were consistent in giving both a name AND number I’d love it: http://morganwick.freehostia.com/streetsigns/Photo-0025.jpg
I prefer names. Harder to learn at first, but worth it. Numbers are helpful where the street grid squarely subjugates topography, but if it is shaped by hills or water, numbers quickly become confusing as 6th imperceptibly becomes 253rd and then 2nd, or worse, 156 intersects with 156 (again) and 156A. I also enjoy the fleeting social connection created by the question “Is Arbutus this way or that way?” and the instinctive confidence of the answer that pops out of your mouth before you even think about it. That said, I think it’s three-digit (or more!) and two-dimensional numbers that I find least welcoming. Somehow fifth or 64th aren’t as mind-numbing as 349th or 236th, particularly when the cross street is Gaglardi, Ravenna or Musqueam.
I’ll also add that naming controversies themselves reflect, and become part of, the rich historical fabric of the place. I remember when Dorchester Blvd. in Montreal was renamed Rene Lesvesque Blvd. some argued that Dorchester had actually done more for Quebecois et Quebecoises than Lesvesque had. A provocative and very debatable argument, but one that to this day I remember every time I walk along Levesque Blvd.
I’ve found that in Mexico naming streets with numbers never really caught on, and combined with overall lack of planning in street placement it makes navigating cities very confusing. People almost never refer to a street name when giving directions to someone unless it is a major thoroughfare and then they might just say ‘the boulevard’. Navigation is by landmarks only.I spend time in Tijuana and the major place where I’ve seen a street grid layout is downtown. Streets there are named with both a number and a name and its much easier to find your way. If an area is compact and coherent, it seems much easier to give named streets. In any case there has to be a logical order to the naming of streets, this is thoughtlessly accomplished by numbers but with some planning a workable system can be achieved with names also.
I like the idea, but it might be harder than you think. In Oregon the Governor just re-named the Beltline freeway in Eugene for Gary Pape, a wealthy businessman that served on the transportation commission (he died last year). There’s been an incredible uproar about spending money to change the signs. 10,000 people joined the Facebook page decrying the name change.
In Portland, we also recently renamed NE 33rd Ave as Cesar Chavez Boulevard, though not without some controversy.Though I don’t think the Chavez Blvd controversy is anywhere near as severe as the trouble that’s been stirred up over renaming the Beltline in Eugene. But the Beltline is kind of an important road in Eugene – it might have been better to name a less important thoroughfare that people are less attached to, and that can be more cheaply re-named. Ah well.