A city’s street names reveal its cultural values, new research shows

Street names are a form of social engineering mirroring social, cultural, political, religious values within a city.

A city’s street names can provide a glimpse into its cultural values, according to a study published today in the journal PLOS ONE by Melanie Bancilhon from Washington University and colleagues.

Ever since street names have existed, they have been used as a form of social engineering, mirroring a town or city’s social, cultural, political, and religious values.

Introducing “streetonomics,” the science of street names

Building off this concept in what they term “streetonomics,” Bancilhon and colleagues used street names as an alternative route to quantify cultural values in four influential Western cities: Paris, Vienna, London, and New York.

The authors used multiple open data sources to study the 4,932 so-called “honorific” streets in those four cities.

Those are streets that have been named after a person.

Their analysis examined the gender of the honorific street names, and when the honorees.

They also examined the most celebrated professions for honorees, and how many foreigners were included.

Vienna and London have the most streets named after women

Vienna had the highest proportion of its streets named to honor a woman, at 54%.

London came a relatively close second, at 40%.

In New York, only 26% of all streets are named after women, and in Paris this proportion is even lower, at only 4%.

Oldest street “honorees” are in London, followed by Paris, Vienna, and New York

Most streets in Paris are named after people who lived in the 1860s, when urban planner Haussman worked with Napoleon III to transform Paris into the capital city of an empire.

In Vienna, most of the street honorees lived through the 1900s, when the city was expanding and rebuilding after WWI.

London’s streets are named mostly after people who lived through the 1700s and 1800s, following growth after the Great Fire of London and large-scale interventions promoted by King George III.

In New York, most streets honor people who lived through the 1950s to 2000s, with 36% named specifically for 9/11 victims and emergency responders.

“New York’s street naming is more present-oriented than Vienna’s or Paris’s or London’s,” the authors write. “The streets of the three European capitals are mostly named after people who lived in the 19th century, while those in New York, even when not considering the 9/11 victims as part of the picture, are mostly named after people who had spent significant part of their lives in the second half of the 20th century.”

Artists the most popular honorees in street names

In terms of the types of professions held by street honorees, Paris streets honor artists, writers, scientists, and members of the military; Viennese streets also honor artists, as well as members of legal and social occupations.

London’s streets celebrate the British royal family, politicians, and military professionals predominantly, and New York’s streets have consistently celebrated artists, as well as many civil servants honored post-9/11.

“Military professions were celebrated after major conflicts,” the study explains, “and then declined as the western world entered in its longest period of peace after World War II.”

Vienna honors the most foreigners

Vienna was the city with the most streets named after foreigners, at 45%, followed far behind by London (15% percent), Paris (11%), and New York (3%).

“Despite being considered a global city, ” the authors write, “New York tends to be self-focused by almost exclusively celebrating Americans; only 3.2% of its streets are named after foreigners.”

Many different avenues for future work

The authors note their study has several limitations — perhaps most importantly, the open source data sources used in the analysis are themselves potentially biased.

However, the implications of using this type of open data to study urban culture and track changes over time are wide, and suggest many different avenues for future work.

A new text-mining approach is able to automatically link streets to information about their honorees,” the authors say, “and study how a city’s cultural values changed through space and time, revealing how intangible values encoded in street names such as gender biases evolved over the centuries.”

“Ultimately,” they write, “the idea behind these tools is to increase historical awareness, promote cultural heritage, and reshape the collective memory positively.” 

Study: “Streetonomics: Quantifying culture using street names”
Authors: Bancilhon M, Constantinides M, Bogucka EP, Aiello LM, Quercia D
Published in: PLOS One
Publication date: June 20, 2021
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0252869
Photo: by Adrien Bruneau on Unsplash