The irony of subdivision names.

Aerial view of sprawl in Trois-Rivières. Photo by  Axel Drainville, used under   creative commons .

Aerial view of sprawl in Trois-Rivières. Photo by Axel Drainville, used under creative commons.

I’ve always found it perplexing that many urban subdivisions, and the streets within, are named after the ecosystems that they’ve replaced. An Elm St. with no arbours; a Brook Cr. with no river to be seen; and a Rolling Hill Ave. that is as flat as a pancake.

Forests are cleared and streams are diverted for many reasons, but the main driver in Canada is the development of urban housing. These final neighbourhoods with perceived commemorative names often fail to justly reflect the original natural landscape.

The city planner and writer, “Holly” William Hollingsworth Whyte said it best in his 1968 book, The Last Landscape:

“The woods and meadows that so attracted [new residents] disappeared as soon as developers got around to building on them, and if the residents wanted to find what other nature features would be next to go, they had only to check the names of the subdivisions being planned. When a developer puts a woods into the name, or a vale, heights, forest, creek, or stream, he is not conserving; he is memorializing.  Subdivisions are named for that which they are about to destroy."

Earlier, in 1949, Stanley L. McMichael proposed a list of hundreds of potential suburban street names in his book Real Estate Subdivisions; including East Gardens, Forest Hill, and Golden Acres. As odd as the existence of this compilation appears, many of the names remain common in North American urban routes today.

Neighbourhood names also have economic value. Comprehensive real-estate research from the University of Georgia found that including the word “country” can increase home values by more than 4%.

Certainly there is a non-economic advantage to naming streets and neighbourhoods with familiar and simple terms and renaming is generally discouraged. For example, the City of Winnipeg stipulates that street names are not to be changed within less than a 10 year time frame, and when they are changed, it can cost greater than $500 and must follow strict stipulations

Overall, street names appear to be fairly arbitrary and enormously ironic. A more appropriate naming format may be to include the phrase “former’, as in: Fmr. Elm St. It is not uncommon for the public to be involved in the selection of the names for new neighbourhoods and streets. If you have ideas that are more culturally or locally appropriate, we encourage you to submit names that represent the values of your community and not the ecosystems they have replaced.