Finding New Meaning in How Cities Are Named and Created


01Depressa_ChuckWolfe1.jpg While passing through Depressa, Italy, in August, I began some earnest thinking on the impact of a name on a place. In Depressa's case, based on a passing roadside view, things ironically seemed happy enough.

My fiancee and brother tolerated my five-minute absence from the car to obtain photographs. "You can't make places like this up," I thought.

Since returning home, I've noticed an uptick in articles about place names, welcome signs, and other such urban symbols. In particular, Kaid Benfield wrote last month about misaligned names assigned to new developments, such as a town center that does not serve as a central urban place.

Like longstanding Depressa, new places can present environments nothing like their labels. But, given that sense of place is now often the most important item on the urbanist checklist, we expect that place names will be not only inspiring, but sincere.

Finding apt names for places is just the beginning of today's creation of urban centers, real and imagined. Even more than names generated by land speculators and subdividers, random generation tools now support role-playing games online and general fascination with fantasy places, ideas, and depictions.

In this spirit, during a desktop trip, it did not take long to find Newmount Crossing, or, likewise, Countryfield and Dover Grange; I learned about both from an online name generator, here, of the sort referenced in the Benfield article.

One of the most straightforward town name generators now online produces five names per web browser refresh, while others adopt sometimes amusing British (try "Guildswinshot on Pine, East Sussex") and other themes.

Google searches reveal that more than names can be invented spontaneously by web-based tools. Instant cities are described well by another sort of random generator, which provides alternate, concise city descriptions.

For instance, the "city generator" provides several short summaries, including the following:

This small, well-populated city on the fringes of civilization is best known as a cultural mecca. The majority of its inhabitants are involved in agriculture, and it is considered noteworthy for its beautiful central square.

Such places can also be randomly mapped, with some inputs based on density and other attributes varied to produce this example:


At a more detailed level, other readily accessible tools provide additional, creative variables and manipulation potential.

Consider the "perfect city generator" described in The Pop-Up City, last year:

This "city generator", known as Suicidator, can plainly render some heart-throbbing simulations, and is free to download as an add-on to the Blender 3-D "content-creator" engine.

For me, Suicidator and Blender were essential downloads, because of a fascination with similar tools in use by friends and colleagues at the University of Washington's Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies. In cooperation with several sponsors, the Runstad Center is currently developing a land use simulation tool for local decision-making known as Decision Commons.

Within a half hour of downloading Suicidator and Blender, I rendered the following virtual metropolis, which shows at least two dense town centers with corridors between:


In summary, my lesson learned through travel from the irony of Depressa to the creativity of the desktop, is, at one level, full of gimmickry and wry humor. At another level, the lesson is both mind-boggling and sincere.

From one person's perspective, a real encounter with name and place became an adventure through radical change in how cities are named, created, and envisioned.

My experience shows that together, we all have innumerable opportunities to model visions of a better place, based on far more than generating a name.

Images: Charles R. Wolfe.

This article also appears on My Urbanist, an Atlantic partner site.

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Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques.

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