Accra: Informal Approaches to Mixed-Use Development

in Local Innovation by

Mixed-use structures house multiple different
activities in one building and typically make a
great use of space within cities.

Plainly speaking, mixed-use development is the practice of having more than one form of “use” or activity (e.g., residential, commercial, office, recreational, industry) in a building or building complex. “Mixed use,” in city planning terms then, is a combination of these activities in one space. Some of the most common forms of mixed-use activity include residential/commercial (imagine multi-story buildings where commercial activity takes place on the first store, and residential units exist in the upper floors) or commercial/office space (commercial on first floor, office units on upper levels). While it is important to separate certain types of uses (for example, residential activity from industrial activities such as sewage treatment or heavy manufacturing), in general, the combination of uses, when planned according to people’s needs, can create a more walkable, people-oriented space. They are also useful when it comes to overall city development — mixed use, when used at an appropriately large scale, can help cities avoid “urban sprawl” and make sure people’s needs, jobs and recreational activities, etc. are located close to where they need them and can easily access them via transportation.

The photos below depict forms of mixed-use buildings in Accra, primarily focused in the Kaneshie Market and Abossey Okai areas. These areas have seen a substantial amount of development with the growth of commercial activity, and they attract a large amount of human and vehicular traffic, so space in these two areas has become very much a commodity. What is also interesting to note is that much of these areas were initially mostly residential some two decades ago. A few months ago, I met with the city director of Town & Country Planning in Accra, and we had a conversation about how Kaneshie has developed and changed over time. Turns out the area was mostly residential, so most of the commercial activity that we see there today wasn’t present. Instead, it was mostly single housing units and multi-dwelling residential units. When the Kaneshie Market was built, it served as a magnet to draw more and more commercial activity, and the area became a bustling commercial center.

Dated multi-unit dwellings turned mixed-use structures,
near Kaneshie Market

As commercial activity became increasingly profitable, residence owners opted to rent out their units — to business owners, instead of to apartment tenants. Space for activity would be limited mostly to what’s already available (due to the fact that it’s easier to change the activity in the space to accommodate for new needs, rather than to build an entirely new building or an annex to an existing one). That said, new development has occurred over time, some buildings have been demolished and new ones constructed, etc. But overall, it seems the net result has been not only the increase of commercial activity over time, but also the metamorphosis of the use of the buildings.

So, the conversion to mixed use in many cases was a conversion from residential-only buildings (multi-story houses and apartment dwellings) to residential with the introduction of commercial, office and other activities. The photo at above of a multi-dwelling unit demonstrates how commercial activity has taken root in much of the building.

And I’m sure that once this mixed-use trend was started, new development was made in mind with the need for mixed-use development. Check out the photo below — we can tell it’s a newer building, and it’s built in mind with smaller individual units in the ground and second-floor levels to economize space for commercial activity. The top floor is probably residential, and may be one dwelling for the entire floor.

Three-story mixed use development, Abossey Okai: Bottom two floors consist
of auto parts sales units (and possibly other activities, too), top floor is likely
either residential or office space.

In many cases, as in the two photos below from Abossey Okai (the name for the large spare parts market sales area), commercial sales take place on the bottom level, while on the upper levels people live in the residential units. Abossey Okai is an extensive zone in Kaneshie where vehicle spare parts are sold – you could buy anything you need there, from a dashboard, to headlights, to an engine. The area has become the key center for secondhand vehicle parts sales in Accra. This photo below is another example of a house that was built before the major commercial conversion in the area. So the houses existing structure was used and new commercial activity replaced residential.

An older house turned mixed-use structure in Abossey Okai.

The interesting part of this phenomenon is that much of this mixed-use development appears to have taken place naturally (it has developed as a result of the sum of individual actions and behaviors over time), rather than in some locales where certain parcels of space are zoned as mixed-use and such development follows accordingly. This mixed-use development is common throughout almost all parts of central Accra, and it highlights an interesting overlap between two very different environments — African cities like Accra and cities in the United States (for example).

Houston, Texas, USA mixed-use development. (c) swamplot.com

But, there are some key things that mixed-used development do have in common: First, this form of development makes work, shopping, play, etc very accessible to the average resident. These areas are more walkable (unless of course you are carrying heavy items) so it makes sense that mixed-use development are also often supported by public transit, that encourages walking around, instead of driving. Walking and bicycling also promote more social interaction, so as you can guess, these spaces are often accompanied by centralized parks or other public spaces (which, unfortunately, are not so common in Accra — at least not yet).

This form of development also helps to keep the city condensed, as I mentioned earlier, to avoid urban sprawl. Looking at the pictures again, you could just imagine how much space would be required if this development took on a “strip mall” fashion with individual buildings for each shop. So much space is saved by adopting a mixed-use strategy, and overall, this helps to prevent extensions of the city’s boundaries over time.

  • Pretty similar to what you’ll find in Delhi, India and other part of the country. Mix use of the property is allowed but some of the markets grow so popular that you’re surprised to see residential floors in the area.