What Do You Call that Space Between the Sidewalk and the Street?
by Scott Kunst
A rose may be a rose whether you live in Maine, Georgia, Kansas, or Oregon, but when we asked our newsletter readers and Facebook fans, “What do you call that space between the sidewalk and the street,” you replied with 41 different names — yes, 41! — from banquette and curb strip to outlawn and verge. Although I’ve been asking people that question ever since I left home for college and discovered that most people don’t call it the boulevard, even I had no idea that this humble space had such a wealth of names.
No Name or No Such Thing
Ask your friends and neighbors what they call that space, and most of them will look at you in befuddlement. (Go ahead, try it.) As Melissa Sutherland of Madison Heights, Virginia, told us, “We have no name for this strip of grass. We just mow it.” Other readers pointed out that they have no word for it because it doesn’t even exist where they live. As garden-blogger Margaret Roach of Copake Falls, NY, wrote, “We have no sidewalks here in Nowheresville!”
Ten Rarities — Or Are They?
Ten of the names we heard from our readers were mentioned by a single person each. But are they truly rare words for that space, or have they just been under-reported in our highly unscientific survey? If you recognize or use any of these, we’d love to hear from you.
Ditch — Chris Fenton of Louisville wrote that his mother, who was “multi-generation out of central Kentucky,” always used this term — even when there was no ditch there.
Fairway — This rather grand word for that modest strip of land was reported by Carol Hansen of Hedgesville, West Virginia.
Frontage — This term is so apt that we wonder why the only person reporting it was Sandra Lindberg of Bloomington, Illinois.
Grassy Strip — Kurt Kastner of Cincinnati, Ohio, explained that, although he works in forestry where that space is called the treelawn, “people in engineering call it the curb strip or grassy strip.”
Greenway — Janet Dudley says this is the term used in Burlington, Vermont, where her daughter “plants hers with glads and other flowers for passersby to enjoy.”
Outlawn — I’m a fan of this short, clear compound word, but only Cathy Egerer of Grand Marais, Michigan, reported it, saying it was used in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park where she grew up.
Pavement Strip — “In southeastern Pennsylvania it is called the street tree strip or the pavement strip,” says Gail Dawson of Wyomissing.
Planting Buffer — My sister Marcy Kunst of Boise, Idaho, tells me this is the Ada County Highway District’s official term for the space.
Planting Strip — Lois Hanson of Seattle says this is the term she uses, adding “Mine looks best in the spring when all my bulbs are blooming.”
Skirt — “In Detroit we called it the skirt,” says our good friend and former shipping manager, Lynden Kelly, who is the only person who’s reported using this term — at least so far.
It’s Not Really Ours
Seven other more-widely reported names for this space reflect the fact that legally it belongs to the government rather than the adjacent property owner. In fact, it’s actually part of the road — which is obvious wherever there’s no curb — and local ordinances often regulate what can and can’t be done with it.
City Property — Readers in Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, and Georgia reported that they use this term, and although it may not be catchy, it is accurate.
Devil Strip, Devil’s Strip, and Devilstrip — Readers from Ohio, West Virginia, and Michigan use this term, which is clearly related to hell strip. As Jill Lengler of Dover, Ohio, explains, “My civil engineer dad called it the devil strip. (Maybe my mom wouldn’t let him use the ‘H’ word around us kids). He said it was called that because ownership was always an issue — the homeowner had to maintain it but the city owned the right-of-way and could tear it up anytime for utility installation, etc.” Jill’s father seems to have been right that the term is based on the conflicted or ambiguous ownership of the space — it is, in effect, no-man’s land. A similar term, devil’s lane, refers to the narrow strip of ground left between the parallel fences of two different property owners. But Wiktionary.org also points out that devil or devil’s is often used in place names to mean “barren, unproductive, and unused,” which also makes sense here.
Easement — This word was reported by several readers from Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. Judith Nestel of Columbus added, “Recently, when we lost a tree, we found that the depth of this city-owned strip varies tremendously. In front of our house, they owned 18 feet from the curb — so even though the tree was inside our property line, the city replaced it!”
Governor’s Acre — Many years ago a customer from Hunstville, Alabama, introduced me to this quaint term. I googled it recently and found it used in just one anonymous comment posted at Garden Rant, so it doesn’t seem to be widely used. Can anyone tell me more?
Hellstrip, Hell-strip — This term has been gaining traction the past few years, at least among gardeners. Urbandictionary.com says it’s “most often attributed to garden writer Lauren Springer, who popularized the practice of planting tough, drought-tolerant plants on hell strips,” and this spring Timber Press published Hellstrip Gardening by Evelyn Hadden. Originally, though, its meaning had nothing to do with gardening but instead paralleled that of devil strip: it was unused, no-man’s land. And devil strip, rather than being the PG-rated version of hellstrip, actually seems to be the older term. Hellstrip was reported by two readers from Texas and Kyle Kirkby who wrote, “I currently live here in Michigan but was born in New York, and I’ve always called it a hell-strip.”
Neutral Ground — A Virginia reader told us this is the term used in New Orleans and southern Louisiana, but a couple of New Orleans readers said they call that space the banquette. Seeking clarification on the internet, I found that Wikipedia agrees with our Virginia reader but the New Orleans-based CrescentCity.com defines neutral ground as the grassy strip in the MIDDLE of a street — and says banquette is simply the sidewalk. So now I’m confused about both terms, and hoping maybe you can set me straight.
Right-of-Way — This straightforward name was reported by readers in Michigan, Ohio, and Waterloo, Iowa, where Michelle Westphal says the space is “formally known as the right-of-way” but “commonly it is known as the parking or parking area.”
Several words reported by our readers have other, more common meanings. Human beings repurpose words all the time as we search for ways to describe our ever-changing world. “Pink,&rdquo for example, was originally a verb meaning to prick with something pointed. Then it became a name for the flowers we still call pinks today (Dianthus) which have jagged petals that look as if they’ve been cut with “pinking” shears. And finally it became the word for the most common color of those flowers, which was formerly known as &ldquop;flesh.”
Banquette — Two readers from New Orleans told us they call this space the banquette, which is pronounced “bank-it.” But Dictionary.com says that in coastal Louisiana and east Texas the banquette is the sidewalk itself, and our reader Ann Cooper of Virginia reports that “in New Orleans and South Louisiana?, the strip of ground between the banquette and the street is called the neutral ground.” Can you tell us more
Beltway — Beltway is most commonly used to describe a highway encircling an urban area, and although none of our readers actually reported using it for the space we’re talking about, three of them told us about a Harvard dialect survey (below) that includes it — so here it is.
Berm — Most of us would probably define berm as a mound or bank of earth, but readers from North Dakota, Minnesota, and Michigan tell us that berm is also their word for this space. That surprised me, but when I looked it up in online dictionaries, I discovered that the first definition for berm is often something like “a narrow man-made ledge or shelf, as along the top or bottom of a slope.” Since most roads in the past were edged by drainage ditches — and therefore slopes — it’s easy to see how the word’s meaning was expanded to include, according to The Collins English Dictionary, “US dialect: the shoulder of a road,” and “New Zealand: the grass verge of a suburban street, usually kept mown.”
Boulevard — This is the word that launched my “what do you call it” quest. When I was growing up in the small town of Niles, Michigan, I had no idea that anyone called that space anything other than the boulevard. But when I left home for college, I discovered that virtually no one else called it that — and ever since then I’ve been asking people, “So what do you call it?” Apparently this use of boulevard is common only in the Great Lakes and upper-Midwest region, as it was reported by mother, who grew up in Grand Rapids, and other readers from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, and Ontario.
Median and Median Strip — Median at its most basic means “middle,” and dictionaries usually include as one of its definitions “the strip of land between the lanes of opposing traffic on a divided highway.” But readers from Virginia and Ontario reported that they also use median or median strip to describe the space between the sidewalk and the street — a use that seems to parallel that of neutral ground to describe these two similar, in-between, road-related spaces.
Parkway — Google defines parkway as “an open, landscaped highway,” but judging from our readers’ responses, it’s also one of the most common words for the space we’re talking about. For example, Vanessa, our VP for Bulbs, told us that when she worked with the Chicago Department of Transportation, her boss insisted that she use parkway to describe that space, and eight other readers in the Chicago area as well as three in nearby Michigan and Minnesota told us it’s their word, too. Readers from California, Kansas, and Texas also reported using it, including Mike Pecen of San Antonio who added that “as a landscape architect, I’ve been educated to call it the parkway.”
Terrace — I first heard this term applied to the space when I was lecturing in the charming little town of Montpelier, Ohio, shortly after I first asked our newsletter readers what they call it. When I questioned my lecture audience, they all agreed it was the terrace and nothing else — and they seemed surprised that I’d need to ask. Later a reader from Chicago told us that he calls it the terrace, too.
Curb Strip, Curb Lawn, and Curb — Curb lawn is one of my favorite terms for this space — it’s compact and perfectly clear — but it was reported by only one reader in Ohio. More common, it seems, is the similar curb strip, which was reported by two other Ohio readers and one in Albuquerque. A reader from Louisville, Kentucky, says he calls it simply the curb, and although that seems like it would be confusing — is it the grassy curb or the concrete curb you’re talking about? — it’s an example of our common human inclination to condense language. Why say final examinations, for example, or even final exams, when you can just say finals and be perfectly understood?
Extension, Lawn Extension, and Sidewalk Extension — When I moved to Ann Arbor many years ago, I quickly learned to call this space the lawn extension, because that’s what everyone else here seemed to call it. Seven Ann Arbor readers confirmed this, although some said they just call it the extension (another example of condensed language) and one said she’d heard it called the sidewalk extension. I was surprised by that unanimity and that only one other reader — from nearby Albion, Michigan — reported using any of these terms. Is their use really that geographically limited?
Parking Strip, Parking, Park Strip, and Parking Area — Sixteen readers reported using these inter-related and apparently widely used terms. Parking strip was the most common, reported by five readers from Oregon, two from Washington state, and one each from California and Arkansas. The condensed version — the parking — was reported by one reader each in Idaho and Utah, and three in Iowa. Park strip was also reported from Iowa, and parking area from Utah.
Tree Belt, Tree Lane, Tree Plot, and Street Tree Strip — Each of these terms was reported by just one person. I could have put them in the Rarities category above, but they’re all so similar that I decided to lump them together here. Tree belt was reported from Massachusetts; tree lane from St. Louis; tree plot from Indiana; and the tongue-twisting street tree strip from southeastern Pennsylvania.
Tree Lawn, Treelawn — This is one of the most frequently cited terms for the space, with seventeen readers telling us that’s what they call it. Most hailed from Ohio (eight from the Cleveland area, and two each from Toledo and Cincinnati), while others lived in the Madison, Wisconsin, area; Detroit and its suburbs; Syracuse, NY; Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
Verge — This sensible term was reported by readers in North Carolina, Little Rock, and Iowa. Its use may derive from Britain where verge is the common term for what Americans call the shoulder of the road. (And speaking of shoulder, has anyone heard that word applied to the space we’re talking about?)
As Asked by Harvard and The New York Times
In all my years of asking people what they call this space, no one ever said, “I’ve been wondering about that, too.” But it turns out I wasn’t alone in my quest. Kit McCullough who teaches urban planning at the University of Michigan was the first of several readers who alerted me to an online dialect quiz by the New York Times that includes among its 25 questions, “What do you call the area of grass between the sidewalk and the road?” Derived from an earlier, much longer survey by researchers at Harvard, the quiz was taken by over 350,000 people last year, making it the Times’ most popular online content of 2013. Can you believe that?
Rather than 41 possible terms, though, the Times quiz offers just seven multiple-choice answers to our question. By far the most common choice — selected by a whopping 64% of participants — was “I have no word for this.” In second place at 13% was “other,” an answer that unfortunately hides more than it reveals. Of the five other choices, 9% of quiz-takers said they call it the curb strip, 4% answered berm, and 2% each chose parking, tree lawn, and verge. (All percentages have been rounded for simplicity’s sake.) Unfortunately the quiz offers a rotating selection of questions so you may have to take it more than once to see ours, but if you do you’ll just have another chance to enjoy the color-coded maps showing where people answered the questions most and least like you.
The earlier Harvard survey offered respondents a slightly different set of answers. “No name” was picked by 68% (again, all percentages have been rounded), “other” by 12%, curb strip 9%, berm 4%, verge 3%, parking and tree lawn 2% each, terrace 1%, and beltway just .17%.
And a Few More from Wikipedia
By this point it probably won’t surprise you that Wikipedia has an entry on the topic, too. Look up “road verge” there and you’ll get a list of 26 different terms used in the US, with several others mentioned elsewhere on the page. Although most are terms we’ve already discussed, here are thirteen that were new to me — which, if you’re keeping score, makes for a grand total of 54 different ways that Americans say “the space between the sidewalk and the street”:
- city grass,
- furniture zone (and the related planter/furniture zone and landscape/furniture zone, all reportedly used by urban planners),
- planter zone (“SmartCode/New Urbanist terminology”),
- grass bay (which Wikipedia says is used in New Jersey),
- grassplot (Pennsylvania and Eastern seaboard),
- planting strip,
- sidewalk buffer,
- sidewalk lawn (South Carolina),
- sidewalk plot (Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, and Indiana),
- snow shelf (Connecticut),
- swale (which is much like ditch; South Florida), and
- utility strip.
So . . . What Do You Call It?
To tell the truth, I’m almost afraid to ask this question now. The response so far has been so huge (thank you!), and I learned so much exploring the terms you told us about, that this turned into a much bigger project than I ever expected. But hey, I’ve been a gardener and word-geek my whole life, so answer away. I may be weary, but I’m still interested.
And finally, from our good customer Claudia Cimma, here’s one of the many descriptions we received from gardeners who are planting much more than grass in that very public but often neglected space — turning it, you might say, from an ugly duckling (or hellstrip) into a swan:
“In Fort Worth we call that space the parkway. My parkway garden gets full sun 12 hours a day and while the bones of this bed are yucca and double cherry ‘Knockout’ roses, I have Louisiana iris in the overflow from my cistern and a few clumps of ‘Tropical Giant’ spider lily for its emerald green foliage. Most of it, though, I plant in zinnias and celosia — red, wine, and coral this year, with some chartreuse and purple here and there, and one big clump of yellow zinnias at the end of my driveway. It’s a neighborhood magnet (especially for kids). I get and give so much joy from this parkway — it’s my absolute favorite part of my garden.”