What’s in a name? Creating and curating urban narratives

Exploring place names can increase the interest of a location, triggering a sense of place and evoking cultural or natural associations – like mini cultural narratives, place names create experiences of belonging.

Take Hvidovre, my personal suburb, abutting its polar twin, Rødovre. Tricky for most foreigners to pronounce or even differentiate, with the first featuring a silent H, the second an unfamiliar vowel, and both the ever-softer blød D. Stick with this, it gets even better.

Research traces the two names back to the 17th century, with the ovre suffix coming from Old Danish awartha, meaning åbred (the banks of a stream) or bevogtet sted ved åen (a protected place by the stream). Records of a village with the name Aworthæ date as far back as 1186, when Pope Urban III acknowledged receiving it as a gift from Archbishop Absalon. Variants in spelling abound, and there were several villages bearing the name. To differentiate between the two villages south of Copenhagen Rødovre was initially called Øvre Ovre, as it lay further up Harrestrup Å (stream) than Hvidovre, aka Ydre Ovre. The Latin spelling of Hawerthi was also used by villagers in Øverød, north of Copenhagen, as the name for their locally produced Havarthi cheese.

According to one wag if you say Øvre and Ydre Ovre quickly enough they sound like Rød (red) and Hvid (white) Ovre, but most attribute the prefixes to the local parish churches – plastered in red in Rødovre and in white in Hvidovre. The two colours are used on local street signs – red on white in Hvidovre, and white on red in Rødovre. One street has signs in both variants.

Street names in Hvidovre range from a handful of natural features and the great and the good to batch naming after Greek gods or trees. Former farms and market gardens have been kept alive in the naming of housing estates – Bredalsgården is now Bredalsparken. And in a nice touch, a stretch outside Hvidovre C was recently named Laurits Olsensvej (again), after the hero of the 1919 railway accident at nearby Hvidovre Station (and setting off a debate about whether it should be Olsensvej or Olsens Vej).

Copenhagen’s current expansion means busy times for the city’s street naming committee, the splendidly named Vejnavnenævnet. They had a clear run in Ørestad, a tabula rasa on reclaimed land. In an approach to warm the cockles of a jaded urbanist’s heart they went for a modernist theme complementing the aspirations of the area. Streets in Ørestad City are named after architects, such as Arne Jacobsen, who also has his own Lounge in Fields shopping centre.

car park on Kay Fiskers Plads, named after the architect responsible for some pearls of Danish modernist architecture

Streets in Syd are named after artists, including CoBrA founder (and author of Fin de Copenhague) Asger Jorn, while those in Nord after writers (eg Karen Blixen) and musicians (but no Carl Nielsen). Rather more could be made of this though – there are no explanations on the street signs or other information to be had, other than an article in the local rag.

Sadly now though the naming committee seems to have dropped the ball, with streets in the new district around Bella Center to be named after random female writers including, pleasingly if rather improbably, Virginia Woolf. Equally random is the choice of Nobel peace prize winners for the area around Enghave Brygge, where I had spotted a couple of rather nice street signs earlier in the year; historical names disappearing here include Enghave Brygge itself.

Coal Road - named after the quay erected on the same spot in 1920 to supply coal to the nearby power station

Coal Road – named after the quay erected on the same spot in 1920 to supply coal to the nearby power station

Six streets around Rigshospitalet and Bispebjerg Hospital are to be named after pioneering female medics, in recognition of the lack of streets named after women. This well-meaning fashion has led to questions about whether gender is the now the sole criterion, and why all the streets have to begin with E, making them difficult to differentiate, particularly for those feeling a tad under the weather.

In 2014 12 new names were approved for the streets of Carlsberg Byen, a new area emerging on the site of the old brewery. While streets in the south east of the area at least refer back to the area’s historic functions, those in the south west are rather more tangential, supposedly acknowledging Carlsberg founder JC Jacobsen’s engagement in Denmark’s cultural life. Whereas Bohrs Tårn is memorable enough, with Nobel prize winner Niels Bohr living in Jacobsen’s house for 30 years, other figures are relatively unknown, and meanwhile some of the area’s most significant architects are being airbrushed out of history. Both Carl Harild, responsible for listed buildings such as Ny Carlsberg Bryghus and Tap E, and Svenn Eske Kristensen, the mastermind behind not least the ‘iconic’ Lægerkælder 3 (now to become a boutique hotel), are invisible.

Similar issues have been encountered in Nordhavn, a new district emerging on reclaimed land previously occupied by the old Frihavn (freeport). It’s a common trope for streets in harbour areas to be named after other port and harbour cities, and Århusgadekvarteret is no exception. Once again, the new names have not gone without comment, and in the end three streets were allowed to retain their original names, with the proposed Liverpool Plads (square) now named Nordhavns Plads.

Some of the new names feel somewhat random, based on ports of all shapes and sizes with no particular relationship to Nordhavn or even to Denmark (Murmansk, anyone?), and ranging from Southampton (which no one can say) to Sassnitz to Skt Petersborg; the clutch around Harwichgade, Calaisgade, Dover Passage and Dunkerquegade at least has a little topographical logic, and ferries used to sail from Harwich to Esbjerg, back in the day…Previous names were rather more grounded in function, such as Jernvej (Iron Road) or Tværgade (Cross Street, now the out of scale Kielgade). Others were named after luminaries now forgotten, such as the freeport’s founder Ferdinand Wilhelm Lüders.

But while Lüders may have lost his road he has gained a car park, currently one of the area’s chief draws with a rooftop exercise area, adorned by a frieze in weathering steel which also tips its hat to the former Glückstadtsvej.

frieze on P-Hus Lüders showing scenes from Nordhavn's history as a working harbour

frieze on P-Hus Lüders showing scenes from Nordhavn’s history as a working harbour

More riding roughshod over the past in Valby, where Grønttorvet (old pics), a market which provided fruit and veg to the cities’ restaurants for nearly 50 years from 1958, has recently moved to Høje Taastrup, reopening in April 2016 after a three year delay as Copenhagen Markets (rather than the initially proposed Det Nye Grønttorv, a nod to creeping Anglicisation). The area had been slated for redevelopment a la Carlsberg since 2006 and is currently experiencing the first stage of gentrification as Det Gamle Grønttorv, while we wait for delights such as Himmelhaverne. Among local concerns is the loss of local heritage, as epitomised in the proposed batch naming of the roads after types of apple, such as Cox Orangevej, more resonant of Donald Duck’s home town than authentic cultural history (latest | Magasinet KBH).

Much fun (and academic ink) can be had tracking Viking place names around the North Sea. Take THING sites – assembly sites throughout areas of Scandinavian influence can be identified by their common ting, thing, ding and fing place names, such as Gulating (Norway), Tinganes (Faroe Islands), Tingwall in both Shetland and Orkney, Dingwall (Highland) and Tynwald (Isle of Man), plus Thynghowe in Sherwood Forest, and not least Folketinget, Denmark’s parliament.

The names a city bestows on its streets are reflections of its current values. Royals may have won over Communist heroes on the streets of eastern Europe, but it’s worth remembering that in the latest chapter of the city’s toponomy St Petersburg only narrowly  beat Leningrad in the public vote. Meanwhile Londonist has a nice article about the role of placenames in city branding. In new Copenhagen street naming follows the best PC fashions, with a distinct leaning towards listing. Should do better!

best street naming ever, in Dessau

best street naming ever, in Dessau

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