“A Changing Accra”: Residents discuss urban challenges and future in architecture-inspired forum

“When I look at Accra, I see a city that has an identity crisis,” said photographer and blogger Nana Kofi Acquah. “If you look at the city, there’s nothing that tells you where we were, where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.”

Indeed, even in the past few years alone, Accra as a city has morphed and changed, with so many forces at work – government, large and small-scale private development, ad hoc housing development.

“In the last so many years, the city [of Accra] has changed tremendously,” echoed Nat Nuno Amarteifio. These statements were part of a larger conversation, a panel discussion of the city’s changing urban landscape, where more than 100 residents of Accra – long-time residents, visitors, students, expats and returned diaspora – came to add their voice to the discussion. The event, organized by  Adventurers in the Diaspora, included built environment professionals from architecture and planning, all of whom had grown up in Accra:

Osei Agyeman, an architect and former president of Ghana Institute of Architects,
Ralph Mills-Tettey, professor and architect, author of Visions of Accra in the 21st Century,
Osei Ankam, urban planner,
Nana Kofi Acquah, ­­photographer and blogger, and
Nat Nuno Amarteifo, architect and former mayor of Accra, who served as moderator for the panel and Q&A session that followed.

Listen to the (almost) full audio of the event (45-minute panel, followed by a 1-hour long Q&A session), available here:

In Accra, certain neighborhoods are growing, changing, evolving, and the result is a “new face” for the city. But these changes come with their own challenges, and in the urban space, these changes must work within specific limits. The well-known challenge in Accra is the challenge of working with – or around – the city’s outdated planning controls and policies: “Overhauling governance in Accra to make it more congruent with the rate of change with where the city is going is something that nobody even dares think about,” Amarteifio said.

The result is that the city is developing, but for the vast majority of space, and for the past decade, it’s happening on “autopilot,” to borrow the word that Osei Agyeman used to describe the city’s lack of planning — individuals, households, families and residents are creating their own environments, with little guidance or input from the local government.

But at the center of the city’s development is tension: “There’s a lot of conflict in terms of how people perceive how the city must happen,” Agyeman said. “Everybody wants a piece of the city to make sure that their wellbeing is catered for…Therefore, the man who sells sugarcane in a wheelbarrow along the road believes he has every right as the one who passes by in his car, as well as an estate developer. In as much as there is no harmony or direction in terms of what we want from the city, there’s always going to be some amount of conflict.”

This individuality brings vibrancy, economic opportunity and culture to the city, but it’s also a downfall for the city’s lack of planning direction: This go-it-alone mentality, in terms of how people act and interact, leads to a series of “disconnects” – a modern-day, local example of Accra’s tragedy of the commons. 

Conversation highlights

  • The role of indigenous culture/space: There’s an extreme spatial conflict between existing indigenous communities (Ga) in the city and ongoing (often upscale) urban renovation (gentrification?) and development: While Accra began as a series of Ga fishing settlements, today the ethnic group makes up just about 15 percent of the city. The majority culture of the city, Amarteifio said, is now Akan culture.
  • Planning for pedestrians: The need for pedestrian urban master plans that integrate transport transfers between modes and sidewalk infrastructure to make the city more walkable;
  • Greenbuilding: Developing locally, context-specific interior design. “All I see is concrete, concrete everywhere,” Nana Kofi Acquah said. “And for me, it tells of a constipation of the mind…There’s no creativity. We have all these beautiful elements that is not tapped. You enter a building in a tropical country, and the building is totally sealed up in concrete and you have all these air cons working and we’re complaining that there isn’t enough electricity?”
  • New economic opportunities in the city: Why not create Accra and Ghana as a boxing capital of the world, one panelist proposed. Every two years, bringing the boxing world to Accra to celebrate the sport and bring local economic development and tourism boons. With the strong funeral culture in Ghana, creating festivities and cultural activities around “death” like Day of the Dead in Latin American countries.
  • Urban revitalization through infrastructure development: Revitalizing the city’s infrastructure can drive the city’s development: urban transport, moving from reliance on taxis and trotros to more large-scale options, as well as the sewer system, improved water supply and power. Additionally, redesigning urban transport stops (trotro stops) to avoid increases in traffic congestion, and developing rail transport as a means of alleviating traffic congestion
  • Diversifying the skills, outlooks of architects (and other built environment professionals): Urban practitioners need to expand into new roles — the thinker, the researcher, the artist; expand beyond this discipline to imagine new ways to see and understand the city. The city needs technicians and pragmatists as well as artists, to create and implement innovative solutions.
  • Private sector role in development: As with many trends throughout African cities, the private sector is playing a larger and larger role, in the context of developing satellite cities and housing estates, new roads and sewer systems. But how do cities like Accra manage the transition from private sector development to public sector maintenance? “There’s a lot of urban development that’s happening in the private sector,” said, referencing housing estates, transportation, etc. Yet, he said, “I’m yet to hear anybody have a good discussion, a good study on how private infrastructure comes about, how’s it financed, and how it’s going to be maintained for the future,” he said.

During the conversation, architect D.K. Osseo-Asare and urban planner Kuukwa Manful and I traded tweets back and forth, sharing our opinions and discussion information with our followers and those interested in urbanism in Accra. You can check out the Twitter discussion by following #ChangingAccra:


What do you think? Did the panel hit on the issues you see in Accra, or do you see similar challenges in your city? How can we add to this discussion?


  1. Great article on the Global Urbanist that I think speaks to this conversation – ACTION. In his article “Density promotes sustainability, but does it promote civic engagement?” (see: http://globalurbanist.com/2013/06/04/density-civic-engagement) Andy Carr looks at the highest density cities in the United States, looks at U.S. cities where volunteerism is also highest, and looks at where they match. Wondering where? Here’s your answer answer:

    “Seattle and San Francisco, for instance, both contain several major universities in their metropolitan regions, have well educated workforces and strong employment figures. For each of these west coast cities, educational organisations account for the largest shares of volunteers, perhaps also benefiting from the relatively close proximity of their universities to denser urban cores and mass transit routes. Salt Lake City and Jacksonville, two of the nation’s most religious metropolitan areas, have substantially more volunteers participating through religious organisations.”

    So now my question is, how can we capitalize on this in Accra, a city where there are a plethora of educational institutions, as well as religious resources? This city is definitely not short on both. I’d wager that a number of people volunteer already through their educational and religious oufits, but this opens up an interesting opportunity for further engagement, and it’s a great a response to what many participants at the “Changing Accra” event last week asked: “How do we move forward?”

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