Thursday, 21 August 2014

21/08/14 - House Numbers

The logic of house numbers is something that you feel you should be able to take for granted. If, for example, you’re going to visit somebody at 22 Acacia Avenue, and you glance left and see number 7, it’s a fairly safe bet that your destination will be a few houses along on the right. Right?
But no, it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes you’ll be standing outside number 9, look across the road expecting to see number 10, and instead find number 54. How did that happen? And perhaps 8, 9, 10 and 11 will all be in a row on the same side to further compound the befuddlement. What a slap in the face. They’re just being difficult for the sake of it. New postmen must hate having to learn their routes with this kind of chicanery going on.
It’s a necessity of modern living though, really – streets evolve, new houses get built, old ones are divided up, systems have to be altered. House numbering systems have been around since the fifteenth century, although in those days the purpose was to determine property ownership in cities – it wasn’t until the 18th century that European countries started developing street numbering schemes in order to facilitate admin tasks such as delivering the post. And it’s interesting that so many different systems should have developed across the globe since – what we take for granted in London would seem totally alien in other parts of the world. So, let’s have a look at the global street number scene…

United Kingdom
Odd numbers are typically, but not always, on the left, as seen from the centre of the town or village, with the numbers starting from the end of the street closest to the centre. (Of course, when you find yourself in a massive urban sprawl where countless villages have merged, this geographical marker is largely meaningless.) Intermediate properties get letters, and this is also true of building that are divided up into flats – 21a, 21b, etc.
You might have noticed on the news that 10 Downing Street is next door to 11 Downing Street. Irritating, isn’t it? But historically that’s always been the system for cul-de-sacs (and, for some reason, a lot of villages in Wales) – the house numbers run in order down each side. This happens on houses that surround squares too, although that makes a lot more sense.
So on the whole we can assume a system of opposites, but there are enough exceptions to the rule and geographical quirks that there’s basically no point trying to work it out logically. Just type the address into Google Maps, it’ll give you a pinpoint. (Or, y’know, just look at the numbers on the houses and find the right one. Old school.)

North America
This system should be a lot more logical, as the town planning of the US is based around grids. You get odd numbers on one side and even on the other, as in much of the UK, but they also work it out so that each house number is a proportional distance from a base point on the road, so not all numbers get used. This saves a lot of confusion and tramping back and forth along roads that have four- or five-digit house numbers. In rural locations, these are often specifically anchored to mile markers – for example, the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys marks its house numbers by distance from Mile Marker 0 in Key West – number 77220 is 77.2 miles down the road, and so forth.
In cities, it’s usual for the numbers to skip to the next hundred on each block – so, say, if you’re walking past 311, 313, 315 etc and then cross to the next block, you’ll find 401, 403, 405 and so on. (The streets themselves all work from a specific base point in the city too, which is why you get addresses like ‘West 3rd Street’ – it helps to give a bearing on where in the city you are, although it’s not as romantic as the named streets of Europe.) It’s pretty common to assign block numbers that appear on street signs, so the aforementioned street with 311, 313, 315 might have a sign on the corner indicating that this is where you’ll find numbers 300-399, even if 399 doesn’t actually exist.

Western Europe
Much like in the UK, the norm is to have odds and evens on opposing sides, with the odds on the left. Interestingly, you do tend to find far more cases of unnumbered plots that haven’t been built up leaving holes in the numbering system, with newly-built houses starting from the highest number and moving upwards, so you could have a street that goes up to 300 which only has 200 houses on it. And there are a number of geographical oddities too…
In Portugal, houses are identified by plot (‘lote’) rather than street number – the lote numbers all appear on the central urban plan for the entire neighbourhood, so the house numbers don’t always bear much relation to what street they’re on. (The idea is that the houses get assigned proper street numbers once they’ve all been built, although this doesn’t always happen.)
Italy has a few systems of its own too: in Venice, houses are numbered by district – six districts in all – starting from one corner of the district and working round to a far corner; given that the districts are odd shapes, this is utterly incomprehensible to outsiders. In Genoa and Florence, houses have black numbers while businesses have red numbers, leading to two parallel numbering systems for each street. The Netherlands also use colours in their system – in Haarlem, for example, a red number denotes an upstairs flat.

Central & Eastern Europe
This often follows the general rule of the UK and Western Europe, but may also follow the principles of the ‘boustrophedon’ system – named for a style of bi-directional writing where the first line is read left-to-right, the next right-to-left and so on; you can see how this would translate into a street numbering system.
To make it extra fun for visitors to Czech and Slovak cities, they use two concurrent numbering schemes – buildings have a ‘descriptive number’ which is the one it would have had when it was originally built and relates to its old quarter or municipality, and an ‘orientation number’, which is a retro-fitted number that runs sequentially down the street. And if a house is on a corner, it can have two orientation numbers in addition to its descriptive number…
Colour schemes appear here too – descriptive numbers are red, orientation numbers are blue. Oh, and ‘evidential numbers’ can appear, in yellow or green. But they’re just needlessly confusing.
You’ll find this double-numbering in Austria too, along with plenty of Roman numerals alongside settlement names and street numbers. Good luck with that.

Australia and New Zealand use the European system – they have to, it was mandated in 2003 that they bring a bit of order to their chaotic numbering. But that’s not to say it all makes sense – if a road forms part of a boundary between two council areas, there’s no logical way of doing it. Each council would accuse the other of favouritism if they renumbered it one way or the other, so they’re just left as they are. And New South Wales had already tried to get their numbering act together before 2003, but their system put all of the odd numbers on the right – much of this remains, as there was no point changing it.
The most confusing part, however, is that some urban roads will have ascending numbers until they reach a council boundary, then start again from the beginning… meaning that any particularly long road can have several occurrences of each number. You could find yourself knocking on the door of 165 Wallaby Drive and being told ‘Ah, no, you want the other 165 Wallaby Drive. Or perhaps the one in the other direction’.
New Zealand also has a racily-named system called ‘RAPID’ (Rural Address Property IDentification), which places number markers on long streets to offer emergency services a geographical anchor from a base point. Just in case the house numbers are confusing.

Japan and South Korea generally use a similar system to Venice – numbers starting from one corner of a district and working their way around – although they tend to be rather more organised; houses within any given zone are numbered either in the order they were built or clockwise around the block. Pretty disorientating to Western outsiders, but a very fair system. Long roads in South Korea can pose the same problems as those in Australia though, with the same numbers coming up again and again.
Hong Kong uses the European system, as you might expect, and so do most Chinese cities, although in southern China you tend to find that a number refers to a door rather than a building.

Russia & the former Soviet Union
Imagine a fusion of the European and Asian systems – odds on the left, evens on the right, radiating from the centre of town, but with numbers denoting doors instead of buildings.
Addresses have evolved into something quite scientific, owing to the necessity to explain which street, plot, building and door you might be talking about – rather than the British ‘22 Acacia Avenue’, you may find yourself searching for ‘Tolstoy Street, plot 10, building C, number 6’. Although you can’t really go wrong with that, once you’ve mastered it.

Latin America
In general, you’ll find the European system in operation. However, that Australian problem of repeated numbers on long roads finds a new dimension in countries like Venezuela and Mexico - when a number is repeated, it receives a letter too; 42, 42a, 42b and so on. But whereas 42a would be between 42 and 44 in London, in Mexico it’d be between 40a and 44a, miles away from 42.
It’s also far more likely that you’ll find houses with names rather than numbers in Latin America – much like in some rural English villages, but on a larger scale – and they’re referred to by the name of the person that lives there as well. So you probably have to get on really well with your postman.
In cities in Brazil and Argentina, a house number is often the number of metres that the house is from the end of the street, which means that all kinds of numbers get missed out. But it’s probably easier to have missing numbers to fill in rather than faffing about later with suffix letters – as long as you don’t do the European thing of adding the numbers of new houses onto the highest one on the street…

So wherever you are in the world, you’re best off just looking at the numbers on the doors, asking a local, or phoning the person you’re visiting. Because everywhere has their systems, but there are so many exceptions to the rules that it usually doesn’t make a blind bit of sense. House numbers are for postmen, they don’t mean anything to anybody else.

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