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What’s in a street name?

In Toronto we have a street named Avenue Road. If you’re learning about this for the first time, you might be wondering: “Well, is it an avenue or is it a road?” Then again, does that sort of distinction even matter? Does it imply certain characteristics? When I think of an avenue, I think of a broad and straight tree-lined street. And indeed, Avenue Road is connected to a street called University Avenue, which is pretty straight, broad, and has trees lining it. It’s a ceremonial kind of street that leads you toward the Ontario Legislative Building. It fits my definition. And so maybe Avenue Road is really saying, “Yeah, I know I’m not an avenue in the traditional sense, but I eventually connect into one and so I have decided to use both names.”

It could also be the case that we haven’t always been that meticulous when naming our roads. Or perhaps we simply changed the way we designed and thought about our streets as we sprawled outward, and along with that came some name changes. In the oldest parts of Toronto, the main streets tend to be exactly that — streets. And our secondary streets are often named as avenues. This is the opposite of a place like Manhattan, where avenues are the broad north-south streets that take you downtown and uptown, and streets are the smaller east-west roads that take you across the narrower part of the island. Here there is a very clear logic. Avenues are big. Streets are small.

Looking at this road name map of London by Giuseppe Sollazzo (click here if you can’t see it above), it’s obvious that London’s street network is pretty much the opposite of New York’s rational street grid. But you can see what appears to be a clear graduation from streets (in the center) to roads and then to some sort of melange that seems to include a bunch more avenues. They may just be street names, but they to speak to a whole host of things, including the evolution of our cities, changing attitudes toward city planning, and naturally the adoption of new kinds of mobility. They also make for nerdy maps.

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