How Do Vancouver Streets Get Their Names?

We can’t think of any better use of our tax dollars, honestly.

Whether you are currently acquainted with a baby or were once a baby yourself, you likely know how most humans get their names. Parents gaze upon their child’s wet, screaming little face and think, “She reminds me of Great Aunt Eglantine,” or perhaps they find the perfect moniker in a rewatch of their favourite film (King Kong). Maybe they turn to the internet and find a name on Really, anything can spark inspiration for a baby name—a beloved character from literature, a treasured friend, a particularly delicious CrunchWrap Supreme.

But when it comes to naming streets, the process is a little more complicated. The city can’t just slap down some pavement and christen it “Please Seth Rogen Move Back Here We’ll Do Anything You Want Boulevard.” There are checks and balances in place.

The public is actually encouraged to get involved in the naming of city-owned assets, which includes not just public streets but also bridges, plazas, gardens and civic facilities. But you don’t need to wait for a specific avenue to come up for naming, which is great news if you have a cool street name like “Pizza Highway” burning a hole in your pocket: you can propose a name for a future civic asset at any ol’ time through the City of Vancouver website.

Unfortunately, “Pizza Highway” will be eliminated from consideration right away because it absolutely does not meet the City of Vancouver’s naming criteria. Names should honour a noteworthy person who is, to put it politely, un-alive. Alternatively, names can commemorate local history or culture, celebrate the diversity of  Vancouver or recognize native flora and fauna. Names should not be derogatory or advertise for a business, so don’t even think about suggesting “The Brits Are Not Welcome at Best Buy Playground” for a new swingset.

Once the city archivist has signed off on your suggestion and confirmed that it is neither a hate crime nor a reference to The Matrix, it then winds up in the hands of the Street Naming Committee: a not-so-shadowy cabal composed of folks from groups like Public Space Network or the Vancouver Historical Society. If they agree that your proposed name could be a good fit for the future, they add it to a names reserve—think of it like that baby name list you keep in your Notes app. (Yeah, I know about that. And, yeah, I’m stealing “Grizzelda.”)

When city staff need a name, the Naming Committee looks at the reserve and recommends something deeply meaningful and appropriate—or some bird or whatever if they’re in a rush to finish the meeting and get to their reservation at Savio.

Public input is also welcome for re-naming civic assets, though your emailed proposal has to be pretty convincing. They’re not just going to change it to “Brian’s Gate Bridge” just because you asked nicely. No, an emailed proposal needs to include a reason for the switcheroo, info on the relevance of the proposed name and documented support from stakeholders, among other docs.

This thoughtful process wasn’t always the way Vancouver streets were named, of course. As with much of our city’s history, streets were labelled through a primitive “dibs” methodology: settlers slapping their names on stuff (or, to be fair, the names of monarchs they had crushes on). But times have changed. And now we have computers. Computers we can use to reach out to our city archivist and beg them to please consider naming their next road—or back lane or alleyway, we’re really not picky!—to “Vancouver Magazine’s Highway of Dreams.”

Illustration of a fairy naming a city street
Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler