What’s in a place name?

22.05.24 4 min read by Iona MacRury
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The language of place-making is an important part of the puzzle when it comes to creating new places to live, work and play.

While the name used may appear to simply reflect a marketing vision – the idea of how any given new destination wants to be presented – the thinking behind the process often goes much deeper in practice.

Names matter to all of us – wherever we go in the world and whatever we do, they are a means of finding our way about, a reference point of our language and our identity. In practical terms, place names are also an increasingly indispensable component of many geographically organised information systems – such as Waze, Google Maps.

At the most extreme end of the spectrum names are also used to make hitherto unremarkable places stand out.  The most striking example of this is probably a Welsh village on the island of Anglesey that sought to give itself the longest place name in the world. It has worked in as much as Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch to this day still receives coach loads of tourists eager to be photographed by the village train station sign.

In London and many other parts of the UK place names are increasingly the subject of social and political scrutiny. London councils continue to wrestle with what the UK government calls ‘contested heritage’ around Britain’s colonial history and, in many cases, have responded decisively where they have control over names and places. No fewer than 45 streets and statues have either been renamed or removed over historic slavery links in the capital in the last few years.

Past place names are not the only area of academic interest. Researchers at Reading University, for example, have explored children’s place-naming practices. Dr Jeremy Burchardt, of its Department of History, points out that just like adults, children need names to refer to places that matter to them. Sometimes they use adult names but there are many reasons why they may need, or choose, to invent their own. Firstly, they may simply not know the adult name for a particular place. Secondly, however, different sorts of place interest children than adults, and there may well be no adult names for some of these places.

Researchers have also noted that children’s spaces are often minutely differentiated – one study of children’s journeys to school shows that apparently insignificant features like gaps in hedges, slopes and particular trees and bushes can be invested with meaning for children. It’s also evident that children’s toponyms sometimes play a defensive role, serving to keep adults out of children-only spaces or to facilitate play and strengthen friendship group identity through creating a shared frame of reference. There is a very well-known literary example of this – Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, in which the Walker and Blackett children rename islands, hills, streams and promontories to convert a hitherto adult-dominated landscape into their own private play terrain.

We are fascinated by the topic and, with our partners in ECF, are currently running a naming project at the Manor Road Quarter in the London Borough of Newham, where we are bringing 804 much-needed homes to Canning Town, with 402 (50%) available as affordable homes, along with a major, two-acre park and cycle lanes

The new park is one of the most eagerly anticipated elements of the scheme – a 2.9-acre area of green space, with an array of features design to support the health and wellbeing of residents. The green expanse will be adorned with comfortable seating and inviting picnic areas, complemented by thoughtfully designed planted terraces that provide a picturesque backdrop for relaxation. Fitness enthusiasts will be able to revel in the amenities offered, including a well-maintained running track, outdoor gym equipment built by charity ‘Steel Warriors’, and a dynamic skate bowl for those seeking an adrenaline rush. Social activities find a home with table tennis facilities, encouraging friendly matches and fostering a sense of camaraderie.

The park also helps us meet our environmental sustainability commitments, incorporates rain gardens and wildlife habitats, contributing to increased biodiversity and providing a haven for local flora and fauna.

The park has everything it needs – apart from a name, and for that purpose we have started a competition at local school, Star Primary. On behalf of ECF, project leaders from Muse and our contractor Morgan Sindall Construction have already hosted a workshop for the school children to design and name their own parks. Year 3 children got to design and name their dream park using tissue paper, feathers, lollipop sticks and pipe cleaners. Each class from Star Primary will submit a name suggestion for a new local park being built at Manor Road Quarter.

Senior Development Manager Elizabeth Oliveira said:

Facilitating the workshop with Star Primary School was exceptionally rewarding. Witnessing the children's enthusiasm for designing and naming their new local park at Manor Road Quarter was a truly inspiring experience.”

A team of judges will gather in July to decide on the winning name. The park will open in Autumn 2024 where the park name will be showcased on the new park sign. We’ll let you know what they have come up once the judges have picked a winner.

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