Place and street names in the geology of our towns and cities are not arbitrary. They carry layers of history and meaning beyond the word and, with time, define and reinforce the identity of a place.
I recently set up an observation design challenge in the neighbourhood I live in to find out how many streets were named after women. After spending a great part of the lockdown in Leith walking street after street and discovering the rare exceptions of Jane Street, Queen Charlotte Street and Edina Place, I decided to tap into collective memory and ask the same enquiry on social media. The results enriched some of my own investigation. But still, we could count about 20 roads named after women in the whole of Leith.
This is not unique to my neighbourhood in Edinburgh. A small proportion of the streets in Rome are named after women, while almost half are named after men – and it is a similar story in other large cities around the world reflecting a historical uneven distribution of gendered street names.
Meanwhile, there is a growing movement in European capitals to correct this disparity. A team of 27 women, led by a geography teacher, meticulously walked each of Rome's 16,550 streets to determine the gender balance. They found that 7,575 (45.7 per cent) of the city streets had names of men and only 580 (3.5 per cent) had names of women.
A similar study by women in Madrid found that it was little better than Rome, with almost seven per cent of the streets named after women and 27 per cent men. In Brussels, about three per cent of the streets are named after a woman, 22 per cent a man; only four of the 54 metro stations in the city refer to women – two queens, a princess, and a saint. A survey by De Correspondent of the Netherlands shows that 88 per cent of the streets in Amsterdam that bear a person's name refer to a man; and that names of the historic black presence in the city are notably absent.
In 2018 a study in Vienna found that 4,269 streets memorialise the lives of men, while 356 streets have been named for women. However, the tide is turning. The streets and public spaces of the stylish new Seestadt neighbourhood are now all named after great women – Janis Joplin, Hannah Arendt and Agnes Primocic.
In Brazil, the name of the streets is usually proposed by councillors or residents who take their proposals to the Municipal Chamber, which will vote on their approval. The streets of Brazilian cities have always received names related to people or events considered significant for the country's history, favouring male names.
The mining city Conceição do Mato Dentro at the heart of Brazil’s Minas Gerais State is following the steps of Rome, Madrid, Brussels and Paris in passing a law in the City Council to correct this historical error. With new roads being created, the Deputy Mayor believes there is significant opportunity to honour women from the city and elsewhere by naming them accordingly. This decision helps women and girls to feel recognised in the urban space that has always belonged to them.
The study of the origin of the names of places is called a toponym. Contemporary toponym observations reveal new and perhaps not surprising trends – streets named after men are more numerous and more centrally located than streets named after women. Back in Edinburgh, I am heartened to read that the City of Edinburgh Council now gives priority to naming new streets after women. Collectively, these small steps take us on a journey towards gender sensitive placemaking, renaming and reshaping our cities to better reflect the contribution of all who lived and left their mark.
May East, UN House Scotland Director of Cities Programme and Chief International Officer, UNITAR Fellow, Gaia Education