Have you ever driven through a neighborhood and wondered who comes up with the street names? Well, you are not alone. In fact, that is one of the most common questions for civil and urban planners. After all, street names really do influence the region and towns. So, let us take a look at how streets are named and a brief history of how this process starts.

Beyond the basics: a look at the past

Photo of a dirt road in a rural landscape
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In the earliest days of America, the streets were often named for the purpose they served. For example, the first street created in a town was invariably called First Street. Early urban developers looked at the surrounding areas for inspiration. They named streets after landmarks, topographical features, basic location in the town, or as an homage to people or places of power. This is why we have so many streets with names like Market, Hill, East, and State.

Contrary to what we might expect, it used to be that roads outside of towns were rarely named. One of the reasons is because most country dwellers could navigate based on landmarks and did not need street names. Since the majority of the population was rural at that time, there was no need for country roads to be named. However, cities attracted all sorts of visitors and travelers, not to mention people coming from rural settings. The naming of streets helped to reinforce their importance within an urban setting.

Street nomenclature

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The use of the word “street” assumed a description of what was located on that pathway, as in the cases of Church Street or Market Street. Alleys were named for the designated landowner who held the land surrounding the alley. As with all things, there were exceptions to this rule, such as in New York, where numbered streets were part of the earliest city design.

Early American cities followed this pattern of naming streets based on function until the 1850s, when a countrywide shift in appreciating nature took root. City populations continued to expand. Many Americans looked toward rural life with longing and romanticized what they thought it might be like to live on a farm. Examples include Berry Farm, Sweet Street, Elm Street, and Hay Hill Farm Road.

In addition, during this time, street names began to have a flair that was more creative. No longer are streets named just for their function; this period of urban development displayed streets named with a nod toward the grace and beauty found in nature. Examples include Frying Pan Road, Roast Meat Hill Road, This That and the Other Streets, and Tupac Lane.

Post-war suburbia

Photo of a tree-lined suburban street
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Even with their pining for the country life, it would take almost 100 years for the majority of Americans to realize their dream of living outside of the city. Around 1950, with the country riding high from its World War II victory, Americans found themselves with an influx of disposable income for the first time in generations. No longer restricted to the cities, droves of citizens looked beyond the streets of urban settings and began to build homes in suburban areas outside the city.

This was the birth of suburbia. However, those early settlers did not know that they would be influencing the face of America for generations to come. For the first time in the history of the country, Americans were living in spaces that satisfied both the farm life, with the ability to have a yard, and the convenience of urban life with access to a variety of lifestyle amenities. Ironically, the reason that early suburbia has so many streets named after trees is that the developers were focused on reinforcing the preciousness of being in nature at the same time they were tearing it down.

Current streets

Aerial photo of a suburban neighborhood
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Today, real estate and subdivision developers select street names. The designation is submitted to city planners for review. During the evaluation process, public service departments of the municipalities, like the police, fire and post office, can veto the name if they think it is going to cause confusion. First responder departments have the ultimate power in saying yes or no to a street. This is because using unique street names helps them find the right place during a crisis. The faster they can get to the source of an emergency, the less likely there is a loss of life.

This is good news for anyone who has ever tried to find Spooner Street only to end up on Spooner Avenue all the way across town. However, just because the town tries for unique names does not mean that it happens. Many cities and towns have guidelines that stipulate that street names must all be within the same theme. That is why you see all 50 states represented in street names in Washington, D.C. or a large number of streets named after trees in one neighborhood in Philadelphia. Secret trivia alert: Numbered streets and streets named after trees make up the greatest number of street names in the country.

Looking ahead

Aerial photo of a suburban neighborhood
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Most urban developments are planned, and the vast majority of Americans still reside in the suburbs. It is reasonable to assume that the country will continue the trend of whimsical naming of its streets. While it is quirky and fun to have streets named thematically, there is a real benefit to streets named for their purpose and use. Maybe the best approach in the future of street naming is a blending of these two styles with a return to our roots.