On the Streets of Your Town

AUTHOR:  
Published:  April 29, 2013
Stephen Banham
On the Streets of Your Town

Just when you thought that the ‘branded environment’ was a new phenomena, Stephen Banham reveals that they have in fact been part of the master plans of cities from their very inception.

Growing up in a 1960s housing estate on the (then) outskirts of Melbourne, as a child I would watch in excitement as new streets and courts were created seemingly overnight and with them the skeletal wooden house frames we would immediately transform into impromptu playgrounds. The finishing touch was the arrival of a little van of men who would speedily erect the street signs, at last providing our ‘playground’ with a more official title.

And it was these titles that intrigued me the most. Their names were ordinary enough on their own, but when seen in sets, a distinct theme would emerge – in the case of my immediate area there was a very distinct Anglo-Irish theme running through the street names; I would live on McAuley while my friends would be on McCrae etc. It never dawned on me that the answer lay on the ‘big house on the hill’ – the huge hilltop convent that overlooked our suburb. It was from their land that the entire estate had been subdivided. And with the process of carving came the naming, and so it was that my neighbourhood streets were named after the Catholic nuns from the convent. Once I became aware of this historical lineage, the area suddenly seemed to don an alternative identity, one that offered a richer and deeper story than what I had assumed was just a random selection of names. It brought a value to my environment. Look across any map of metropolitan Melbourne and you’ll see them emerge – ‘thematic clusters’ – a schematic plan developed to bring the streets together under a single concept. Some are as odd as the very expansive ‘Camelot’ theme running across 38 streets in Glen Waverley through to the ‘Beatles’ theme in a Narre Warren South estate called Strawberry Fields.

The famous Mount Eagle estate, East Kew. J. Haase & Sons (192?) Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne. (Click for a larger version.)

Many are well known, like the ‘literary’ cluster across 34 streets in Elwood, whilst others offer unique insights such as the ‘aviation’ themed Burwood, the ‘golf course’ themed Kingsbury, or the incongruous ‘Ancient Grecian’ zone of Doncaster. Even Neighbour’s Ramsay Street (actually called PinOak Court) is part of a set of courts in South Vermont named after timber-producing trees to lend a lush, wooded personality to the area when it was subdivided. Marketers know that to name something is to tell its story. Naming the streets of an estate under an overarching ‘concept’ both unites that which is (sub) divided as well as creating a convenient packaging for easier consumption – buying into an ‘idea’ makes a more palatable purchase. As one developer noted of a new estate “The names weren’t about what was already there. They were more about what we were going to create”.

Aspiration is not a new thing with street naming – but the nature of this aspiration has changed. Viewed chronologically, street naming experienced a set of three distinct periods – beginning with a British, imperial and aristocratic flavour transitioning into a more Australian, civic and nationalistic form and then finally into one focussed on marketing, aspiration and pop-culture references.

Perhaps it is the aspiration of an inner urban experience that gives rise to one of the oddest kind of cluster ­­– the ‘mini-city cluster’ featuring a gridded network of streets whose names playfully mimic those of the central business district (Flinders, Collins, Bourke etc). And so it is that in places as far afield as Thornbury, Kew, Mentone and Heidelberg Heights, these ‘mini-Melbournes’ exist, albeit in a quieter, more suburban form than its city counterpart.

This is an excerpt from the catalogue for the design exhibition Cluster: Exploring the stories and patterns behind Melbourne street names at the City Gallery, Melbourne Town Hall from 30 April to 30 July 2013.

For more information about the exhibition click here.

One Response

  1. Pat

    On streets and their names, I just found this map of San Fancisco, with brief histories of the names of many of their streets:

    http://sfstreets.noahveltman.com/

    This short 99% Invisible episode on the naming of apartment blocks in Santiago, Chile is also worth a listen:

    http://99percentinvisible.org/post/43419720763/episode-73-the-zanzibar-and-other-building-poems

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