All the world’s regions ignored by our street names

Analysing street names in major European cities, it turns out that people of African and Asian descent are strongly underrepresented. Barely 0.1% of streets commemorate non-white personalities born outside Europe.

Published On: January 8th, 2024
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In large European cities, people born outside Europe have long made up a significant proportion of the population, often around 10 percent or more. However, on average in those same cities about 98 percent of the streets dedicated to individuals celebrate people born in Europe. Even those few streets that commemorate figures born outside Europe are dedicated in 8 out of 10 cases to individuals closely linked to European culture or history, such as personalities from the Roman empire, Christian saints born in the Middle East or North Africa, or descendants of Europeans in the Americas.

Looking at some 95,000 streets in 17 large European cities, we found only 113 streets dedicated to non-white non-European figures, i.e. 0.1 percent of the total. In a given large city there are on average only 4-5 such streets, and in some cases just one or none at all.

While the numbers in both cities are still rather small, Paris and Copenhagen stand out compared to the rest of the cities under consideration. In these two capital cities, streets named after non-white non-Europeans are more numerous, accounting for more than one in three of the streets named after figures born outside Europe. In Paris there are 41 such streets, while in Copenhagen the recent naming of many streets on the artificial Sluseholmen peninsula after African-American jazz musicians has brought the share of streets named after non-white non-Europeans in the total number of streets named after individuals to 1.6 percent.

Among the European cities under consideration, Stockholm (where we did not find a single street named after a non-white non-European), Milan, Budapest and Zagreb come last. For every street named after a non-white non-European in these cities there are on average about 1,300 dedicated to other individuals. In Milan there are only two streets dedicated to non-white non-European figures, namely the streets dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In Zagreb too, the only street dedicated to a non-white non-European is named after Gandhi.

Places of origin

We do not have information on the place of birth of all the individuals to whom streets in large European cities are dedicated, but it is very likely that the figures for whom data is lacking are overwhelmingly local and relatively anonymous figures, such as landowners or other local inhabitants.

In the 17 cities under consideration, the streets named after non-European personalities that we have been able to identify celebrate a total of 367 different figures (in our analysis we also include Turkey and the Caucasus, while excluding individuals born outside Europe for accidental reasons, such as the children of diplomats or migrants who returned to their country of origin shortly afterwards).

Approximately 40 percent of these figures were born along the southern or eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and a third in North America. The remaining figures are distributed among the other continents, mainly Latin America and Asia. Looking at today’s borders, apart from the United States the other most represented countries are Israel/Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. By contrast, almost all the world’s most populous countries, starting with China, are absent or strongly underrepresented.

Who are these individuals

As is probably only natural, many streets dedicated to individuals born outside Europe commemorate figures who are nevertheless closely linked to European culture or history. The 367 personalities identified include many descendants of Europeans – especially in the Americas – as well as figures from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, and many biblical figures and Christian saints, including a fair number of women.

Figures traditionally perceived as belonging to ”other” worlds, on the other hand, make up about a fifth of the total: these are other personalities of African, Asian or American origin, such as Afro-descendants, Indians or people from the Arab or Muslim world. They are mostly political figures or exponents of the culture sector, and almost all were born in the 19th or 20th centuries. This is in contrast to the other non-Europeans, among whom figures from ancient times are also highly represented and where religious figures are more numerous.

More than three quarters of the non-European personalities commemorated through street names are celebrated in a single country – many figures from the Greco-Roman or Christian world are only celebrated in Italy or Greece, for example. Only four non-European personalities are commemorated by street names in at least half of the cities analysed: these are the Virgin Mary and Saint Peter, John and Anne.

Of the 20 personalities born outside Europe who are celebrated in the largest number of countries, cities and streets under consideration, no fewer than 14 are figures from Christianity and five are individuals descended from Europeans; Gandhi is the only figure from an “other” world. After Gandhi, the other most frequently celebrated non-white non-Europeans are Martin Luther King, Rabindranath Tagore, Nelson Mandela and Indira Gandhi.

When comparing different cities, not only does the proportion of non-European individuals celebrated through toponymy change, but also their profile. For instance, three quarters of the non-European figures commemorated in the streets of Paris and Lyon are linked to Africa or the Arab-Muslim world, long affected by French imperialism. In Vienna, sub-Saharan Africans – including the singular Angelo Soliman – prevail, while in Warsaw it is Indians. In the streets of Kyiv, one finds various figures from Siberia and Central Asia. In Athens, personalities from the ancient world are celebrated almost exclusively. In Bucharest, in addition to Gandhi, Simon Bolivar and Benjamin Franklin – also popular elsewhere – a street is dedicated to the lesser-known Filipino patriot José Rizal.

New horizons

The almost total absence of non-white, extra-European figures in the toponymy of European cities is gradually being called into question. The absence is not random, nor is it insignificant. It is partly linked to a long tradition of oppression and racism, as well as the discriminations that many people of extra-European origin continue to face. As Julie Pascoët, coordinator for policy and advocacy at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), declares, the strong underrepresentation of non-white individuals in public space “is a glaring indictment of Europe’s values. We cannot claim to be an inclusive and equitable society while simultaneously erasing the contributions of racialised individuals.”

In recent years, various cities in Europe have started to reconsider the commemoration of controversial figures or events, especially those linked to European imperialism. In Berlin, some streets in the so-called “African Quarter” have been renamed, where two African personalities are now celebrated instead of two German colonialists. The central Mohrenstrasse (“Street of the Moors”) in Berlin is also expected to be soon named after the Ghanaian philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo. In Brussels, newfound awareness of colonial events has led to honouring Patrice Lumumba, one of the key figures in Congo’s independence from Belgium. In Rome, there has been a mobilisation to rediscover the figure of Giorgio Marincola, an Italo-Somali partisan.

Beyond the history of colonialism, some cities have also recently chosen to highlight other particularly symbolic figures born outside Europe. This is the case of Barcelona, which in 2021 chose to name a square after Idrisa Diallo, an asylum seeker of Guinean origin who died in unclear circumstances while detained in a migrant centre. The city of Budapest, on the other hand, dedicated a street to the dissident Chinese bishop Xie Shiguang, as a gesture of protest against the agreement signed between the Hungarian and Chinese governments to open a branch of the Chinese Fudan University in the area. Xie is also the only person born in China to be celebrated with a street in the 17 European cities considered.

While many European cities are rediscovering, rehabilitating or honouring an increasing number of personalities of non-European origin, including various non-white figures, the reverse process can sometimes be observed in nowadays’ Kyiv. The major operation to revise the city’s toponymy, aimed at reducing ties with the Soviet Union and Russia, has affected, among others, Patrice Lumumba himself, considered too close to the USSR: the street that was dedicated to him is now named after a decidedly white anti-communist, John Paul II.

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