Several years ago, I was working on a project on memories. Talking to senior citizens of my hometown, it quickly became clear how intricately their stories were tied up in lost or almost-lost eras as well as physical locations. The sailors, smugglers, fishermen and mine-sweepers I spoke to had lived to see their once-bustling river become largely inactive. The boxers had seen the gyms close. The factory workers had heard the last steam whistle. The worlds they spoke of were still discernible in the mind, even in surviving buildings, but the gap in time may as well have been oceanic.

Street names are our most immediate entrance into the city as a form of archaeology. Housed within medieval siege walls, the layout of the centre of my hometown of Derry has largely remained the same for centuries. The passage of time is evident in the street signs with only Pump Street remaining as it once was. Subtle and unsubtle shifts of power and function are revealed in wording. Queen became Bishop Street. Silver became Shipquay. The politically-loaded King William Square became the neutral geometric shape of The Diamond. Sometimes the function remains the same but semantics change. Butchers Street emerged from The Shambles, once a fairly common term for the abattoir area of English-speaking towns (Fleshmarket Close in Edinburgh being a particularly evocative twist on the theme). Some of the names were lost altogether – Widows' Row, Poorhouse Lane, Hangman's Bastion – even though widows, the poor and the condemned remained. 

Names matter as symbols, resonating outward and inward. All space is political – it's the setting of human interactions and shifting demographics as well as zones of inclusion and exclusion – and how we inhabit and humanise space is by furnishing it with stories. Among divided populations, dominance and resistance are articulated in totems and competing narratives. On the ramparts of the Derry Walls, a 96 foot-high pillar was raised in 1828 with a nine-foot superhero statue of Reverend George Walker, a hero of the victorious Loyalist Siege, brandishing a Bible and a sword. It stood defiantly, triumphantly and antagonistically over the Republican Bogside until, late one night in the summer of 1973, the IRA blew it up. Nelson's Pillar in Dublin suffered a similar fate in 1966. Symbols resonate and language, being composed of them, is yet another battlefield.

Though it is most obvious in sites of conflict, the socio-politics of territory are at work in every city and you can map shifts in relevance through signage. A city like London has particularly rich seams, as anyone who has read Peter Ackroyd's eponymous biography of the city will know. In terms of lost occupations and activities alone, there's Knightrider Street, Cockpit Steps, Cripplegate Street, Houndsditch, Catherine Wheel Alley, Birdcage Walk and many others, all telling innumerable vanishing stories. Mastering the sheer size and variety of names in this vast metropolis has become a hallowed feat in itself. Even today taxi drivers cram 30,000 points of interest for The Knowledge.

Beyond the utilitarian or commercial, streets become the setting of private and public mythologies. We can walk the meandering Via Dolorosa path in Jerusalem following the steps of Jesus Christ on his way to crucifixion. Every day we might undertake secret pilgrimages to places, unremarkable to anyone else, where childhoods were lived, where love was lost or won: places sanctified by experience. Having these resonances deepens our experience of place just as the place frames our lives; the process gives us belonging and it gives our cities character. "Then came human beings" Camus' jaded narrator claims in The Fall, "They wanted to cling, but there was nothing to cling to." He is wrong, as Camus well knows, for there are temporary refuges in the unrelenting flow of time and they exist where space and memory intersect.

These sanctuaries can be a threat. This is evident right from the official baptising of streets: to map an area from above is to attempt, however benevolently, to contain and control. You know where the post should go and also who lives where. A man with no address was all the more difficult to pursue and arrest as well as potentially assist. Unmapped municipal areas have always been a challenge and an affront to authority from the warrens of pre-Haussmann Paris to the rookeries of Dickensian London, the medina quarters of North Africa and the favelas of Brazil. They were and are seen, however fictionally, as hotbeds for political ferment and criminal intrigue. When the authorities have evicted, bulldozed and replaced such areas with wide boulevards, they do so with pious talk of public hygiene and as if architecture and planning can create a better, or at least preferable, type of human. This 'benevolence' just happened, in the case of Paris, to get rid of the streets where barricades had once been erected and where the French Republic had been born. It scattered inhabitants who were existing beneath the radar and beneath permission. The politically-regressive Emperor Napoleon III remembered the actions of the Parisian revolutionaries who had torn down the saints from street signs and proposed the names of royalists for the sewers and he tried to ensure no repeat would occur to threaten his new aristocracy. His city planning was social engineering and, to varying degrees, it remains so, in Paris and beyond.

The most obvious exhibitions of power come with the naming of streets after generals, dictators or patriotic military victories. In cities where this reflects popular tastes, this can be a source of pride, even when it marks the dominance of one section of society over another. Under colonial rule, it would often be taken as a statement of supremacy and subjugation designed to alienate locals and make them feel like strangers in their own homes. Brian Friel's play Translations, covering the bastardisation of Irish place names, is a masterful examination of this process. At the same time, the colonised would often become the compromised, in order to prosper or just survive. Streets named in honour of Adolf Hitler at the height of the Third Reich spanned a dozen countries, providing a map of conquest and collaboration. None remain.

Yet naming can equally be subversive. One of the strategies adopted in the Far East under Western imperialism was the rejection of official street names for local preferences. This made counter-intelligence more difficult while retaining a form of sovereignty. At times, there existed several incarnations of Singapore. The official one was named after imperial functionaries, while the actual street-level city functioned under different titles according to each ethnic group. The city on maps was, to most inhabitants, an imaginary one.

Domestically, resistance to authority tends to come from marginalised and criminalised groups, articulated in protective languages from the Polari of gay Londoners to so-called Rogues' Cant of beggars. This found its way into alternative street names to elude the judicial gaze. Crossley and Liverpool streets in Melbourne, for example, were nicknamed Juliet Terrace and Romeo Lane after the female and male prostitutes who worked on each. "The linguistic cosmos" of the city celebrated by Walter Benjamin in his Arcades Project was always a threat to the insecure, the puritanical and the megalomaniac; all those threatened by pluralities of thoughts and deeds.

In some senses, imperialism is a series of utopian projects, albeit performed on unwilling subjects. It is important to see beyond blank condemnation into the self-justifications that encouraged and enabled it. The 'empire on which the sun never sets' is still marked in streets in White City named after the capital's reach, into South Africa, India, Canada and Australia. The district itself took its name from its origin as a palatial setting for the colonial celebrations held there. In the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition, replica Irish, Ceylon and Senegalese villages were constructed at the site. They were, in essence, human zoos where visitors could marvel at the 'natives' and ponder just how human they might be, in the safe confines and from the pedestal of 'civilisation'. 

Even while parading their trophies and their stage-sets, the empires of Europe (in their traditional forms at least) were already on the wane and facing mounting resistance. When national liberation movements broke through, they sought to reclaim the streets physically, but also psychologically and historically. In Dublin, Sackville Street, named after the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, was renamed after Daniel O'Connell, 'the Emancipator'. With the fall of Apartheid, a wave of renaming was enacted with Afrikaner nationalist figures being toppled; Hans Strijdom Road for instance became Malibongwe Drive in Johannesburg. In a hefty diplomatic slight, the site of the British Embassy in Tehran was renamed from Winston Churchill Boulevard to Bobby Sands St in 1981, following the hunger-striker's death. Acknowledging the potency of street-names, the British Embassy moved its entrance to the nearby Ferdowsi Avenue but the message had been delivered.

These examples might chime with our attraction to the underdog but symbolism is never straightforward. There is a certain unsightly embalming process involved when complex radical figures are canonised. Saints are also highly subjective figures. Rarely is any historical view universally agreed on or fixed for all time. Underdogs can become tyrants – success being a considerable test of character. The legacy of the Solomonic Dynasty of Haile Selassie I is highly debatable. Lauded by Rastafarians as a living god and anti-colonialists for his efforts against Italian oppression, he nevertheless lived in relative opulence while his people starved in their tens of thousands. The Lion of Judah was eventually deposed and likely executed by the communist cadres of the Derg who buried his body, it is said, under a latrine before they too were deposed. Under every wave of rulers from within and without, street names were altered. Eritrea, having broken away from Ethiopia, now has many street names in some places and none in others.

These waves emphasise that cities are temporal entities. The temptation is to believe that this naturally unfolds in a linear, progressive or at least liberalising fashion. In Berlin, Große Frankfurter Straße was changed to Stalinallee then to Karl-Marx-Allee, and there are as-yet-ineffectual suggestions of it returning to the original. There is an ongoing campaign in the same city to rename areas named after Adolf Lüderitz who swindled the tribal land that became German South-West Africa, the largely-honourable but deluded explorer Gustav Nachtigal and the ruthless founder of the German East Africa Company, the 'hangman' Carl Peters. In Madrid, Fascist place-names are being rewritten including one dedicated to the Blue Division who fought alongside the Wehrmacht at the Siege of Leningrad. In Hollywood, Florida, an area built for black workers by J.W. Young had its signs altered after his death to commemorate racist Confederate figures like the KKK Grand Wizard Bedford Forrest. Efforts are ongoing to have them changed. There is little doubting the righteous intent in these cases, but even noble causes can be hijacked – see the current de-communisation of over a thousand street names in Poland by the highly-questionable Law and Justice party.

Street names are not inevitable. Aware of shaking off the weight of European history, certain cities in the US opted for numeric grid systems. Japan has traditionally favoured location-based co-ordinates that deliberately presume foreknowledge of the topography and culture to an extent. In Phnom Penh, they opted for a mixed system that mirrored the political manoeuvrings and bet-hedging of their leaders Norodom Sihanouk and Hun Sen. The city has a grid system with boulevards named after a spectrum of foreign political leaders: Chairman Mao, Charles De Gaulle and so on. One of the dangers we face is not just in the imposition of street names, but the evaporation of them. The grid system, while highly functional, is deadening to the imagination. It severs the link of history and arguably encourages the spread of liminal spaces. The desperate defiant phrase, "I am not a number, I am a free man," of Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner is applicable for space as well as individuals. This can also be seen in corporate branding of streets, such as Costkea Way outside Edinburgh, the prevalence of suburban titles like Bayview where there is neither a bay or a view, or well-intentioned, absurd examples like Sustainability Way. It's tempting to believe the superficiality of a name matches the place and its inhabitants, that a place gets the name it deserves and thereby confirms our prejudices. Everything we take as natural in urban terms, however, was constructed. The very building-blocks of cities are the result of choices by individuals. In Guadalajara, Mexico, streets are named after artists, constellations, Aztec history and mythology, rivers, writers and botany. Imagination costs little, yet it remains rare. 

It's important to delve into the history of places. It is a way of re-contextualising or even reanimating the here and now. It is also crucial in seeing our place in the bigger picture. Time moves on and context moves with it. Impermanence is both a way to know a place, by what has been lost and what remains, but also an opportunity to reinvent it. It will inevitably change so why not guide the change ourselves? We require names and symbols but, above all, we require meaning, stories, resonances. If we fail to find them in the past and in our existing signs, we must create them anew. Everywhere is exotic to someone and sometimes, when we start digging or start building, even the familiar is to ourselves. 

The photo on the homepage shows a street in Lisbon, Portugal, licensed by iStock by Getty. At top is a street sign in Seattle, photographed by Oran Viriyincy.