The Essay

The Essay: The Trouble With Public Space Naming

By Ann Bartow

Public space naming is likely to favor the rich and well connected, writes Ann Bartow in The Essay this month. (Camellia Neri)

The next time you’re walking through the City, pause for a minute to consider how many of the local streets and nearby public amenities bear the name of an identifiable (though often deceased) human being. Some are easily recognizable; most Americans understand who the George Washington Bridge was named after, even if they’ve never been to New York City. But who made the choice, and why? That’s typically the bigger mystery.

What does a behemoth, 14-lane bridge connecting New York and New Jersey have to do with the first U.S. president? Why Washington instead of Lincoln or Jefferson? And why was that bridge named after a president at all? It could have been named after a past mayor of New York City, or the naming rights could have been sold to the highest bidder: enter the Sketchy Hedge Fund Bridge.

The scope of our physical public domain is overwhelming: streets, parks, public schools, bridges, towns, stadiums, airports, office buildings, government buildings, recreational facilities, galleries, courthouses and public university buildings. That’s a lot of valuable media space, and it’s all controlled by local, state and federal political processes.

If a name successfully navigates the relevant process, it can look forward to widespread exposure on everything from building facades to maps, letterhead and business cards.It’s a great way to polish a reputation.

There are three primary ways personal or corporate names land on elements of the physical public domain. Here they are, along with some questions we should ask when we see it happen.


Naming acts that reward benefactors may have the contrived illusion of a voluntary, spontaneous and even unexpected gesture of gratitude. How these transactions are negotiated, whether there are consistent rules for everyone, and what the size of the charitable tax deductions that the donors received are all questions that we should wonder about. Honoring major philanthropists in this way seems benign enough, but those of us who pay taxes but can’t afford to make sizable donations are subsidizing the purchase of honorific visibility by the wealthy and influential.

Commercial exchanges

This one is pure pay-for-play. Sponsors bargain to have their names appended to uniforms, plaques, buildings, events, streets or parks. Sometimes the process is transparent. In other cases, the bidding process may be more opaque. Perhaps there are considerations other than money, and the highest bidder could be an unsavory character or a political opponent. Additionally, a community might prefer not to have the names of criminal enterprises, alcohol or tobacco companies, or pornography studios adorn its public spaces regardless of how much cash these entities are willing to spend to burnish their images. Even perfectly wholesome brand names might be eschewed by squeamish municipalities if they correspond to remedies for rectal itching, foot fungus or menstrual cramps.

Political patronage

Aspects of the physical public domain might be named for politicians, judges, beloved local products or industries, deceased soldiers or first responders killed in the line of duty. Although a person whose name is proposed may well be a hero, getting the name enshrined upon a public amenity is usually a process of wealth, influence and raw political power. There simply isn’t enough space for all of the worthy names, so the decision-making process is likely to favor the rich and well connected.

Best practices for adding private names to the physical public domain should start with transparency and feature clearly specified processes, consistently applied rules and an honest attempt to articulate the criteria that will be used to choose winners. There should also be a plan for when names might need to be removed. But these or similar guidelines are rarely in evidence when naming decisions are made. Unless Bay Area residents want to drive over the Zuckerberg Golden Gate Bridge on their way to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, or the Oracle Eastern Span Bay Bridge on their way to watch theGiants play at Oracle Park, some serious thought should be given to when and how naming rights to public amenities are sold or bartered.

Cautionary tales abound of naming gone wrong: One (predominately African American) public high school in Johnson, South Carolina, bears the name of the late Senator Strom Thurmond, and has the Strom Thurmond Rebel, a Confederate icon, as its mascot. The infamous Sackler family of Purdue Pharma — one of the key players in the nation’s exploding opioid epidemic — used its giving power to grace countless academic and cultural buildings throughout the Northeast. And who can forget Enron Field? Those of us who study such debacles certainly can’t.

Ann Bartow has been the director of the Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property at the University of New Hampshire since 2015. 

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