A city’s street names can provide insight into its cultural values, according to a study by Washington University’s Melanie Bancilhon and colleagues, published today in the journal PLOS ONE.
For as long as street names have existed, they have been used as a form of social engineering and reflect a city or town’s social, cultural, political and religious values.
Introducing ‘Streethonomics’, the Science of Street Names
Building on this concept in what they call ‘Streetonomics’, Bancilhon and colleagues used street names as an alternative way of expressing cultural values to be quantified 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 “honor” streets in these four cities. These are streets named after a person.
Their analysis examined the gender of honorific street names and when the honorees. They also examined the most famous professions for laureates and how many foreigners were among them.
Vienna and London have the most street names after women
Vienna had the highest proportion of its street names to honor a woman , at 54%. London came in a relatively close second at 40%.
In New York only 26% of all streets are named after women, in Paris this percentage is even lower at only 4%.
The oldest street “honors” are in London, followed by Paris, Vienna and New York
Most streets in Paris are named after people who lived in the 1860s, as a city planner Haussman worked with Napoleon III to transform Paris into the capital of an empire.
Vienna was home to most of the street prize winners until the 19th century, when the city expanded and was rebuilt after the First World War.
London’s streets are mainly named after people who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, following the growth that followed the Great Fire of London and large-scale interventions encouraged by King George III.
In New York, most streets honor people who lived through the 1950s-2000s, with 36% specifically named after 9/11 victims and emergency responders.
“Street naming in New York is more contemporary than in Vienna, Paris or London,” 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 count the victims of the 11 part of their lives in the second half of the 20th century.”
Artists are the most popular street honorees
In terms of the types of jobs performed by street honorees, Paris streets honor artists, writers, scientists and members of the military; The streets of Vienna also honor artists and members of legal and social professions.
London’s streets primarily celebrate the British royal family, politicians and military officials, and New York’s streets have consistently celebrated artists, as well as many public officials honored after 9/11.
“Military professions were celebrated after major conflicts,” the study explains, “and then declined as the Western world entered its longest post-WWII period of peace.”
Vienna honors the most foreigners
Vienna was the city with the most streets named after foreigners, at 45%, followed at a distance by London (15%), Paris (11%) and New York (3%). ).
“Although New York is considered a cosmopolitan city,” the authors write, “New York tends to be self-focused as it is almost exclusively partying Americans; only 3.2% of streets are named after foreigners.”
Many different avenues for future work
The authors note that 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 far-reaching and suggest many different avenues for future work.
A new text mining approach can automatically link streets to information about their honorees,” say the authors, “and examine how a city’s cultural values have changed over space and time, showing how intangible values encoded in street names change like such as gender bias, have developed over the centuries.”
“Ultimately,” they write, “the idea behind these tools to enhance historical awareness, promote cultural heritage, and promote collective memory is positive
Study: “Streetonomics: Quantifying culture using street names”Authors: Bancilhon M, Constantinides M, Bogucka EP , Aiello LM, Quercia DPublished in: PLOS OnePublished date: 20. June 2021DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0252869Photo: by Adrien Bruneau on Unsplash