Shock news: street names are sexist

London's streets: the pink streets are named after women, the purple named after men. Image: Aruna Sankaranarayanan.

Streets are named for all kinds of reasons, but there's a pretty fair chance that they represent an accolade of some kind for whoever or whatever they're named after. Discover America, or at least a few islands in the Caribbean? Except streets all across that new land to be named after you, Christopher Columbus. Run out of ideas? Something with the word "King" should work. 

And so, even without looking at the results of a seven city analysis of street names, we could probably predict that a majority of these people rewarded with their very own street name would be male. Most modern cities were founded a while ago, at a time when those esteemed in the community, and responsible for the city's founding, were likely to be men.


But someone did do that seven city analysis. And the results are, well, exactly what you think.

The analysis, carried out by Aruna Sankaranarayanan and her team at mapping platform Mapbox, looked at street names in San Francisco, London and Paris, and the Indian cities of Mumbai, Chennai, New Delhi, and Bengaluru. After filtering out highways and running the names through an onomastics (proper names) script, they found that on average, only 27.5 per cent of those streets named after people were named after women.

In a post about the map, Sankaranarayanan notes that the streets named after men werern't just more numerous: they were also more centrally located. In Paris, for example, most female streets are small connections, rather than long avenues:

And here's Mumbai:

Sankaranarayanan is still working on coding the map, and plans to apply the same method to other cities. However, it doesn't seem likely she'll find much to undermine her main conclusion: that streets are named mostly after men. 

The masculine bias is, of course, largely a historical hangover: a city planned from scratch now would probably not show such a strong bias. But as Sankaranarayanan notes, we can't escape the fact that the very fabric of our cities is applauding one gender while neglecting another:  

Places and streets named after personalities are indicators of social hierarchy in a city. Often they are as prestigious as the person they are named after. 

Street names, just like the faces on banknotes and passports, send a message about who we value in society. Maybe, in new developments at least, we should start tipping the balance back in the other direction. 

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.