Re-imagining Accra’s “public spaces”

in Urban (In)formality/Urbanism from Ghana by

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.

  • Joseph

    As historic social bonds have weakened and cities have become collections of individuals, public open spaces have also changed from being embedded in the social fabric of the city to being a part of more impersonal and fragmented urban environments. So to know that planned places such as Efua sunderland has walls around it is disturbing. i gather that even the new park being built by KMA opposite golden tulip hotel in Kumasi also has a big wall erected. This orderliness and privatisation of public spaces to give access to only some ‘public’ is unfortunate. Attempts at developing open spaces need to understand the dynamics of a ‘good’ place, what works and what doesn’t, because, the fact that a park exist does not mean people will use it.
    Spaces such as Oxford Street offer great learning environments for us about how ‘good’ public spaces work. Oxford Street, although developed organically/informally, is an example of city space that represents vitality, multi-functionality, spontaneity. At nights and at weekends, you observe a shared set of values or expectations about how people will or should behave. Pedestrians, fun lovers, drivers all negotiate for space, with an in-built understanding of how to share the space while maintaining a unique social interaction. It even contradicts the conventional wisdom that pedestrian traffic and auto traffic should be separated, agreeing with the kind of public space authors such as Jane Jacobs, William Whyte and now Chris Webster advocate for. Organically developed public spaces that are successful need to be understood and nurtured to withhold the added value of these long-lived spaces, spaces of collective living, collective histories, memories and responsibilities.

  • Kofi Boone

    I teach landscape architecture and I just returned from Accra and having my class work on efforts on public space in the city, including the Mmofra Foundation site in Dzorwulu. It was a great experience. I appreciate the insightful notes on this thread and the words of participants questioning the idea of “park” in a Ghanaian context.

    While in Ghana, I heard a recurring refrain from the elders that young people, especially young people that did not grow up in a village setting, were losing their connection to traditional culture. And that it was in the village setting, and in nature, that important life lessons were taught. Accra’s population is above 4 million, and about 1/3 of those people commute in and out of the city to self-built areas and village settings nearby. That level of mobility plays a role in the discussion, imo (a commentary of urban housing alternatives, incomes, and connections to village settings). But as Ghana and West Africa continue to urbanize, and fewer and fewer people have a connection to villages and traditional culture, what is the role of public space in the city to pass along cultural values? Are parks those potential places?

    Walking Oxford Street (with one caveat: I was shocked to see the new strip malls and fast food restaurants we are trying to get rid of here in the US), and other streets and commercial places in Accra, I found more things in common with other places than different. People appropriating places, engaging in social and public life. The need to make a living impacts leisure behaviors; rather than dedicating separated work time and leisure time, people were mixing the two at the same time. Talking with folks at a market stand or other place wasn’t just “business”…we talked about family, God, and football.

    But at the same time, there were many other places that reminded me of post war western suburbs…big roads, modernist buildings with no sense of human scale or activity, segregated and zoned areas devoid of any interest or activity beyond buying and selling.

    I don’t want to romanticize the virtues of the informal urbanism or the self-built places in the city but I observed that there is more than one urbanism present in Accra. Specifically, it is this post war western suburban pattern that greatly diminishes the potential of an Efua Sutherland Park; it’s edges are a case study in how not to make a people-centered urban place.

    Parks in Europe not only had a leisure purpose, but a social control purpose. With the industrial revolution, monarchies started opening up their royal lands for public use as a sort of panacea; to calm potentially revolutionary workers getting more defiant in deplorable urban conditions. This is also true of the birth of the urban park movement in America; immigration, rapid industrialization, and the need for urban “calming”. This economic thrust does not seem to be present in Accra and in Ghana. For obvious reasons (colonialism and neo-colonialism). So with increasing density and reduced green space in Accra, there is a land use argument for “parks”, but without the commiserate economic shifts that led to urban parks in other parts of the world, is there a mindset that accepts them?

    Lastly, we know in the 21st century that urban parks aren’t necessarily about leisure anymore. With climate change, finding ways to mitigate heat, drought, and buffer from increasingly violent storms are important. Using parks to grow food, offset carbon, treat stormwater, and offer alternative transportation (greenways, etc.) are increasingly important in urban areas. I saw numerous urban agricultural efforts across Accra. But I wonder about the rest. Can “park” not only be based on leisure and the west, but also in ecosystem services and offering African people ways to leapfrog existing antiquated infrastructure? Are “parks” to “sewers” or “street in a new Accra as “mobile phones” are to “land lines”?

  • joe

    When I lived in Accra, I often wondered if there was any kind of green space plan for the city. (I assume there is.) It’d be great if someone did the legwork to compile all of the existing ideas and plans that have been formally proposed for green space in the city. And seek to clarify what, if any, process exists for organizing and planning the use of land in the city. This commentary is great but it seems to levitate like a cloud city in some sci-fi movie – how can these ideas be realized? What is the practical process that could turn ideas into reality? Who’s working on this in the public sphere – at the universities, in government, etc.?

  • Hi Joseph, I agree completely with what you’ve said. Existence of parks doesn’t at all equal access, as the Efua Sutherland Park example demonstrates. And if people don’t have access, what’s the point? In the case of Efua Sutherland Park, it’s about maintaining a certain aesthetic — as in the caretakers are more concerned with keeping the park “nice” rather than it actually being used — but we see this kind of narrative all over Accra, and it informs the fencing around parks and would-be public spaces (that humongous tree and the rocks on Liberation Road at the junction for the Airport, just across from Airport View Hotel, is a perfect example of this. People were using it, then the authorities cordoned it off with fencing because the “wrong types of people” were using it (moneychangers, homesless, etc.).

    Pedestrian access is central to the function and success of Oxford Street, I think — especially in terms of the small vendor shops along the roadside. I think examining Oxford Street from a design and planning perspective, then drawing out what works is a good idea. I have an urban design friend who’s looking at this for his masters thesis at KNUST.

  • Kofi, thanks for these ideas and your comments!

    Would you be willing to share some of the work of your students? Kind of as Joe mentions below, it’d be great to gather together all of these plans and process, but I think ideas, too. We should be talking more with one another about our work and intentions in improving urban spaces in general, but public spaces in particular.

  • Hey Joe, so you ask the all-important question “how can these ideas be realized?” I’ll clarify first that for the kind of intervention I’m talking about, I’m not aware of anyone doing this kind of thing. Here’s what I would do, which I’m going to expand further on in my next post: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/video/2014/mar/07/one-minute-manifesto-accra-ghana

    Perhaps I should have just included it in this as one real long post and just been done with it! Excellent point though, I think the theory is an important base, but we also need to be concrete. I’ve mentioned this at the bottom of the article, but also stay tuned for more.

  • I agree completely that urban design should bring resources and amenities to the spaces people are using, rather than only trying to create new ‘parks’ and then try to entice people to them. Looking at the past, people were using formal ‘public spaces’ but were also using an enormous range of other spaces, as well as using streets and empty lots for hundreds of different activities. There was much less division and definition of space, spaces were fluid and accommodating, able to handle whatever people needed, rather than requiring people to move to an ‘appropriate’ space all the time.

    I love the term ‘social spaces’ and will definitely be stealing it!

  • “we miss the opportunity to appreciate and to capitalize on the community-creating spaces – however formal or informal — that do exist.” I think this a great conversation starter that parks can be so much more than our current limiting scope. The need for social spaces is integral to development in my opinion because of the free exchange of people, ideas, cultures, and experiences it can encourage. Creating areas of shared space does more than bring people together it presents the potential for problem-solving and implementation of solutions. Great article, can’t wait to read the remaining pieces in this series.

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