Ebb and flow: reconfiguring contemporary open spaces in Accra

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In our previous post, we argued that open spaces were being lost in the “intensification of the concrete jungle”, thus requiring urgent reclamation of marginal, vacant, underutilized or abandoned spaces as recreational space, temporary performance space, or even urban parks, some of which lie outside the formal planning systems or arise as a result of community-based initiatives.

We maintain that reclaiming open spaces might require a paradigm shift to address this agenda. We argue that the use of public spaces in Accra is changing due to urbanisation and rapid urban growth. As such, planners, designers and city leaders need to examine the context in which our public spaces emerge – whether by design or convenience – and are managed, to inform approaches to place-making and public space planning.

While open spaces in Ghana’s cities are relatively under-researched, and may have an untold story, the common perception of social spaces as necessary to create a safe, viable and sustainable urban environment remains largely uncontested. Recent reforms in local government legislation has given a more focused thrust to the provision of public space as an integral part of decentralised planning. However, while the value of open spaces is discussed and negotiated, conversations too often exclude the context in which our public spaces are created and managed and implications of the interests of diverse social groups or the policies and institutions that sustain it.

Recent experiences of urbanisation have accelerated changes in the way public spaces are provided and managed. Most notably, as traditional open spaces are increasingly declining, spaces with public functions, like bus stops, streets, pedestrian areas or parks, are changing in character, and private spaces like malls or gated communities are spreading. These fundamental shifts have changed the social or political meaning of public spaces and largely affected the way spaces are produced and experienced.

Firstly, the provision and management of public space has become increasingly privatised, as city authorities are relying more and more on private developers and local business associations to provide and maintain communal spaces – urban parks, shopping malls, gated communities and private streets – for residents’ consumption, leisure and work. Partially as a result, these processes have produced disconnected and exclusive urban spaces that seek to serve the special interest of the rich and affluent. While these privately owned structures, disguised as public spaces, provide new alternatives for urban life for ‘some public’ they inadvertently are contributing to a loss of genuine public space and by extension public life. All of these types of spaces create the illusion that public space exists but in actuality function to separate people by class and income, limit social interaction between people and reinforce existing lines of segregation in the urban space. In a post on the gated community bubble, Evans Boah-Mensah argues that in the midst of a chaotic, dysfunctional and relatively unplanned metropolis, these environments are the clear choice, as they provide the middle class the only way to live the dream of affluence. While local authorities may at first appreciate this intervention and view these privatised structures as a way of sharing the burden of city planning, the arrangement demonstrates a tendency towards reductionism in government. Moreover, such isolated, homogenised and consumption-based environments are produced by capitalism, prioritising the economic exchange value over its use value, and are made available to those with real or apparent ability to pay. Those who contribute by purchasing goods and services are welcomed in these spaces, while those who fail to contribute are discouraged; this latter group often includes the poor or just the general, non-consuming public.

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The gate to Trasacco Valley Estates, secured from non-inhabitants. Credit: Trasacco properties.

One might argue that streets, given their dependence on public resources, are not subject to the thrust of exclusion as experienced in other communal sites where private provision is being inserted to replace the state. While that presumption may be true in respect of provision, it certainly is not the case in respect of the use of streets and the claims made on them. Increasingly, streets have become an arena for contest between city authorities and the homeless, beggars, street traders etc., often regarded as ‘unwanted public’. Their activities are often proscribed by ambiguous legislation, restrictive social norms, street violence, or an official response that fluctuates between indifference and eviction. These exclusionary measures spanning cordoned lawns to battles against the ‘inappropriate use of the public space’ are ostensibly well-intentioned: to preserve the public order, reduce the timeless fear of crime among city residents and recover public space for its ‘appropriate’ use. However, the rise of such actions and the growing organic demand to shift the use of streets to suit pedestrian use has changed the character of streets as public spaces. When public space or street design fails to integrate key space users, especially vendors, they tend to improvise to keep using the space.

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State of the streets just outside the Accra Mall after city authorities dislodged the ever-present street vendors. Credit: the authors.

As traditional open spaces diminish, there is a growing challenge for planning for a diversity of other facilities which have substantial public use and are evolving to become the new open spaces. Streets and sidewalks traditionally considered only as conduits for unimpeded vehicular movement are being called upon to become multi-functional. It compels planners to reconsider new design approaches to streets and sidewalks that balance efforts for control and order with concerns for vibrancy and spontaneity. The provision and management of street spaces must serve as places of everyday life, leisure destinations and for economic activity. Streets, from neighbourhood lanes to major highstreets – all of which will become the places of the city’s future – should not remain under-used, functioning only as simple thoroughfares, but also serve as focal points for the social interaction that is the epitome of the high street experience. However, for this to be achieved, designs must alter in ways that do not compromise safety of the non-vehicular users. Indeed the islands between the contra-flow of the traffic cannot be permitted as public spaces where it leaves the other users darting around fast moving cars. Rather there needs to be enough widening of sidewalks to ensure that movements of pedestrians and retailers (itinerant or static) are not constricted. Furthermore, grade separation of sidewalks has to be enforced to constrain errant drivers or faulty vehicles from ploughing into the other users on the sidewalks.

The huge body of research by Inclusive cities and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht can of course provide some important pointers for city authorities and planners in providing streets and sidewalks that accommodate multi-functionality. In Kanpur, India, city authorities used pro-poor street management tactics by integrating street vendors into the city and in Nairobi city center, the Mama Ngina Street is designed with wide pedestrian sidewalks and streets to improve its public space functions.

Mama Ngina Street in Nairobi city center with wide shaded pedestrian sidewalks and streets. Credit: George Arabbu.
Mama Ngina Street in Nairobi city center with wide shaded pedestrian sidewalks and streets. Credit: George Arabbu.

Indeed, private control and stratification of public spaces undermines the very foundations of civic and democratic life by creating an environment where civil rights are being subordinated to property rights, citizenship to consumerism. Yet perhaps, given the expected increase in demand for malls and gated community-living associated with increasing middle class population, we can only assume that these trends are here to stay. Thus, planners and city authorities alike need to plan and design public spaces with these contemporary processes of spatial segregation in mind. This might require considering how such private spaces could be made to acquire a public dimension and become more socially inclusive. These spaces must engage their surrounding urban environment and foster more opportunities for interpersonal interaction. There are many examples of this kind of thing happening already. The Project for public spaces, for instance, provides inspiring lessons on how several local authorities use public space as a structuring force in the city’s redevelopment efforts and as a tool for reinventing a ‘culture of citizenship’ in privatised neighbourhoods.

The implications of the spread of these emerging trends should not be treated lightly. The changes express a structural transformation of public and private spaces, and thus framing them under the umbrella term of ‘loss of the public’ is too simplistic. Instead, the consequences of this development should be watched closely, and any judgement must also take into account emerging new public spheres. What we propose for the conversation that follows is a reflection on the state of public life in Accra and other African cities. How could public space be revived in the face of these transformations? Is public space really disappearing at all? How then can we fight against the disappearance of public space and public life?

 

Read Joseph and Kwadwo’s previous post ‘In Accra, a need to re-claim open spaces and re-gain community?’

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. tiolabe23@gmail.com

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. oksarfoh@yahoo.com

Head image: When key space users are excluded from street design, street vendors re-emerge to repossess the space after been evicted. Credit: the authors.

 

 

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