Buildings, History, Land Use: Exploring Historic Accra

It’s almost impossible to be interested in Accra’s urban development without also taking in the the influence of the colonial period on the city’s built environment. On a recent trip to Tema Station in the heart of Accra, I walked around to appreciate one of the city’s most historic areas (Tema Station, near the Makola Market area).

The Methodist Book Depot, built in 1881, has always been maintained since its founded by the Methodist religious group of Ghana. It is one of the oldest buildings in the area, and continues to be a bookseller of academic, religious, intellectual texts, as well as fiction and other themes. Notice the signature boxy structure of the building and tall arches that frame the main entrance and windows.


This local schoolhouse, constructed in 1906, today continues to serve as a school for local youth. However, what was once a one-room schoolhouse (the red building) is now just one part of a multi-series school compound. Behind the red schoolhouse, yellow school buildings have been built to accommodate a growing student population.

The European colonial influence has had a lasting visible impact in Accra, in the urban design of the city layout, the impact of planning policies and the architecture of government buildings, homes, offices and commercial structures that stand to today. In particular, the central business area is home to some of the oldest built areas in the city. Although this area is not as dated as the traditional indigenous (Ga) settlements of the Ga Mashie area or even the coastal forts, this area, which was originally built as a key node for European commercial and trade interaction, transit and political activity, continues to fulfill this function in the present period.

Many buildings were constructed around Accra during the British colonial period, as evidenced by the structures in areas such as Cantonments, Osu, Labone and the central area. However, in the central area, what is most interesting about these buildings is how they have been incorporated over time into the local and dynamic fabric of the area — although their uses may have changed over time according to the needs of the population, they continue to stand and testify to the British influence of this period and African adaptability in the independence period.

A brief bit of history: In line with the racialized planning policies of the colonial period, the area today known as the central business area was then strictly a European zone for business, trade, storage, distribution and transportation activity. Here, urban planning was strictly enforced, with zoning and building guidelines used to maintain the European character of the area in terms of building design, streetscape and a regular street pattern – as well as to keep indigenous residences, businesses and other forms of activity outside (Grant & Yankson, 2003). As well, it seems these forms of activity were largely separated from European residential zones. In the nearby “native” district, where there was no urban planning enforcement, commercial, residential, trade and other activities developed in a haphazard manner. Makola Market was established nearby here in 1924 (Grant & Yankson, 2003).

It’s hard to imagine that not too long ago (comparatively speaking!) the area we now call Makola Market was bush — or rather, the area where women went to fetch firewood for their kitchen uses! According to a local security guard that I spoke with in the area, Makola (or, more appropriately “makolai” in Ga), means “firewood” — so when women on their way to this area were asked where they were going, they’d respond “makolai” or where the firewood is. Over time, the name stuck, and the large market was named after the local reference.

At independence, the formerly European zones were rightfully taken over by indigenes, and the relaxation of urban planning policies and guidelines allowed for the mixing of commercial, residential and other activities in the city space, allowing these to develop in a more organic, but less “planned,” fashion. Makola Market, situated near the central business area, has continually grown in size since its establishment to become a dominant force in the area.

Fast forward to the present, and you see what I see: a dynamic area where colonial-period buildings still stand, but have been surrounded over time by more recent developments: buildings, commerce, and human activity.

This building, probably once always a commercial shop, is now used by numerous vendors as shops (and on top, a residence) out of which numerous goods are traded and sold.
Viewing the same photo above from a different angle, we see that an add-on structure (at right) has been annexed to the building, from which more goods are sold. The European standards enforcing low-density development have been replaced by local residents’ demand for commercial and residential space.

In terms of urban design, one particularly interesting aspect of this area is the street/building layout: The main streets of the area are characterized as wide boulevards, lined by closed gutters and expansive sidewalks as pedestrian walkways. Another feature (which I would guess is a more recent addition) is the use throughout of concrete walls, which serve as strong, physical separations between the “public space” (the sidewalk, the roads) from the “private space” (building and residential premises). The photo at left demonstrates this notable separation — the white cement wall separates the space for the public and that for the enclosed organization. The cement wall sets a very tangible designation of who has access to the enclosed area. 

On the other hand, commercial structures, which thrive on their physically accessibility to the public, eschew the use of such cement walls to impede access. Commercial activities also often spill over into the sidewalk, and sometimes, into the street. One could surmise that this building below probably always served as for commercial uses, given its physical proximity to the sidewalk and street. Buildings originally intended as houses or for the uses of private organizations are typically further set back from the street.