The City of Vancouver knows its street names aren't representative. Here's what they're doing about it

Vancouver's city streets were named, says local historian John Atkin, the same way most North American cities were. 

"Those that [settled] here slapped their names on things," he said.

A CBC News analysis showed 40 per cent of Vancouver streets are named for white males, compared to two per cent for women — a total smaller than the number of streets named for golf courses.

Atkin said he's not surprised by the figures, saying "a whole bunch of dead white guys" naming things after themselves was fairly standard for the time.  

But as a co-chair of Vancouver's Civic Asset Naming Committee, he's also in a position to do something about it. Both he and Felix-Marie Badeau, the committee's other co-chair, believe Vancouver's naming conventions should be more representative of the city's diversity. 

"The history of Vancouver is not just a bunch of dead white settlers," said Badeau.

"There is space for the names of dead white settlers as well, but we just need to broaden our horizons a little bit."

That the city has identified an issue with street names is one thing. But changing them — and all of the confusion that can cause for everyone from emergency crews to tourists using GPS — is another question entirely. 

What the city is doing 

The committee was created in 2012, and is responsible for advising council on how to name streets and parks. While it has a large reserve list of names on a de facto waiting list, submitted over many years by members of the public, the majority of new civic assets are named through a more complex process.  

"The role is really to choose names that are both relevant and site specific," said Atkin, one of eight members of the public on the committee. 

Recent examples of this include new developments in south Vancouver — the River District, near Southeast Marine Drive and Boundary Road, and the former Pearson Dogwood lands at Cambie Street and 57th Avenue. City surveyors ask for a new street name and the committee has extensive discussions on what would be appropriate.

"You're not just going, 'Oh let's just call it Smith Street,'" said Atkin. "It's a really carefully well-thought-out contextual process to name something that really feels right."

It's why a new street in the River District will be named Oolichan Way after the smelt-like fish that was a staple of Indigenous diets for centuries. And Badeau is excited about naming opportunities when the area formerly known as Hogan's Alley at the south side of Chinatown is revitalized after the planned removal of Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts. 

 

"I think it's important for people to really step back and look at Vancouver as a whole," said Badeau.

"Our histories are intermingled, and when we can sit back and reflect on that, and realize that everybody's histories can be supported ... I think we're in a really good place."  

Jim Mulleder/CBC

Why not rename? 

At the same time, new place names aren't common in established cities like Vancouver and communities across Canada are debating whether to change sites named for historical figures

 

Leaving aside controversial historical figures, there are dozens of streets in Vancouver where the name's origin is unclear, from Adera to Wenonah.

However, Coun. Adriane Carr, who is the city's liaison to the committee, said it's incredibly difficult to rename streets in Vancouver for a variety of reasons.

"Oh boy, talk about the layers of databases that are hooked into every street name," she said. 

She said the sheer number of groups that would face issues with changes — from Google to first responders — is the primary reason why the city has focused on new naming opportunities, such as West End lanes two years ago

They aren't technically streets, according to the city's open database. But it's a start.  

"Times have changed," said Carr. "The names that we've gotten, they don't reflect who we are as a city anymore."