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…