Thursday, July 14, 2011

What's in a name?
Naming a city's public spaces

I just realized something about myself with my last blog post. I’m really particular about how things are named, especially public spaces.

The very first task God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden was naming the animals. I imagine the names he came up with were based on their attributes and functions like how we’ve named dinosaurs today.

Names give life to ideas, create perceptions, and build emotional attachments, like a couple expecting a child who calls the baby by name instead of calling the baby “it”. Something happens when you name a thing.

I have a group of friends in Toronto where all of us are entrepreneurial. Whenever we get together we end up getting out a credit card and registering five to ten domain names for ideas we have, not only to secure the virtual real estate but to give life to the ideas. Again, something happens when you name a thing.

Earlier this year I read the book Blackberry by Rod McQueen. In one chapter they explained how they came up with the name Blackberry. They hired a naming firm who proposed hundreds of names for the device and narrowed them down through analysis. They assessed how the name sounded phonetically and what the name communicated. Other companies hire naming firms whether to name a shade of paint or a car model. A name that’s good phonetically and that communicates the right things can help a product to catch on with consumers and will influence sales. Apple does a great job of naming their products.

Closer to home we see the opposite. With the construction of the new Ottawa Convention Centre a decision was made to change the name from the Ottawa “Congress” Centre. According to the Chair, the word “Congress” was confusing to American event planners. Here we see that one word, that means something different in another jurisdiction, can lead to miscommunication and potentially hurt business.

In my previous post I questioned whether the name “Arts Court” would continue to communicate the significance of the facility to the city if used to name the whole complex. I questioned whether it would communicate well to people outside of our city, whether nationally or internationally. A few people acted like I had touched the Holy Grail; how dare I suggest such a thing. The Congress Centre situation shows that it wasn't exactly a far fetched observation.

This brings me to my latest example. Last week I read the most recent report for Ottawa’s LRT project and I was very impressed and excited, but one small thing stuck out to me. I’m not sure if this is a permanent fixture, but the public square at the Rideau-Sussex intersection was given a name- Lord Stanley Plaza.

Obviously the name pays homage to Lord Stanley who presented the Stanley Cup at a nearby hotel. The square, or plaza, will be the home of a new monument to the former Governor General and his cup.
This past weekend I asked a few people online what they thought of the name. One person shared my view. They said that historically and geographically the name is very appropriate, but phonetically it wasn’t very good.

I’m realizing that when naming these kinds of spaces you have to consider history and/or geography, but also how it will be used by everyday people, both residents and tourists. Does it role off the tongue well? In this case the amount of vowel sounds makes the name roll off your tongue in an unnatural way. This matters a lot since the space has been compared to Times Square, Piccadilly Circus, and l’Arc de Triomphe, and as our main public square it should be easy to pronounce.

I also wonder about what the name communicates. I asked my wife what she thought of when she heard the name “Lord Stanley Plaza”. Her response was a “strip mall with stores”. If that’s what it communicated to my wife I imagine it may communicate the same thing to others.

In Europe a “plaza” is a grand public square but to many Canadians, especially those who don’t know a lot about cities and planning, a plaza is a strip mall where you stop in to buy milk. It may sound more cheap than grand which could hurt branding and marketing, especially if we’re trying to compare it to epic spaces like Times Square and Piccadilly Circus.

There’s a reason why companies pay firms the big bucks to name their products. Naming a thing correctly can help people to buy in; it's the same with public spaces. Public spaces like Times Square and Central Park aren't just places for residents to gather; they're brands.

With Ottawa growing as a national and international centre, let’s learn from the “Congress” experience and take time to assess how the names of our up-and-coming public spaces communicate locally, nationally and internationally.

Kevin Bourne

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