The Naming Game

The naming of infrastructure is important to place-making but needs some guidelines if it is to be effective

The naming of civic infrastructure is in the news of late

Recent weeks have seen the announcement that the planned bridge between Detroit and the Canadian city of Windsor will be called the Gordie Howe International Bridge after the legendary (Canadian born-and-raised) Detroit Red Wings player and that the name of the M-1 Rail project will be decided by Quicken Loans (Dan Gilbert’s mortgage company) that secured the rights in return for substantial financial support. There will also, apparently, be recognition of the sponsorship of individual station stops.

The naming of infrastructure and institutions can tell the story of how a place came to be

Naming might seem an afterthought, but it actually plays an important role in place-making and inclusivity by telling a story of how a place came to be and who the different groups are that made up that story. This is especially true if there is some good signage that outlines why a name has been chosen.

Anyone taking the Walter P. Reuther Freeway might be curious to find out more about the auto union leader and civil rights activist. A visitor to Viola Liuzzo park could come to realize that it was named after a slain civil rights activist. And students at Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine doubtless all know that it is named after the Detroit-raised surgeon who is currently running for President.

This City of Detroit playground is named after a local woman, murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Selma Alabama in 1965, for her civil rights activism (source: City Literate blog)

Naming can also recognize great effort in commissioning, designing, and championing the infrastructure. For example, late Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, who did much to champion Detroit Metro Airport, has a terminal at said airport in his name. Dolores Bennett Playground is named after the North End resident who campaigned tirelessly for its initial creation.

To be legitimate, naming needs to be done transparently and to be aware of power

The Bridge project was approved by the U.S. State Department as the New International Trade Crossing (NITC) yet changed when some Canadian politicians, including the hockey-mad Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, backed the Howe name.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Dr. Murray Howe (Gordie’s son) announce that a long-planned Detroit River bridge crossing will be called the Gordie Howe International Bridge. (source: The Detroit News)

Although the Canadians are paying for it all, a more formal process is surely needed. The bigger danger is that naming often sees eminent older white men naming things after, er, eminent older white men – when you ‘Go over the Gordie’ into Canada you’ll most likely soon get on the new Rt. Hon. Herb Gray Parkway!

Even the Windsor Mayor claims his city was never consulted on the naming. You can’t help but wonder how the name is seen in that city – the fourth most diverse in Canada.

Perhaps with more voices at the table, someone might have argued that the bridge could have commemorated the Underground Railroad network instead – to complement the monuments in both Detroit and Windsor.

There must surely also be a question around legitimacy when naming rights are bought and sold?

The problem for place-makers is that, whilst recognition of achievement and public service is more likely to have legitimacy and to be part of a place’s story, sponsorship by business (and individuals looking to leave an acknowledged mark) may be needed for development to proceed in locations with low tax bases.

For Detroit there are a couple of more practical questions too – namely about whether rights should be sold where considerable sums of governmental and foundation money have also been used (as has been the case with the M1-Rail project) and about whether Quicken and other major players really would make less investments if naming rights were denied them.


Dan Gilbert will surely have something major in Detroit named after him one day but should he or his Quicken Loans company get their names on the city’s shiny new M1-Rail? (source: The Detroit News)

Some thinking and some guidelines are needed

There are examples of cities, such as Dublin in Ireland and the Australian authorities of Rockhampton, Mandurah and Livingstone, that do have written naming policies (just click the names to see them).

As Detroit’s revitalization proceeds the naming issue will keep cropping up – a nice problem to have. So it’s important then that naming efforts in other places be looked at and that there be some debate about the naming game.

Gareth is currently looking to establish an organization to exchange international best practice around ways to sustain community and civic assets such as parks, libraries and museums. Prior to arriving in Detroit he undertook a German Marshall Fund international Urban and Regional Policy Fellowship (in the Twin Cities, Detroit and Baltimore) looking at these same issues. Before coming to the US Gareth worked in central government as a policy advisor in the Cabinet Office (Office for Civil Society and Strategy Unit). He holds a Ph.D. in economic geography (the role of universities in regional economic development), as well as a first degree in social policy and administration and a Masters in civic design (urban planning). Follow him on Twitter @garethpotts1.