How do new Canadian neighbourhoods get named? Experts say it’s about gentrification

A mural on the side of the Meat on Queen butcher shop on Queen St. East in Toronto's Lesllieville neighbourhood are pictured on Jan 9 2015. .
A mural on the side of the Meat on Queen butcher shop on Queen St. East in Toronto's Lesllieville neighbourhood are pictured on Jan 9 2015. . Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail via The Canadian Press

Edmonton’s naming committee wanted to call the new neighbourhoods Balsam Woods, Golden Willow and River Alder – names that pay homage to local tree species and the area’s natural geography.

But the city’s executive council ultimately sided with the developers, who favoured The Uplands, Stillwater and River’s Edge.

Experts say the quarrel that came to a head in March highlights the growing role that marketability is playing in the naming of new neighbourhoods.

“Neighbourhoods used to be named based on their historical origins, but now it’s much more geared towards creating something that sounds hip and cool,” says Susannah Bunce, assistant professor of human geography and city studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

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“The naming of neighbourhoods can be part of a larger process of gentrification.”

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Cory Sousa, a planner on Edmonton’s naming committee, says it’s not surprising that the wishes of developers – who have invested big money and are looking for marketable names to help them sell properties – may sometimes clash with those of the committee.

While developers are seeking names that roll off the tongue, the committee is striving to preserve the city’s heritage and highlight the flora, fauna and geographic features of the area, says Sousa.

Sousa points to the Big Lake area as an example, where an avian theme was used to name five neighbourhoods – Hawks Ridge, Kinglet Gardens, Pintail Landing, Starling and Trumpeter – due to the presence of hundreds of bird species in the area.

In another region of the city called Pilot Sound, the committee tapped into Edmonton’s aviation history and named the neighbourhoods after pilots.

“Those are the kinds of names that we really like to focus on – honouring all the great people that have done great things,” says Sousa.

Bunce says it should be the people who live and work in a particular neighbourhood who decide how it’s named.

“They are the ones who live there and have a stronger sense of identification with the place,” she says.

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Barbara Lawlor, president of Baker Real Estate, a Toronto firm that markets and sells new condo developments, says names can affect not only property values but also the identities of local residents.

“Part of how we define ourselves is what area of town we live in,” Lawlor says.

“When you say, ‘I live in Yorkville,’ people immediately know that you live in a tony neighbourhood and therefore you’re doing well. Or if you say, ‘I live on Queen Street East,’ they know you’re very trendy and cool.”

However, it takes time for a name to take on that sort of meaning, Lawlor adds.

“The Bridle Path is one of our most prestigious areas, but if we didn’t have mansions in that area it wouldn’t be significant,” says Lawlor. “A name is just a name until it gathers that character and significance.”

Sometimes, efforts to rebrand a neighbourhood can draw the ire of its residents – even when the original name carries with it negative associations.

That was the case in 2008, when signs bearing the name “University Heights” were plastered around Toronto’s Jane and Finch intersection.

Paul Nguyen, a longtime resident of Jane and Finch, says many community members were upset that money was being dunked into such a superficial fix.

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“It’s like lipstick on a pig,” says Nguyen, who founded the website in 2004. “Making signs is not going to fix the fundamental problems in the community.”

Many residents also felt like the initiative was a rejection of their heritage, says Nguyen.

“Jane and Finch is an identity,” he says.

“It’s about overcoming obstacles, proving other people wrong, overcoming discrimination. … It’s a badge of honour. A lot of people are proud of that label. It represents overcoming struggle.”