On Closing the Inequality Gap in Accra: With urban planner Victoria Okoye

Laura Puttkamer, Accra Community Manager
Accra, 22 June 2016

I spoke with Victoria Okoye, an urban planner and urban development researcher based in Accra. In her blog African Urbanism, she focuses on art, culture, informality and public spaces, which we talked about regarding inequalities in Accra. According to Victoria, participatory street design can help to tackle urban inequalities.

How do inequalities manifest themselves in Accra? Where do you see them?

It’s quite difficult to not see inequality in Accra. In contrast to a general, overarching “Africa rising” trend, I’d argue it’s rather inequality that’s rising, and that the economic gains being made are felt by only a small few. For example, it’s estimated that 70 percent of Accra’s employment workforce is informal; so that’s more than two out of every three residents who make a living but don’t have the social security or benefits of a safety net.

Everyday citizens struggle to access and pay for water, electricity and other services, and the government’s narrowly targeted urban development investments and projects increasingly create exclusive spaces for the elite and expatriates and exacerbate economic inequalities.

In your opinion, which would be the best low-budget solutions to achieve more equitable growth in Accra?

I think what’s rather needed is bottom-up pressure to force government to change the ways it shapes its urban priorities, plans and interventions. I’m not sure of a low-budget solution to achieve more equitable growth – I think it’s more about changing structures and democratizing and decentralizing planning in a way that empowers local residents with greater decision-making power over the spaces in which they live, socialize, play and commune.

In your article "Re-imagining Accra's public spaces,” you mention the class paradigm of public spaces (i.e., parks are for the elite), but you also speak of the potential of Accra's many public spaces. How can the planning of public spaces lead to a more equitable urban development?

Public spaces – including streets and sidewalks, public markets, etc. – are the core to urban community life. Despite the city government plans for them (for example, streets and sidewalks as commuting pathways), communities and local actors continually find ways to overtly and covertly reclaim these spaces for their own needs, priorities and activities. On Fridays in neighborhoods like La, Osu, and Teshie, families and neighbors close off and re-take streets for their funeral gatherings; across the city, street vendors and hawkers re-possess streets and sidewalks for their livelihoods. Evenings and weekends, parks and open spaces (including car parks) serve as social and recreational spaces. These are spaces where community members can and do exercise “ownership.” That said, community usage and demand, often framed as encroachment, comes into sharp conflict with the government’s plans.

So how could these spaces be harnessed for more equitable urban development? In the case of streets, opening up street design to recognize, accommodate and cater to the range of uses that actually take place there. So re-designing streets and sidewalks as not only transport commuting spaces, but also as inclusive pedestrian spaces, cycling spaces, waiting and meeting spaces and commercial vending spaces, with appropriate infrastructure.

From which other African cities could Accra draw inspiration for equitable growth? And which is Accra's most inspiring project that other cities could learn from?

I think Accra’s most inspiring example of pushing for equity in urban development comes from the citizens themselves that aim to re-shape public spaces to their uses. What’s particularly interesting is that street vendors and community attempts to reclaim streets are ubiquitous in many African cities, so rather than looking outside for something different, I think we can look at these shared characteristics and devise local ways of integrating them into everyday street design.

Three examples I am quite impressed by include the participatory re-design of Warwick Junction in Durban, which is re-thinking how to engage and include street and market vendors in local economic development. Open Streets Cape Town’s bottom-up efforts facilitate communities in creatively re-claiming and re-experiencing their streets as public spaces. I am quite interested in the way that graffiti artists in Dakar use street graffiti in public spaces as a means of building community conversations and giving community control in shaping their sense of place.

I’d also love to hear from your readers examples they would point to as well!

Photo Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images

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