“If we in the Third World measure our success or failure as a society in terms of income, we would have to classify ourselves as losers until the end of time. With our limited resources, we have to invent other ways to measure success. This might mean creating public spaces in these concrete jungles and ensuring that all urban inhabitants have access to sports facilities, libraries, parks, schools.” – Enrique Penalosa, Former mayor of Bogota, Colombia.
By the venerable Penalosa’s reckoning, the sure means by which poorer countries can compete is through the provision of facilities that enrich social development. This argument calls not only for investments in these facilities but their optimal usage. Planners need be as concerned by their availability as by their use. Traditionally, recreation and social interaction were a matter of course for African societies, finding expression in the built form from the compounds in multi-family dwellings to community durbar grounds. The very form of the built environment ensured the requisite interaction. However with urbanisation and a misconceived notion of modernity, the experience of social interaction is changing in form, substance and scale. Taking Accra as a microcosm of what is happening across Africa we see that the change in social interaction is affecting society significantly.
Increasingly, urban transformation in Accra has focused almost singularly on large giant urban development projects, with little or no regard to social interaction and consequently at the expense of social development. While these physical developments are necessary to accommodate living and working, what you observe in many parts of the city is the intensification of the ‘concrete jungle’ and associated isolation.
In the face of limited spaces for social interaction, we question whether we are building cities for people to transform spaces into real places with their culture, emotions, talents, stories and lives or do we value escalating property prices more? How can living and working spaces alone create value if they deny opportunities for social interaction or skews things toward commerce? How does the built form enable added value of long-lived spaces, spaces of collective living, collective histories, memories and responsibilities?
For the most part, where new developments in urban areas ignore the need for (active and passive) spaces for recreation and social interaction or reconfigures recreation and social interaction around commercial enterprises (especially in shopping malls), the old spaces are most likely forcibly appropriated into new developments or remain largely underutilised. Interestingly, as the West, especially America, experiences a downturn in shopping mall culture, it is becoming the rage in Africa (and most developing countries in general).
Time has come for more discussions on creating new open spaces and protecting the old. Elsewhere, old open spaces used by the public are doggedly defended by civil society activists. Undoubtedly, several existing open spaces and public parks (both formally planned and informally/organically developed) in Accra (and other Ghanaian cities) provide opportunities for transforming our communities. However, these remain grossly underutilised, perhaps due to the challenging task of placemaking. The availability of parks does not generate use on its own accord. Sometimes public space use has to be stimulated and requires a community development approach – a deliberate conscription of communities of users of these open spaces and visible mechanisms for regulating the use.
Yet, when local authorities struggle economically, which is often the case, investments in development and management of public spaces may appear non-essential and therefore underfunded. The ‘nuclearisation’ of our communitarian societies will persist partly as an outcome of the inertia of city planners unless these parks and open spaces are claimed, developed and harnessed to revitalise communities and strengthen the social fabric.
The recent reforms to the Local Government (Departments of district Assemblies) Instrument (LI 1961), merging the Department of Parks and Gardens and the Department of Town and Country Planning into the Physical Planning Department promotes and reinforces the importance of placemaking and open spaces. Additionally, it emphasises consultation mechanisms in cities for local authorities to understand communities and shape neighbourhoods appropriately. This is perhaps a first step towards open spaces that are layered with many uses and systems, places that are full of communities of “conversations” and “dialogues.” However reforms along aren’t enough. Planners and city managers need to also understand how successful public places and parks work. How are people motivated to interact with urban form? Most importantly, they need to appreciate how the use of public spaces in cities is changing due to urbanisation. This is an important starting point. Future posts in this series will explore some of these ‘emerging trends’ and changing use of open public spaces and their implications for urban regulations and the design of our public spaces.
Joseph Ayitio is researcher and urban planner living in Accra, Ghana, and a fan of the overarching social implications of planning and urban design in African cities. He is particularly interested in expanding dialogues on African urbanism and how the hybrid governance of formality and informality produce city forms and urban economies. firstname.lastname@example.org
Kwadwo Ohene Sarfoh is an international housing consultant and urban planner. Currently living between Ghana and Liberia, he is supporting the government of Liberia to develop a national housing policy. He also has interest in slum upgrading and prevention, municipal infrastructure and finance, urban revitilisation, local governance and local economic development in Ghana and abroad. email@example.comRead older posts from this section