Heron View, or the squandering of people and place in suburban British street names

Hadfield, Glossop, Derbyshire. Image: maps.google.com

The abhorrence of suburbia and modern housing estates has become a central theme of (mostly American) teen-oriented film and music over the past twenty years. Consequently, criticisms of a supposed cultural vacuousness have become fairly cliché. In many cases these commentaries seem as stale and predictable as the social spaces which they attempt to condemn. We can all picture the whinging, ‘misunderstood’ youth who dreams of escaping small town Ohio / Nebraska / Arizona and his ‘clone’ parents (whose own ambitions amount to owning two cars, a large conservatory and a high-power lawn sprinkler) for some multicultural, tolerant, and artsy urban setting. Yet this monotonous message – which has been broadcast for a generation – remains important. The patterns of modern housing construction and the demand for suburban living continue to be a genuine cause for concern: they rely upon, and perpetuate, damaging social and cultural disconnects.

If we consider modern street names we can expose a cultural (if not social) detachment from a relatively fresh perspective. The street names of housing estates on both sides of the Atlantic are – in the vast majority of cases – devoid of any relevance to a place and its community: they simply don’t mean anything. As we shall see, they play an important part in suburbia’s fabrications. The point is best explained when we examine a settlement of significant age. Here we can compare the street names of a conventional urban space with those of the modern developments on its periphery. Glossop, Derbyshire – the town I grew up in – is a perfect case in point.

A product of the industrial revolution, the town is largely a Victorian legacy.  So too are most of its amenities, and, unsurprisingly, many of the Victorian streets in the town centre are named for their commercial functions and adjacent services: there is Station Street, Market Street, and Chapel Street. Glossop’s principal thoroughfare is High Street, the most common monicker among commercial routes in Britain. The success of the town relied on the investment of major industrialists in its cotton mills. Consequently, the names of many are enshrined in the town’s urban fabric. The Wood and Talbot  families – who financed many of the public institutions in addition to the critical industrial infrastructure – are both represented in the A-Z. Additionally, the Dukes of Norfolk – once major landholders in the area – are referenced in Norfolk Street, Howard Street, and Arundel Street.  Meanwhile, George Street, Victoria Street, Queen Street, and Princess Street make allusions to the close relationship between northern English industrial success and a powerful British Empire. While the Victorian centre’s street names are a mix of the idiosyncratic and the common they all maintain – in one way or another – a simple relevance to the town.

The map of modern Glossop is strikingly different. It is dominated by throwaway bucolic labels which belie the suburban situation of the estates and their houses. Furthermore, they make little or no effort to give an accurate representation of the realities of the previously rural site. The earlier schemes of the 1970s and 80s made some effort to maintain real (if tenuous) connections. In reference to the surrounding moorland geography there is Pennine Road, Kinder Close, Peaknaze Close, and Longclough Drive; Dovedale Court and Hathersage Drive are nods to (fairly distant) villages in the surrounding Peak District. More recent developments, however, have increasingly tended to neglect notions of the locality altogether. Here streets are named for the ‘general’, assorted elements of the British countryside and might not apply to the area itself. There is The Meadows, High Meadows, Meadow Rise, Storth Meadow Road, Meadow Bank, Meadowfield Close, Bramble Bank, Gorse Way, Bracken Way, Holly Bank, Heather Bank Close, Moss Bank Close, Hawthorn Bank, Buttercup Close, The Rushes, Sandybank Close, Wheatcroft, Barleycroft, The Oak(e)s, Springwood, Beechwood, Ashwood, Oakwood, Springfield Close, Beechfield Road, Ashfield Road, Oakfield Road, Pear Tree Close, Valley Road, Foxlea, Brockholes, Green Bank, Spring Rise, Overdale Drive, and Brooklands Drive.

It’s all such bullshit. These are roads which could be anywhere and should be nowhere. Were there ever pear trees where Pear Tree Close runs? Were there ever rushes here or holly bushes there? The street atlas suggests that a tiny oak wood stood directly next to a birch wood, which stood beside an ash wood, which bordered a springwood. What is a springwood? Of course none of this matters to the designers of ‘your perfect home.’ How else could the following three labels have wriggled their way onto the town map? River Bank Way (which is not even close to a river), Heron View, and Kestrel View represent – to my mind – the élite of Glossop’s appalling modern street names. The fiction that a street provides ‘views’ of a Heron or a Kestrel (two species of bird renowned for their ability to move) is just unacceptable. The utter ridiculousness of names such as these makes me especially suspicious of the methods by which companies name the streets of their developments. It’s as if a computer randomly picks from a regrettable list of rural features – say ‘blackbird’, ‘pine’, or ‘brook’ – and adds to it a street suffix – ‘drive’, ‘avenue’, ‘rise’. Some results are far worse than others: Heron Rise seems somewhat less ridiculous than Heron View, while ‘valley’, ‘forest’ or ‘lake’ could be considered much more suitable for that suffix.

The monickers of housing estate Glossop (or housing estate Britain) are all elements of a more substantial lie. They are there to fool residents into believing that they have obtained some degree of a rural idyll: that they don’t live in a town (towns being terrible places for people to live). Here street names are aided by actual street geography. Typically, street patterns in suburban Britain and America follow unnecessarily wavy courses in an attempt to imbue a sense of the ‘organic’; the desirable alternative to the oppression of the regimented urban past. The fact that the houses are detached serves a similar purpose, as it suggests to the owners that they have a considerable amount of space: that they live in the splendid isolation of a farm house. Additionally, the dominant ‘architectural’ styles of these residential zones are those of the traditional country village. Estates of mock Georgian, Cotswold, and ‘tudorbethan’ houses plague the peripheries of towns and cities from Penzance to Thurso while whole communities might be replicated ten times over in boardrooms by men and women who may be only semi-conscious of the names and locations of the towns in which they are building. The relentless drive of housing developers, such as Barratt Homes and George Wimpey, to house the population in delightfully named lies is enormously frustrating and extremely lazy. Of course, these purely residential areas are unable to follow traditional occupation and amenity based naming patterns: there can be no Baker Street or Bank Street. Nevertheless there are always ample opportunities to utilize the geography, history, and mythology of a town and its environs in a sympathetic and genuine way. Bucolic elements should be used sparingly and only in reference to the peculiarities of the area; urban features should not be so universally shunned.

Unfortunately, the current street naming trends are part of a much wider cultural problem: the majority of the British public actively desire to live in such culturally vacuous, socially valueless and architecturally impotent spaces. Old centres (especially those of large towns) continue to haemorrhage their populations to the periphery in a damaging and self-perpetuating process. Until towns and cities lose their ‘bad reputations’ people will continue to pretend that they don’t live in them and housing developers will continue to sell their wobbly, cottagey Overdale Drives, Meadow Rises, and Moss Bank Closes to irritatingly indiscriminating punters the country over. If this culture doesn’t change rapidly British streetscapes might soon come to resemble those of the United States where 90 per cent of the population live in the suburbs and where, by 1990, routes beginning with ‘Pine’, ‘Maple’, ‘Cedar’, ‘Elm’, ‘Walnut’, ‘Spring’, ‘Willow’, ‘Sunset’, ‘Cherry’, ‘Meadow’, ‘Valley’, and ‘Chestnut’ all ranked in the top fifty most common street names (1990 US Census). Such ignorance of both people and place is simply unacceptable in a country with such a substantial social history.

by Angus Doyle

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5 responses to “Heron View, or the squandering of people and place in suburban British street names

  1. I can’t agree more with your frustration regarding street names that bear no relation to their surroundings, and I share your suspicions about the developers responsible for the names, naming them in such a way that falsifies a sense of detatchment from the city.

    However, I can’t help but think your condemnation for the people that live there is a little harsh. I find it difficult to believe that people actively desire to live in places with vaccuous names and I struggle to believe a street-name holds that much influence on whether a person or family would buy a house. I fail to see a family being more attracted to a home on Heron View than a similar one on a Baker Street, for instance.

    The street names are merely a symptom of the other issue that you rightly pointed out, the unimaginative, mass-replicated architecture of the suburbs that seems to be more and more demanded. The street names are surely more of an incidental aside.

  2. What utter bollocks.

    1. New private housing development is pushed by demand. Nothing more. The streets are named in order to appeal to their target demographic. Nothing more.

    2. The design of modern private developments aims to blend a few key elements. Cost, efficient use of space, privacy withing that space, safety.

    3. You blather of about America, which is nothing like the UK when it comes to naming streets. You have numbered streets, lettered streets, president-named streets and Martin Luther King Blvd. Then trees. The UK’s naming of streets is infinitely more diverse. You should also have looked at the rest of Europe for an even starker contrast.

    4. You think people care what their road is called. I think in general, as long as they don’t live on CHILD MOLESTER AVE. they don’t really care.

    5. The private sector, which you concentrate on, has no responsibility other than that of profiting for its shareholders. The public sector has a clearly-defined duty. I think that looking at the success and failure of naming streets in Gamesley would have had much more worth.

    6. You offer absolutely no alternative, which makes this a pretty self-serving and pointless moan. Take a map of Simondley or Shire Brook Park and rename it per your preference.

    I think that if you were ever regarded as being the hardest in your year, or you ever managed to triumph in a fight with someone from the year above who is considered moderately hard, you should have a street named after you.

    Living on Johnboy Marshal Street would be rad.

  3. Stefan. You have clearly misunderstood my argument and its priorities. For a response which begins so aggressively I think you offer some fairly irrelevant criticisms. Furthermore, three of your points (1, 3, and 5) actually agree with my article.

    Of course private housing development is pushed by demand. Where have I stated otherwise? However, to suggest that they – and their street names – necessarily appeal to their residents is foolish. Who asked them? The problem in the UK is that people (especially young families) are given very little choice when it comes to buying their homes. That whole Barratt estate package (street names, architecture, and street patterns) has come to dominate British housing (outside of city centres) in such a way that people have become less conscious of the alternatives. Demand for these developments is, I suspect, pushed more by the population’s increase and its withdrawal from the larger cities than by a sincere appreciation of these styles of homes. Also, if people don’t care about their street names it is only because of this uniformity. An increasingly significant body of the population will live their entire lives in these spaces. If all they know is Pear Tree Close and Buttercup Drive then maybe they won’t think about the issue: this is a problem in itself.

    Furthermore, the belief that these houses offer good value is utter nonsense. They cost fairly little to build, but are sold at truly extortionate prices – detached properties in Shirebrook or Simmondley (Glossop’s two main modern housing estates for those not familiar with the town) tend to sell for £50-70,000 more than Victorian terraces of a similar size. The use of space is also notoriously inefficient. Typically, the ‘detachment’ between properties amounts to little more than a narrow alley. A plot’s area is also wasted on front gardens which – because they DON’T offer any privacy – are practically never used by residents. Even in absolute terms Britain’s new housing estates rarely offer greater indoor outdoor space to the customer. If you factor in house prices a worryingly negative disparity begins to emerge. But I (we) digress.

    As for America, I completely fail to see your point. Of course British street names are more diverse: that is precisely what the article is about. The problem – which I clearly outlined above – is that the street names of recent developments are at a complete variance with that tradition. Practically every square mile of the southern British mainland has been consistently marked by human habitation, industry and agriculture for in excess of 5,000 years (influences which have been recorded in detail for at least 1,000 years). Consequently, the land offers an infinite number of relevant street names. In America, naming streets for bucolic elements is more excusable because huge settlements have appeared in a remarkably short time frame – they occupy areas with little or no recorded human history. This is especially true of the mid-west and western United States. Phoenix, Las Vegas, and western ‘Chicagoland’ are perfect examples of this. I also fail to understand how using Europe for a comparison serves a purpose. The point is that recent BRITISH street names compare unfavourably with their medieval, early-modern, Victorian, and early twentieth century BRITISH counterparts.

    Your point about the differences between the private and public sectors is also aimless. I am quite aware that private developers are under no obligations to name their streets with any considerable sensitivity; this is inferred quite clearly in the article. My point is that the culture of these housing developments needs to change: developers need to be held accountable. Perhaps local authorities should take a much closer interest in the street names proposed by private companies while the processes of planning approval should incorporate considerations of these sorts of details. Public housing projects have, as you suggest, had a much better track record. The street names of Gamesley (Glossop’s largest council estate) are heavily rooted in the locality. But this is completely beside the point. There have been no large-scale public housing products in the United Kingdom for a generation. Instead, the country’s new streets (and their names) are now almost entirely the creations of private companies. Consequently, we are faced with a problem because these monopolies refuse (or at least a fail) to make any effort to consider the situation of their developments. It is regrettable enough that housing estates across the country are beginning to resemble clones of each other. It is even more regrettable that they should all have the same names.

    Finally, you criticize my ‘self-serving and pointless moan’ for its failure to offer alternatives for Glossop’s street names. There are two obvious reasons for not doing so. Firstly, if I could, it would serve no purpose. My article is about the thousands of modern housing developments nationwide; it is not about one town. Secondly, I can’t. I have no authority to do so. How could I have? My point (which I can’t stress enough) is that the process of street naming requires long and careful deliberation between all interested parties. I don’t know the names of the farms and settlements which occupied the land upon which the modern estates are now situated. I couldn’t say which tree species and flowers are (or were) found naturally on the site. I am not aware of the names of individuals or families who had a significant historic impact on these areas. These are all details which should be considered in great detail during the planning process. Naturally it takes a familiarity with the area. However, this knowledge does exist somewhere and is always available to the developer.

    Apologies if my response seems overlong but it (the state of modern British housing generally) is an issue that I’ve given a lot of thought to.

  4. My criticism is not about content but form and style: I find the relationship between the observer and the subject quite unpleasant; it is as if the voice is being too elitist and too derisive. It reminds me of Matthew Arnold’s anti-Philistinism and I can’t quite understand how such a relationship can ever give an argument a productive outcome. I think a comparison between the Victorian street names and the more contemporary ones could have been more fully explored. Really interesting subject, but I’m not sure if the argument is as nuanced and as objective as it could have been.

  5. You put together a petty and ill-considered rant which smacked of faux-bourgeois perfectionism and was bullishly asserted. It’s largely indefensible and to defend much of it would be an embarrassment.

    Look, I don’t want to pick a fight, (honestly) but your response is selectivity-drawn and weak.

    > Of course private housing development is pushed by demand. Where have I stated otherwise?

    You didn’t state it. You simply implied that the naming of such developments did not sit kindly with you.

    > However, to suggest that they – and their street names – necessarily appeal to their residents is foolish.

    Patently false. The private developments appeal hugely to the residents. What their streets are names doesn’t matter to the residents, as long as they sound nice. You know, nice to their families and friends. Rather than being a veiled snob, you might as well embrace snobbery. I have and it’s rather liberating. I believe that anyone who aims to live in Shire Brook and drive a 3 Series until they die is essentially dead. Wasn’t this the lead-in of your opening paragraph? (The incorrect assertions of which we’ll leave for now.)

    > Who asked them?

    The developers, when they asked them if they’d like to buy a house which carries such an address.

    > The problem in the UK is that people (especially young families) are given very little choice when it comes to buying their homes.

    What? When have young families ever been given a choice in what their street is called? Or even where they lived? Young families (if I’m extenuating your inference) are people who are just trying to get a foothold in the world. They aren’t, nor have they ever been, empowered to make personal choices regarding their immediate environment beyond seeking basic living amenities. I think expecting them (or expecting them to want or care) to make civic decision about the naming of where they plan on raising a family is deeply naive.

    > That whole Barratt estate package (street names, architecture, and street patterns) has come to dominate British housing (outside of city centres) in such a way that people have become less conscious of the alternatives.

    Wrong. The ‘young families’ you disingenuously seek to empower really do not fucking care. I would assert that, quite literally, EVERYTHING else in their lives is of more import and actually matters to them. They live on Highbrook Grove. Honestly Angus, they don’t care!

    > Demand for these developments is, I suspect, pushed more by the population’s increase and its withdrawal from the larger cities than by a sincere appreciation of these styles of homes.

    Again, this is a convenient and short-sighted interpretation of the needs of the people you claim deserve more. You are ignoring a very simple dynamic, in order to push your point and the above sentence illustrates this perfectly! People do not need to appreciate their homes any more than they actually and tangibly need to do in order to live in them. They need to house themselves! Honestly, the above sentence, and the bemoaning of the needs of ‘young families’ shows a somewhat offense shortfall between your own ideals and a nation’s basic realities of subsisting.

    > Also, if people don’t care about their street names it is only because of this uniformity.

    Wrong. It’s simply apathy.

    > An increasingly significant body of the population will live their entire lives in these spaces. If all they know is Pear Tree Close and Buttercup Drive then maybe they won’t think about the issue: this is a problem in itself.

    Angus, you never justified it as an issue – this is the point. Your argument is that the apathy of the way in which people live, as regards the naming of the places they live in, irks you personally, as it fails to pay credence to the location. This isn’t an issue to most people, especially the people you assert it damages the most.

    > Furthermore, the belief that these houses offer good value is utter nonsense.

    I don’t believe they do. I believe they are sold at a rate dictated by the market at the time, a rate at which consumers are willing to pay. This is unarguable.

    > They cost fairly little to build, but are sold at truly extortionate prices – detached properties in Shirebrook or Simmondley (Glossop’s two main modern housing estates for those not familiar with the town) tend to sell for £50-70,000 more than Victorian terraces of a similar size.

    Living without a conjoined neighbour is a luxury. I am lucky enough to live in a detached house (recycled home, built in 1919 and relocated to its current plot) and I would rather it shrink by half than have someone bolted onto my wall.

    > The use of space is also notoriously inefficient. Typically, the ‘detachment’ between properties amounts to little more than a narrow alley.

    Yes, a beautiful sound-insulating alley. I bought my first house in a new development in Yorkshire with my girlfriend at the time, Hayley. It was a small detached two-bedroom house and it was the first time in my life I never had to worry about how much noise I made. It was one of the more liberating experiences of my life. People pay for that detachment for a reason. It’s worth it. May I ask, have you ever lived autonomously in a detached home?

    > A plot’s area is also wasted on front gardens which – because they DON’T offer any privacy – are practically never used by residents.

    I fail to understand how this is an issue for you. If I keep a Ferrari 355 in my garage but never drive it, yet it affords me an amount of pleasure, what business is of of yours?

    > Even in absolute terms Britain’s new housing estates rarely offer greater indoor outdoor space to the customer. If you factor in house prices a worryingly negative disparity begins to emerge. But I (we) digress.

    This doesn’t make any sense.

    > As for America, I completely fail to see your point. Of course British street names are more diverse: that is precisely what the article is about. The problem – which I clearly outlined above – is that the street names of recent developments are at a complete variance with that tradition.

    No, this is entirely wrong. The US is entirely planned, and planned by people who just made up names for streets and places as they went along.

    > Practically every square mile of the southern British mainland has been consistently marked by human habitation, industry and agriculture for in excess of 5,000 years (influences which have been recorded in detail for at least 1,000 years).

    At this point Angus, I’m honestly struggling to keep typing. There is a really concerning disconnect between reality and what you’re aggressively pushing as fact.

    I would encourage you to look at the land that is being engulfed by development across the country. I would encourage you to look at what that land was used for before it was developed. In the vast majority of cases, it was just a bit of land. You appear to believe that every square inch of the UK is steeped in history. Even if this were true – which it isn’t – you believe what? That this is worth preserving? That field 7 that was leased to J. Williams between 1870 and 1911 by landowner B. Fields and was left in ruin until 2009 is something that matters? That matters to young families?

    > Consequently, the land offers an infinite number of relevant street names.

    See above. You are maintaining a entirely romanticised version of the encroachment of the British populace onto its lands.

    > In America, naming streets for bucolic elements is more excusable because huge settlements have appeared in a remarkably short time frame – they occupy areas with little or no recorded human history.

    Of all the things to have written, this the most disagreeable. The expansion of the modern populations of both the US and the UK (to which you are solely referring to) has been in tangent. They are fundamentally exactly the same. You also ignore the fact the that US pays homage to its native population by way of place-naming, almost to a fault.

    > This is especially true of the mid-west and western United States. Phoenix, Las Vegas, and western ‘Chicagoland’ are perfect examples of this.

    Utter rubbish. This is provably false. The examples you give are either false or poorly compared (to the UK).

    > I also fail to understand how using Europe for a comparison serves a purpose. The point is that recent BRITISH street names compare unfavourably with their medieval, early-modern, Victorian, and early twentieth century BRITISH counterparts.

    So the US, founded in 1776 and in stark contrast to the established old-world, makes a better comparison than all of the rest of Europe, which faced challenges of population dictated by industry, was and disease in parallel? Yes, I would agree. You do fail to understand this…

    > Your point about the differences between the private and public sectors is also aimless.

    The direction of your piece was an impotent complaint aimed squarely at private sector housing developers:

    > I am quite aware that private developers are under no obligations to name their streets with any considerable sensitivity; this is inferred quite clearly in the article.

    Yes, it was inferred impotently so.

    > My point is that the culture of these housing developments needs to change: developers need to be held accountable. Perhaps local authorities should take a much closer interest in the street names proposed by private companies while the processes of planning approval should incorporate considerations of these sorts of details.

    What details? You offer none! They are imagined details, a romanticised interpretation of what the fallowlands of the UK mean.

    > Public housing projects have, as you suggest, had a much better track record. The street names of Gamesley (Glossop’s largest council estate) are heavily rooted in the locality. But this is completely beside the point.

    Angus, you fell unyielding into my trap. Public housing has a far worse record for naming its places – in some cases seeming sadistic in its choices – than private housing. Infinite examples are available. Gamesley was just a Manchster overspill that sedated an embattled and poorly-organised archeological community by employing a few local Roman glibs.

    > There have been no large-scale public housing products in the United Kingdom for a generation. Instead, the country’s new streets (and their names) are now almost entirely the creations of private companies.

    Your transient timelines are self-serving at best. From which date does your denunciation start exactly?

    > Consequently, we are faced with a problem because these monopolies refuse (or at least a fail) to make any effort to consider the situation of their developments. It is regrettable enough that housing estates across the country are beginning to resemble clones of each other. It is even more regrettable that they should all have the same names.

    You will find that every planned development ever resembles its peers of the era. It’s how things work. And instead of vanity-monikers of the mill/factory owner, we are left with something more generic, yet less offensive.

    > Finally, you criticize my ’self-serving and pointless moan’ for its failure to offer alternatives for Glossop’s street names. There are two obvious reasons for not doing so. Firstly, if I could, it would serve no purpose.

    Unbelievable and distastefully lazy! I think the only possible option you have, if you want to salvage anything from this, would be to step-up and show us what you mean. Spend a day renaming Shire Brook Park. I’d be very interested to see it!

    > My article is about the thousands of modern housing developments nationwide; it is not about one town. Secondly, I can’t. I have no authority to do so. How could I have?

    Angus, this, again, is a disingenuous defense of the indefensible.

    You concentrate on on town.
    You have no authority to comment at all.
    Why offer the alternative you demand?
    Hell, why not even single alternative for a single street in Shire Brook with your research explaining how your new name reflects not only the history of the street and area, but how the new name enriches the lives of the people who live there?

    > My point (which I can’t stress enough) is that the process of street naming requires long and careful deliberation between all interested parties.

    Something you cannot offer an example of, or even try to do, one time.

    > I don’t know the names of the farms and settlements which occupied the land upon which the modern estates are now situated. I couldn’t say which tree species and flowers are (or were) found naturally on the site.

    > I am not aware of the names of individuals or families who had a significant historic impact on these areas. These are all details which should be considered in great detail during the planning process. Naturally it takes a familiarity with the area. However, this knowledge does exist somewhere and is always available to the developer.

    If you aren’t ashamed of the conceit in the above two passages, of the quite offensive and deeply self-serving lazy c0nceit, I feel truly sorry for you.

    > Apologies if my response seems overlong but it (the state of modern British housing generally) is an issue that I’ve given a lot of thought to.

    Bollocks. As can be easily proven, you’ve given it no thought other than to establish a situation in which your bemoan what’s happening and excuse yourself from even sampling what it might be like to make a difference.

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