In December 2014, Accra was selected as one of 100 cities to meet the Resilient Cities Challenge. The term resilience has been cropping up quite regularly in urban planning circles for some time now. Resilience is the capacity of cities to survive, adapt and grow regardless of the chronic stresses or acute shocks they experience.
Admittedly, Accra faces myriad infrastructural, environmental and sanitation challenges. Aging infrastructure, disease outbreak (especially cholera) and flooding have been identified as some of the challenges that would test Accra’s resilience. However, it is possible to solve Accra’s infrastructural and technical needs without necessarily making it better or desirable for people.
How then do we build resilient cities? By planning our cities right. And how is a city planned right? When it is planned for people, not for vehicles and not to maintain political control for four years. This has made me begin to think more deeply about what resilience means for Accra, the city I live in.
Too frequently people have inadvertently become the enemy when plans forget for whom the city is being planned. I have observed road developments in Accra where pedestrians are an afterthought, barely tolerated, a nuisance even. This creates tension and alienation among different road users. The fact is that vending along the streets and sidewalks is a part of the Accra cityscape. However, hawkers and pedestrians weaving their way between vehicles on busy streets is downright dangerous and a valid concern.
Instead of cookie cutter solutions, of which clearing the street sides and sidewalks of vendors and kiosks is one, the challenge to be met is, how can our streets and neighbourhoods be and remain sociable? The fact that this clearing exercise has to be repeated every now and then raises questions to the effectiveness of this solution.
How can street vending become a healthy part of the cityscape? Planning that considers this question recognizes the beauty of “chaos,” and integrates it into a normal but productive part of the city. Instead of dampening the spirit of Accra’s streets, the dynamism and growth of our streets should be fueled by planning for them.
But planning for people is not enough. Planning with people involves engaging with them. Open spaces like parks and public squares encourage relaxed and positive interactions and allow people to think of things other than survival. This is because people respond to their environment. Creativity channeled into public spaces, public art and design shapes a city’s unique identity by the people who live in it, lending a strong sense of identity and pride. Civic assets such as libraries, museums and theatres can also help transform the way people view and feel about the city. Recognizing and tapping into the creative and emotional side of the public creates community.
Considering Accra’s residents’ needs is key since the city has its own unique blend of stresses. These stresses make it tough to really love the city. How many of us love Accra? Yes, love! I love Accra, albeit in a grudging, passive way, just the way you love an older brother who is never around but who you depend on all the same.
The energy of the city tends to be rather draining. Most of us are in Accra to work and work and work. It would make a huge difference if I could go to Makola Market and after shopping, walk over to a garden park, sit on a bench, relax under a Neem tree and perhaps snack on some crispy fried plantain before riding a Rapid Bus Transit Network without any hassle. But there are no benches within tree-lined parks in the centre of Accra. And getting home would be nothing close to rapid.
Are my musings unrealistic? I say that the answer often lies in the simple things. Already Accra is considered to be a safe city, a feat many cities envy. So why not also make it a resilient one? A truly resilient city for the people.
To do this, however, will require planning with people – participatory planning – which is at the heart of developing social resilience. Social resilience can only exist when people who care about their city come together to get involved in its development. As Michael Berkowitz notes, social and physical resilience go hand in hand. Building social resilience will mean planning Accra for people.
Grace Ecklu is a freelance urban geographer and researcher living in Accra, Ghana. She currently volunteers with the African Business Centre for Developing Education (ABCDE) while on the lookout for profitable engagements that will make use of her creative and technical skills.
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