Monday, January 29, 2018

The Culture of Street Names

When you visit a typical English village for the first time you probably won't need a map. In most English villages you can guide yourself just by using the road names.

For example, if you arrive by train then you will probably emerge from the station onto Station Road. Walk down Station Road (past the Railway Arms / Tavern or Inn) and you will come to the High Street. Walk past all the shops on the High Street and eventually you will find Church Lane. Walk down Church Lane and you will find the village's pretty Norman church.

If you visit a German village then you could probably use the exact same directions (translated into German).

It seems to be a common feature in Europe that the most popular or most common street names are named for important landmarks. For example, streets are commonly named after churches, stations and schools. The main road, where most of the shops are located, is normally called 'Main Street' (in the UK it may often be called the 'High Street' instead).

In north America things are a little different. Most European towns have grown organically over centuries, often around important local landmarks such as a church or market. North American towns, on the other hand, have more often been planned, usually using a grid system. If you have a grid system then it makes sense to number your roads.

According to City Lab half of all American cities have some sort of numerical street naming system. The Geography of Street Numbering in US Cities looks in some depth into the advantages and popularity of giving streets numbers as names.

You can compare the popularity of different street names in north America and Europe in the table below. This shows the top ten most popular street names in the USA, Canada, England and Germany.

 Germany (translated)
Second Second  High Street Main Street
Third First Church Lane  School Street
First Third Station Road  Garden Street
Fourth Main Church Street Station Street
Park Fourth Mill Lane Village Street
Fifth Maple Church Road Mountain Street
MainFifth Green Lane Birch Road
Sixth Park Main Street  Lime Street
Oak Church School Lane Church Street
Seventh Sixth New Road Forest Street

You can see for yourself how in the USA and Canada numbers dominate the top ten most popular street names. In Canada the Maple is very popular (for obvious reasons), whereas in the USA the Oak appears to be the most popular tree.

Once you get past the highest numbers then both the USA and Canada do start to name streets for local landmarks, buildings or geographical features. For example, streets might be named 'Park', 'Church' or 'Lake'.

If you are interested in the cultural and historical background of street names then you might also like:

The Most Popular Street Names in America
How Popular is Your German Street Name?

USA street names - FiveThirtyEight
Canada - the10and3
England - Journal of Economic Geography
Germany - Die häufigsten Straßennamen in Deutschland
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