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