Spotlight on Zoning Practice

What's in a (Street) Name?

Your street address can say a lot about you. The unique identifier specifying the location of your home or business often serves as a proxy for identity, race, wealth, and power, not to mention your life expectancy. The practice of assigning names to streets and address numbers to properties — much like planning itself — sits at the intersection of art and science. However, despite the vital importance of street naming and addressing systems to managing community growth and change, the planning literature hasn't paid much recent attention to these systems.

As a partial corrective, Justin Wallace, AICP, takes a fresh look in the March issue of Zoning Practice, "Comprehensive Street Naming and Addressing Systems." In addition to refreshing existing guidance — which dates back to PAS Report 13, "Street-Naming and House-Numbering Systems" — Wallace offers insights into ongoing efforts to advance social equity through street naming.

Where Do We Even Keep These Rules?

I've long been interested in the less flashy genres and subgenres of regulation that affect the use of land. (For sports fans, you can think of these as role players who excel at one aspect of the game and make their teammates look better. Or, if you're a movie buff, think of them as the character actors necessary to advance the plot.) One of the questions I often come back to is where should these highly specialized regulations live.

When it comes to street naming and addressing regulations, there is no dominant approach. For some jurisdictions, these regulations are one component of a unified development code. For others, they live quite apart from the zoning ordinance, in sections of the code devoted to the use of public rights-of-way or building construction. It's relatively common for rules governing street naming and addressing to be a standalone policy, separate from the code of ordinances.

As you might expect, planners tend to play a more significant role in drafting and administering these regulations in communities that identify them as one component of a larger land-use and development management system. As Wallace notes, planners should care about and influence these rules, which affect wayfinding, public safety, economic development, and public service provision.

When Might an Update Be a Good Idea?

While street naming and addressing regulations are classic examples of "set it and forget it" standards, Wallace highlights several conditions that may signal the need to revisit these regulations. For example, communities experiencing rapid growth through annexation may need to reconcile inconsistent systems. And frequent complaints about misdelivered or lost packages could be a sign that something has gone wrong.

The problem may also have been hiding in plain sight for decades. Many communities have streets named after Confederate leaders or known white supremacists. Some, such as New Orleans and Charlotte, North Carolina, have already committed to renaming these streets. But there is still much work to be done and many opportunities for planners to point the way.

Each issue of Zoning Practice provides practical guidance for planners and land-use attorneys engaged in drafting or administering local land-use and development regulations. An annual subscription to ZP includes access to the complete archive of previous issues.

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Top image: Mx. Granger, Wikimedia

About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.

March 10, 2023

By David Morley, AICP