Re-imagining Accra’s “public spaces”

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What if we let go of the limiting idea of our public spaces as “city parks” and began exploring the entire range of social spaces that already exist in the city? This is the first in a series of posts. 

Talented architects, designers and public space practitioners, green space enthusiasts, and everyday citizens dream of a greener Accra, one in which city parks can become the norm. Like any growing, changing and developing city, Accra is evolving. The city attracts investment, enterprises, and residents. It’s a space with numerous competing land uses: commercial properties and activities, office spaces, churches and mosques, housing, roads, and sidewalks for some of those roads, among others. Construction is happening all around us, building outward (urban sprawl), building upward (vertically, with more and more multistory and high-rise buildings), and rebuilding on existing space. This shift is everywhere; we can look at the satellite city developments in planning and implementation, we can examine land use turnover (tending toward commercial properties and apartments). In Accra, space is money, and many feel that open spaces and parks are losing out.

All that said, my instinctual response is to emphasize that Accra does have open spaces and urban parks. Many of them could be better patronized: There’s the underutilized 12-acre Efua Sutherland Children’s Park, one of the largest green spaces in the city. There’s Ako Adjei Park, Nyaniba Park and Kawukudi Park:

View PARKS IN ACCRA in a larger map

So for me, critical questions emerge: Why are we only looking at city parks? What, if anything, are we already doing/what is happening organically or informally? And who is “we,” anyway?

The “we” and city parks

The last question is an important starting point. It’s a point mentioned by Ghanaian visual artist IUB , and it brings to the fore the paradigm of class. A park, by Western definition, is “a piece of public land in or near a city that is kept free of houses and other buildings and can be used for pleasure and exercise.” We have the global examples, such as Central Park in New York City or Hyde Park –  multi-acre, government or privately managed green spaces situated in the city center, and set apart for the public’s recreational use, including festivals, concerts, theatre events, recreation and a whole gamut of other activities. A park is also a space of social control: Who has access (who deserves to be there), who has the luxury of making coming there a priority, who has the means to get there?

In Accra, the major example is Efua Sutherland Children’s Park in Accra Central, with its immense ferris wheel, benches, beautiful trees, but few (if ever any) visitors inside. A localized example of the potential for parks is the Mmofra Foundation’s children’s park (Playtime in Africa space) in Dzorwulu. In a two-acre space of private land, the foundation has integrated traditional, natural, and modern elements of culture, agriculture, and design. The foundation has deliberately designed and constructed its park to provide a safe space for children, a recreational space that demonstrates the potential and vision for urban parks in Accra. Is this replicable, in the context of the city of Accra as we know it? The Playtime in Africa space is an excellent archetype, but it’s also privately owned land managed by the foundation and family of Efua Sutherland. In this way, it’s an exception to the pressures that we see in other parts of the city. Can we expect families, foundations or other entities to devote acres of land for such recreational activity? Probably not, but it’s an important, alternative vision for what’s possible.

So I argue that we really need to dig into and support the green spaces and public parks that already exist. Why aren’t we putting more pressure on those managing Efua Sutherland Park (Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs) to ensure its public access (or perhaps, we should ask who’s already doing this, and how can we support them)? Why aren’t more of us visiting this space? It’s not perfect – some of the benches are broken down, there’s often no one there (as a result of prohibitive entrance issues), it’s kind of out of the way depending on where you live – but when you’re there, you’re in a sanctuary. And it’s what we’ve got – but not all.

Are we missing something?

When we focus only on the possibility of parks as public space (or lack therof), we miss the opportunity to appreciate and to capitalize on the community-creating spaces – however formal or informal — that do exist. Some might say people usurp these spaces – empty buildings and open spaces and yards, sidewalks and street corners, even streets – because urban parks conducive to such social activities do not exist. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that. But I would highlight first that these spaces do exist. I would argue second that this form of space-situated social interaction is something we see as far back as our traditional/indigenous community designs. Compounds held spaces for family and social interactions, pathways connecting compounds and town centres where were people connected, interacted, performed and existed as a collective.

In the April 2014 Adventurers in the Diaspora discussion “Open Cultural Spaces,” architect Ralph Sutherland talked about what he calls “me and you” spaces:

What if it’s not so much that these spaces no longer exist as a result of urbanization; what if the way that people orient themselves, connect, socialize, and recreate has changed as a result of urbanization? Undoubtedly, our environment has shifted, so too should our approaches to promoting social space.

A new outlook: Let’s promote “social spaces”

In Jamestown, “public” space is fluid; a single space can serve myriad functions depending on the time of day and community activity. Early Saturday mornings, young boys play pickup football games inside the Old Kingsway Building; in the afternoon, a communal meeting takes place; and in the evening, there might be a performance or informal community gathering. Vendors identify the location as a magnet for human activity (translation: commercial opportunity), and they set up shop outside and sell drinks and food. Sidewalks and even streets can function similarly. These unintended spaces become places where children play games, where funerals take place, where street performances, meetings, impromptu conversations and get togethers happen. These are the spaces where people come together; these are our public spaces, too.

We see evidence of this – something I’ll call “social spaces” – in other parts of Accra: At the front yard area in front of Accra Girls Secondary School, or across the street and nearby where youth and adults exercise and play weekend soccer games. At trotro/bus stops where people wait for transport, vendors sell credits, roasted plaintains and corn. Against compound walls where a tree provides shade and makeshift benches and chairs become a community corner, people gather; Nima Highway between Kanda and Kawukudi is dotted with examples like these. These definitely aren’t parks, they aren’t even really green, but they are open to the public , and they are places that already act as magnets, drawing people together.

In Jamestown, someone created a bench out of used wooden crates, a wooden slab and two cement blocks. Low cost and the form fits the function.
In Jamestown, someone created a bench out of used wooden crates, a wooden slab and two cement blocks. Low cost and the form fits the function.

So what I’m calling for first is a shift in our attitude and outlook on public spaces. Let’ stop looking outside for a vision of how things should be, and let’s look inside to see what people are already creating, and let’s make these more vibrant:

Accra’s public spaces (me and you spaces) don’t have to be (only) parks: What if the city’s public spaces could encompass the social spaces where commercial activity, events, transport, and other factors bring people together and where supporting infrastructure like benches, trees and shade to make it comfortable to stay and socialize and interact? These places emerge, develop and exist in different forms, but the key is access and the magnetism or attraction factor of the space. I think this also provides a new framework for how we can contribute to more vibrant public spaces/ social spaces/”me and you” spaces in the city.

okoye_kanda_manyusesin1space
In Kanda, a large tree that provides shade, commercial activities and an open space contributes to an environment that’s a vibrant social space.

Moving forward: From ideas to action

So, how are we going to create the public spaces that we want? That’s what I’ll explore next, but here’s where I will start: Identify these kinds of social spaces where people are congregating and provide park benches, seats and shade so that people can comfortable enjoy it. In other words, bring the “public spaces” to the people, this manifesto is that simple.

Looking forward to getting your feedback and perspectives from your own experiences.