Skip to main content Accessibility help

Numbering the streetscape: mapping the spatial history of numerical street names in Europe


In contrast to North American cities, numerically named streets are a very rare occurrence in Europe. This article explores the exceptions to this rule by charting the history of street numbering in 10 European countries. The medieval and early modern ‘new towns’ of New Winchelsea, Mannheim and a section of St Petersburg (Vasilievsky Island) were each designed with grid-plan layouts in which the streets were identified according to an alphanumerical system. Although a range of gridiron plans have been subsequently built across the continent, the newer instances of street numbering are characteristically inconspicuous and peripherally located in suburbs or industrial estates. As a result, most European cases of street numbering play a limited role in constituting the broader urban fabric of the streetscape, with the exception of cities such as Milton Keynes that conform more to the North American model. The relative absence of street-numbering plans in European cities can largely be explained by the much longer history of urbanism in Europe compared to North America and, above all else, the privileging of the nationalistic-pedagogic imperative to name streets with the aim of instilling historical ‘lessons’, which has left little room for the use of street numbering as a means of rationalizing the spatial organization of European cities.

Hide All

1 Rose-Redwood, R., ‘Indexing the great ledger of the community: urban house numbering, city directories and the production of spatial legibility’, Journal of Historical Geography, 34 (2008), 286310.

2 Simmel, G., Soziologie (Munich and Leipzig, 1923), 476–8.

3 de Certeau, M., The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, 1984).

4 In fact, numbered and lettered streets characteristically amount to a minority even in the towns and cities of the United States. In Baldwin and Grimaud's inter-state comparison, the highest percentage of alphanumerical street names was found in the mid-western North Dakota (51.1%), whereas in Massachusetts on the Atlantic coast the respective share was only 1.0%. See Baldwin, L. and Grimaud, M., ‘Washington, Montana, the Dakotas – and Massachusetts: a comparative approach to street naming’, Names, 37 (1989), 131.

5 For example, see Langenfelt, G., ‘Streets-names, old and new’, in Sahlgren, J., Hasselrot, B. and Hellberg, L. (eds.), Quatrième Congrès International de Sciences Onomastiques. 2. Actes et mémoires (Uppsala, 1954); Steger, H., ‘Institutionelle innerörtliche Orientierungssysteme – Fallstudien’, in Eichler, E., Hilty, G., Löffler, H., Steger, H. and Zgusta, L. (eds.), Namenforschung/Name Studies/Les Noms Propres, vols. I–II (Berlin, 1995); Therborn, G., ‘Monumental Europe: the national years: on the iconography of European capital cities’, Housing, Theory and Society, 19 (2002), 2647; Azaryahu, M., ‘Naming the past: the significance of commemorative street names’, in Berg, L.D. and Vuolteenaho, J. (eds.), Critical Toponymies (Farnham, 2009), 5370; J. Vuolteenaho and T. Ainiala, ‘Planning and revamping urban toponymy: ideological alterations in the linguistic landscaping of Vuosaari suburb, eastern Helsinki’, in Berg and Vuolteenaho (eds.), Critical Toponymies, 227–53.

6 Many colleagues have provided me with invaluable assistance in bridging language barriers and collecting data for this study. In this respect, special thanks belong to Tatiana Artemeyeva, Maoz Azaryahu, Mike Crang, Charles Husband, Hanna Ikonen, Irina Kruglova, Duncan Light, Gerco and Helene van Maanen, Mark Mallon, Anaïs Marin, Andreas Matschenz, Peeter Päll, Guy Puzey, Reuben Rose-Redwood, Fernando Sánchez Costa, Johanna Sänger and Alan Warde.

7 Langenfelt, ‘Streets-names, old and new’, 331.

8 Ibid., 331–2; G. Harling-Kranck, , ‘Kaupunkinimistö. kaupunkiasutus ja kadunnimet Ruotsissa ja Suomessa’, in Bladh, G. and Kuvaja, C. (eds.), Kahden Puolen Pohjanlahtea I (Helsinki, 2006), 216, 218.

9 Beresford, M.W., New Towns of the Middle Ages: Town Plantation in England, Wales and Gascony (London, 1967), 16; Beresford, M.W., Time and Place: Collected Essays (London, 1984), 1415; Steane, J., The Archaeology of Medieval England and Wales (Beckenham, 1985), 128; Frost, C., Time, Space and Order: The Making of Medieval Salisbury (Bern, 2009), 90–1.

10 Beresford, New Towns, 14, 44.

11 Ibid.; The Ancient Town of Winchelsea, (2010).

12 For instance, see F. Tarpley, ‘Street names as signposts of world cultures’, in Eichler et al. (eds.), Namenforschung/Name Studies, 1482.

13 Hamlin, F.R., ‘Numbers in placenames’, Names, 47 (1999), 239; Farvacque-Vitkovic, C., Godin, L., Leroux, H., Verdet, F. and Chavez, R., Street Addressing and the Management of Cities (Washington, DC, 2005), 3, 158–9.

14 Steger, ‘Orientierungssysteme’, 1510–18; Probst, H., Kleine Mannheimer Stadtgeschichte (Regensburg, 2005).

15 Also, see Langenfelt, ‘Streets-names, old and new’, 333–4.

16 Steger, ‘Orientierungssysteme’, 1510–15.

17 Nikitenko, G.Y., ‘Toponymy of St. Petersburg’, in Saint Petersburg Encyclopaedia ( (St Petersburg, 2010).

18 Lincoln, B.W., Sunlight at Midnight. St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia (Oxford, 2001), 29; Gorbatenko, S., ‘Amsterdam in St. Petersburg of Peter the Great: the Cartesian principles of the urban layout and development of the Russian capital’, Geschiedenis van de wijsbegeerte in Nederland: Documentatieblad van de werkgroep sassen jaargang 12 * 2001. Tussen Amstel en Neva; Filosoficshe ontmoetingen tussen Nederland en Rusland (Budel, 2004), 2937.

19 Hellberg-Hirn, E., Imperial Imprints: Post-Soviet St Petersburg (Helsinki, 2003), 188.

20 Cracraft, J., The Petrine Revolution in Russian Architecture (Chicago, 1988), 156; Lincoln, Sunlight, 23; Cross, A. (ed.), St. Petersburg, 1703–1825 (Basingstoke, 2003).

21 Nikitenko, G.Y., ‘Lines of Vasilievsky Island’, in Saint Petersburg Encyclopaedia ( (St Petersburg, 2010); Nikitenko, G.Y., ‘Vasilievsky Island’, in Saint Petersburg Encyclopaedia ( (St Petersburg, 2010)

22 Lincoln, Sunlight, 55.

23 In contrast, it is well known that Venice and Amsterdam, in particular, were models that Peter the Great had in mind when the development of Vasilievsky Island was about to start. For instance, the tsar ordained that the island's ‘canals and streets on both sides of them are to be in breadth as against the Herengracht in Amsterdam’. Cited in Anisimov, E.V., The Reforms of Peter the Great (New York, 1993), 240.

24 E.g. Troyat, H., Peter the Great (New York, 1987).

25 Hughes, L. (ed.), Peter the Great and the West: New Perspectives (Basingstoke, 2001). Appleby, J.H., ‘The founding of St. Petersburg in the context of the Royal Society's relationship with Russia’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 57 (2003), 277–9.

26 A Dutchman Franz Timmermann, for instance, who had been a teacher of geometry and fortification of the tsar, took part in the rebuilding of Mannheim at the turn of the eighteenth century. See Cracraft, J., The Church Reform of Peter the Great (London, 1971), 3; Troyat, Peter the Great.

27 Tarpley, ‘Street names as signposts’, 1483–5. In both Philadelphia and Vasilievsky Island, parallel streets are designated by names in one direction and by numbers in the other.

28 My line of reasoning here echoes Rose-Redwood's critique of the attempts to explain the historical diffusion of the grid-patterned urban layouts through a doctrine in which innovations are seen as spreading outward ‘from a single source region rather than being independently invented in multiple locations’. See Rose-Redwood, R., ‘Genealogies of the grid: revisiting Stanislawski's search for the origin of the grid-pattern town’, Geographical Review, 98 (2008), 4258.

29 Choay, F., The Modern City: Planning in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1969); Hall, T. (ed.), Planning and Urban Growth in the Nordic Countries (London, 1991).

30 Benjamin, W., The Arcades Project (Cambridge, 1999); Ferguson, P., Paris as Revolution: Writing the Nineteenth-Century City (Berkeley, 1997).

31 Farvacque-Vitkovic et al., Street Addressing, 158.

32 Benjamin, The Arcades.

33 Ferguson, Paris as Revolution, 27–8.

34 Steger, ‘Orientierungssysteme’, 1501–6; Langenfelt, ‘Streets-names, old and new’, 333–4.

35 Ferguson, Paris as Revolution, 25–30; Bauer, L., ‘De la diachronie à la synchronie: étude de la dénomination des voies de Cergy-Pontoise', Langage et Société, 96 (2001), 21.

36 Langenfelt, ‘Streets-names, old and new’, 337; Vuolteenaho and Ainiala, ‘Planning and revamping’, 229.

37 Azaryahu, ‘Naming the past’, 59, 67.

38 On history of the deliberate clustering of adjacent streets and other landscape elements through odonyms, see Langenfelt, ‘Streets-names, old and new’; Vuolteenaho and Ainiala, ‘Planning and revamping’; Harling-Kranck, ‘Kaupunkinimistö’.

39 Notably, however, the French rulers and authorities seem to have felt more free to apply rationalistic street-numbering designs in the state's overseas departments and ex-colonies. For instance, see Bigon, L., ‘Names, norms and forms: French and indigenous toponyms in early colonial Dakar, Senegal’, Planning Perspectives, 23 (2008), 479501.

40 Mounin, G., ‘The semiology of orientation in urban space’, Current Anthropology, 21 (1980), 493.

41 Redmonds, G., Names and History (Hambledon, 2004), 171; Room, A., The Street Names of England (Stamford, 1992).

42 A nationwide street and postcode Internet-database lists, for instance, even 176 Second Avenues, 66 Fifth Avenues and 13 Tenth Avenues in the United Kingdom. The respective figures are 11–10–3 for numbered Streets, 1–0-0 for Closes, 1–0-0 for Crescents, 1–0-0 for Drifts, 1–0-0 for Drives, 6–0-0 for Droves, 1–0-0 for Lanes, 2–1-0 for Rows and 2–0–0 for Ways. See (

43 Kirkup, M., Ashington and its Mining Community (Stroud, 2008).

44 Newtongrange, Midlothian (; McKinnon, A., ‘Nitten aliens: researching an immigrant community’, Locscot, 4 (2006), 47.

45 Room, Street Names, xi; Charlesworth, J.A. and Cochrane, A., ‘Anglicising the American dream: tragedy, farce and the post-modern city’, in Westwood, S. and Williams, J. (eds.) Imagining Cities (London, 1996), 219–32.

46 Room, Street Names, 179–87.

47 Place Names Board of Estonia ( (Tallinn, 2011). Interestingly, the main underlying motif for the ban on new number-based street and place names in Estonia was the excess of numerical landmarks (in the names of institutions, in particular) inherited from the Soviet period. I thank Dr Peeter Päll for bringing this to my attention.

48 To my knowledge, the European record in the quantity of numbered streets within a discrete neighbourhood is held by La Cañada in Paterna, an upper-class and vacationing-related development near Valencia (with little less than 200 relatively unsystematically numbered streets), located in the Spanish national context not systematically screened for this study.

49 In Prenzlau, for instance, spatially clustered names Strasse A, Strasse B and Strasse C are still in use. Some of the Prussian cities that have had reminiscent odonyms, such as Wroclaw (Breslau), are located east of the Oder–Neisse line and thus currently belong to the Polish territory. I am grateful to Dr Johanna Sänger for her insights into this largely unexplored topic.

50 ‘Liste der Straßen und Plätze in Berlin-Lichtenberg’, in Wikipedia. Die freie Encyklopädie ( (Berlin, 2011).

51 Consequentially, a plan by James Hobrecht from 1862 incorporated numbered designations for many projected streets and squares around Berlin. I am thankful to Andreas Matschenz for bringing this fact to my attention. See also Bernet, C., ‘The “Hobrecht Plan” (1862) and Berlin's urban structure’, Urban History, 31 (2004), 400–19.

52 According to Elisabeth Fuchshuber-Weiß, there were 411 numbered odonyms in official use in East Berlin in 1968. See E. Fuchshuber-Weiß, ‘Straßennamen: Deutsch’, in Eichler et al. (eds.), Namenforschung/Name Studies, 1473.

53 See Azaryahu, M., ‘Street names and political identity: the case of East Berlin’, Journal of Contemporary History, 21 (1986), 581604; Azaryahu, M., ‘German unification and the politics of street names: the case of East Berlin’, Political Geography, 16 (1997), 479–93; Sänger, J., Heldenkult und Heimatliebe. Strassen- und Ehrennamen im offiziellen Gedächtnis der DDR (Berlin, 2006).

54 Alexeev, A.A., ‘Sovetskie streets, first – tenth’, in Saint Petersburg Encyclopaedia ( (St Petersburg, 2010); Bondarchuk, Е.А., and Yudin, P.Y., ‘Peski’, in Saint Petersburg Encyclopaedia ( (St Petersburg, 2010).

55 Isachenko, V.G., ‘Krasnoarmeiskie streets, first – thirteenth’, in Saint Petersburg Encyclopaedia ( (St Petersburg, 2010).

56 Murray, J., Politics and Place-Names: Changing Names in the Late Soviet Period (Birmingham, 2000); Marin, A., ‘Bordering time in the cityscape: toponymic changes as temporal boundary-making: street renaming in Leningrad/St Petersburg’, Geopolitics, 17 (2012), 192216.

57 Hellberg-Hirn, Imperial Imprints, 125; Nikitenko, ‘Toponymy of St. Petersburg’; Marin, ‘Bordering time’.

58 Ibid.

59 Isachenko, ‘Krasnoarmeiskie streets’; Alexeev, ‘Sovetskie streets’; Hellberg-Hirn, Imperial Imprints; 126.

60 On the influences of St Petersburg on urban planning in Finland in the nineteenth century, see M. Sundman, ‘Urban planning in Finland after 1850’, in Hall (ed.) Planning and Urban Growth, 65–9; Aaltonen, E., Entisajan Forssaa ja Sen Väkeä (Forssa, 1947).

61 P. Slotte, ‘Helsingin “amerikkalaiset” linjat’, (Helsinki, 2001).

62 On the early history of Kallio as a poor neighbourhood in the immediate vicinity of the core of the national capital, see Waris, H., Työläisyhteiskunnan Syntyminen Helsingin Pitkänsillan Pohjoispuolelle (Helsinki, 1973); Paunonen, H., Vuolteenaho, J. and Ainiala, T., ‘Industrial urbanization, working-class lads and slang toponyms in early twentieth century Helsinki, Urban History, 36 (2009), 449–72.

63 Aminoff, B. and Pesonen, L.A., ‘Helsingin kadunnimistön synty ja kehitys vuoteen 1946 mennessä’, in Terho, O., Granlund, Å., Itkonen, T., Oja, A., Pesonen, L.A. and Valpas, O. (eds.), Helsingin Kadunnimet (Helsinki, 1981), 50–5, 94; P. Slotte, ‘Vallis gratiaesta Westendiin: “eurooppalaisia” aineksia paikannimistössämme’, in Paikannimet – Paikan Muisti (1999), 21.

64 See also Vuolteenaho and Ainiala, ‘Planning and revamping’, 230.

65 Mounin, ‘The semiology of orientation’, 493.

66 E.g. Withers, C.W.J., ‘Authorizing landscape: “authority”, naming and the Ordnance Survey's mapping of the Scottish Highlands in the nineteenth century’, Journal of Historical Geography, 26 (2000), 532–54; Eller, N., Hackl, S. and L'upták, M. (eds.), Namen und ihr Konfliktpotential im europäischen Kontext (Regensburg, 2008); Peckham, R.S., ‘Map mania: nationalism and the politics of place in Greece, 1870–1922’, Political Geography, 19 (2009), 7795; Vuolteenaho, J. and Ainiala, T., ‘Naming and making places: excavating the connection between nation-building and toponymic research’, in Jänicke, N. and Lenehan, F. (eds.) Language and the Moulding of Space. An Interdisciplinary Discussion (Leipzig, 2010), 1132.

67 Anderson, B., Imagined Communities (London, 1990), 6784; Bourdieu, P., Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge, 1991); Haugen, E., The Ecology of Language (Stanford, 1972); Jones, P., The 1848 Revolutions (Harlow, 1981), 25.

68 Bennett, T., ‘The exhibitionary complex’, in Boswell, D. and Evans, J. (eds.) Representing the Nation: A Reader. Histories, Heritage and Museums (London, 1999), 332361; Therborn, ‘Monumental Europe’.

69 Weber, M., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York, 1958; originally published in 1904–5), 71; see a more recent example on the investment of a numbered street name with more or less patriotic overtones in New York City, Rose-Redwood, R., ‘“Sixth Avenue is now a memory”: regimes of spatial inscription and the performative limits of the official city-text’, Political Geography, 27 (2008), 875–94.

70 For a critique of the alleged neutrality of street numbering, see Rose-Redwood, R. and Alderman, D., ‘Critical interventions in political toponymy’, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 10 (2011), 34.

71 Costa, F. Sánchez, ‘Cultura histórica y nombres de calles: aproximación al nomenclátor contemporáneo de Barcelona y Madrid’, Memoria y Civilización, 12 (2009), 217–19.

72 The quote is from L.A. Pesonen, ‘Kadunnimistön tarkistus vuoden 1946 alueliitoksen johdosta ja nimistön laatiminen uusiin kaupunginosiin’, in Terho et al. (eds.), Helsingin kadunnimet, 80.

73 Curry, M.R., ‘Toward a geography of a world without maps: lessons from Ptolemy and postal codes’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95 (2005), 680–91.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Urban History
  • ISSN: 0963-9268
  • EISSN: 1469-8706
  • URL: /core/journals/urban-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed