It's time the UK started naming streets after feminists

Well, it's a start. An area of Leeds with at least some streets named after women. Image: Google Maps.

The spirit of Cranford lives on: Elizabeth Gaskell’s matriarchal village has found a real-life counterpart in the Dutch town of Heemskerk.

Heemskerk may not have a beribboned, anxiety-ridden, Judi Dench at it’s helm – but in the north of the town are a network of streets paying tribute to famous Dutch feminists. As a result, Heemskerk has a higher percentage of streets named after women than anywhere else in Europe, maybe even the world.

I’ve spent rather a lot of time on Google Maps, staring at Heemskerk. It’s made me realize how much better Oxford Street would sound if we renamed it Jenni Murray Street. How much of an improvement it would be if one in every three High Streets was renamed Annie Kenney Street. Or Sophia Duleep Singh Road.

And I’m not alone in wanting to give my country a feminist makeover. Last summer, a group of French feminists calculated that only 2.6 per cent of Parisian streets are named after women. Tourists visiting Notre Dame cathedral are disorientated anyway (and nothing clarifies things like a good dose of gender theory), so activists from Osez le Feminisme! plastered existing streets signs around the cathedral with alternative names.

The Quai de la Tournelle became the Quai de Nina Simone. Other streets were given to France’s first female doctor, Madeleine Brès, American scientist Barbara McClintock, sailor Florence Arthaud and pioneering lawyer Jeanne Chauvin.

These new street signs were temporary, but the push for gender equality in cartography is here to stay. In 2012 an Italian geography teacher called Maria Pia Ercolini began writing a cultural history of Rome. "During the research I realised that you never see traces of women.” Ercolini told the BBC World Service. “History just cancelled the women – they're not here."

Partially inspired by Ercolini’s work, 2015 saw researchers at Mapbox released a series of infographics showing that, throughout the world’s capital cities, only 27.5 per cent of the streets named after people were named after women.

It can be tempting, when confronted with statistics like this, to claim that if there are a disproportionate number of streets named after men, it’s because men just did more, back in historic times. Before the mid-20th century, women were not given the opportunity to excel or tp make a lasting impact on society. Other than giving birth to the entire human race and providing most of the world’s unwaged labour, that is.

So it makes sense that women have so little public visibility; that they’re missing from our street signs and our bank notes and our stamps and our art galleries and our newspapers and every bloody other thing


That’s not to say that feminists have been completely left out: there are, already, multiple Fawcett Streets in the UK (although whether they were actually named after Millicent Fawcett is up for debate). Emmeline Pankhurst has her fair share of real estate, there’s a Wollstonecraft Road, a Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, a Virginia Woolf Bar & Bistro in Russell Square, and Mary Ann Evans got a road in Coventry for her male pseudonym: George Elliot. But that’s pretty much it. On the whole, famous feminists do not get streets named after them.

If we accept that street signs are named after a nation’s most accomplished citizens then surely, surely, the balance should be tipping by now. There is, after-all, a street in Dundee named after the Beano’s Bash Street Kids. There’s a Crotch Crescent in Oxfordshire. There’s a Minge Lane in Worcestershire.

London alone has a Cumming Street, a Frying Pan Alley, a Bonar Place, a Rotten Row and a Bleeding Heart Yard – although that last one is named after the grisly murder of a woman so I guess that’s something. A bit like the way the general public missed out on that museum of Women’s Suffrage but did get a shrine to a man who killed lots of women instead.

I’m not advocating we march on Frying Pan Alley, armed with pritt stick, drawing pins, and a sign for Diane Abbott Avenue. Let’s save the renaming ceremony for the streets which, through either chance or a stunning lack of imagination on the part of local councils, have ended up with the same name. Among a surfeit of Church Roads, High Streets, Kingsways, New Streets and Station Roads a few must have the potential to become Caroline Lucas Lane, Sylvia Pankhurst Road, or Olive Morris Street.

Putting someone’s name on a map is not just a way to acknowledge their achievements: it sends a wider message about what kind of achievements are worth acknowledgement. Now I’m reluctant to cast aspersions on local councils' commitment to gender equality on the ongoing lionisation of Rebecca West. But surely these feminist-inspired streets should already exist?

After all, renaming streets after successful feminists is an easy, yet powerful, way to show that our society honours women. We live in a society that, theoretically, values women as equal to men, but seems reluctant to give that theory physical substance. So let’s do it for them: grab your petitions, your glue guns, your step ladders and let's get going.

Don’t worry, there’s already a Beulah Street in Leeds. You can find another way to thank me.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.