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20 October 2009 | News Blog

Urban Sprawl - a new epidemic in Accra

Accra aerial view
Accra aerial view

As a young boy, travelling outside the city was always exciting. As we drove past the stone quarry next to Achimota School, the cacophony of sounds would be noticeably replaced by the beauty and serenity of the countryside. Today, that countryside has been replaced with a haphazard admixture and pattern of concrete buildings. The landscape is now inhabited and scattered by a vicinage of urban growth. Accra's spatial growth is spreading in an irregular form and at a staggering rate. The evidence of sprawl is there for all to see.

The effect of this uncontrolled urban sprawl means excessive land consumption, environmental and social cost.

On the social front those hit hardest are the working classes, low income earners, unemployed, immigrants and the poor. Ghana has a total population of approximately 25 million people, 35% of whom are urbanised.

Accra Metropolitan Area (AMA) alone, according to the 2000 census, represents 25% of all urban dwellers in Ghana. (It is projected that this urbanisation will increase further) That represents a disproportionately high population growth in Accra.

Alarm bells must ring because; Accra is developing in a speed and manner that overtakes the capacity of our institutions to control the situation. What used to be suburbs of Accra have merged with each other, and the physical boundaries that separated the city from the outskirts have vanished. The growth is all too often unplanned and uncontrolled. Urban Sprawl is the new epidemic destroying our city.

The very need for Town Planning in Ghana was borne out of a vision to overcome misfortune, hardship and poverty in our cities, towns and villages. ah A vision that understands that the true test of a free and democratic society is her ability to protect the poor and the weak and not just the rich and powerful who simply exploit them in the name of freedom. John Rawls in his book 'A theory of Justice' (1971) advocates that, “undeserved inequalities call for redress and since inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for. “

I am hereby suggesting two proven planning techniques, used to prevent unrestricted urban sprawl and to curb the uncontrolled spread of the city;

i) The 'Compact City' model and
ii) The 'Green Belt' strategy.
This article is not a partisan exercise in politics but represent the views of an urban planning practitioner and his study of a city he loves. As a person residing in the Diaspora, this research article and the recommendations within, represents an attempt at repaying, in part, the debt I owe to my beloved city.

Accra gave me so much yet asked for nothing in return. The aim is to increase knowledge and create awareness.

URBAN GROWTH OF ACCRA-BACKGROUND HISTORY
In 1826 the first coastal settlements of Accra east of the Korle Lagoon was made up of British Accra (James Fort), Dutch Accra (Ussher Fort) and Danish Accra (Christiansburg Castle). Eastwards from Christiansburg stood the village of Labadi. Its link with Christiansburg was by sea or footpath. In 1914 the Weija reservoir was opened to serve Accra with pipe borne water. Two years later in 1916, the city was supplied with electricity.

The year 1920 marked a dividing line in the history of the development of Accra. With the advent of cocoa as a cash crop, and, the extraction of manganese, diamonds and gold as a very profitable venture, Accra serving as the administrative capital and commercial centre of Ghana, began to attract firms, missions, and other bodies. The population expanded and the city grew. By 1943 the built up urban area of Accra was 40 square miles.

The aftermath of the 2nd World War was a time of social, technological, and political change in the colonies. A post- war labour government in Britain and its ideas of the welfare state led to the colonial government's planned settlements at places such as Korle Gonno, Osu, South Labadi, Kaneshie, Sabon Zongo and Abbosey Okai. Adabraka, kokomlemle, Cantonments, Burma Camp (then Giffard Camp),Labone Esates, Airport Residential Area, Tesano and Labadi are areas that also began to take shape.

THE ERA OF PRIVATIZATION
The 1980's witnessed structural adjustment programmes and a new right wing ideology about competition and choice in Ghana. This included the role of the free market. It enabled private organisations to enter the market place. Promotion of homeownership was a key feature of this ideology.

This saw the expansion of residential settlements in areas such as Roman Ridge, Dzorwulu, Abelempke, Christian Village, West Legon, East Legon, Kwabenya, Manet, Regimanuel, Devtraco, Sakumono, Adenta, Coastal estates and extensions to Teshie Nungua.

Part of the free-market approach involved the process of buying land in Accra and its suburbs. This involved multiple government ministries, agencies and numerous owners of land.

The free market approach was the main catalyst for fuelling the uncontrolled and unplanned urban sprawl of Accra. The overlapping and duplication of government agencies created a cumbersome process to land title registration.

Subsequently people bypass these registration processes and abandon Town Planning regulation. It is often claimed that the planners have failed to monitor and control urban sprawl because of an ineffective information base, a lack of resources and the differences in government regulated land.

Monitoring this urban sprawl and planning for its control have been made difficult by the extent of time in providing reliable and up-to-date maps. Existing maps are usually outdated and therefore difficult to use as an effective information base for Planning and Enforcement.

EFFECTS OF URBAN SPRAWL IN ACCRA
The effects of a lack of effective Planning regulation and enforcement and the resulting urban sprawl are both in environmental and social cost. Unrestricted and uncontrolled urban growth destroys large tracts of arable land designated for the production of food.

This raises the cost of farm produce as farms are consequently located further into the surrounding areas and away from the urbanised areas.

There is increased air pollution and excessive traffic congestion due to the over dependence on the car. Motorist now clock up more mileage into work as they move further out of the city. The environmental impacts of the increased use of motor vehicles result in excessive and illegal emissions of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.

Wildlife habitats are destroyed and birds that woke us up in the mornings not too long ago have now become endangered species and close to extinction.

The unplanned nature of these developments makes these areas more susceptible to flooding. Houses are built in high risk flood zones with no appropriate flood risk assessment conducted, and no documented record of flooding history to guide developers. The result is houses that impede the flow of floodwater, affect flood defence structures or obstruct land otherwise needed for access or maintenance purposes.

Poor and low-income households who cannot afford to reside in residential settlements or buy a home in planned areas such as Manet, Regimanuel, and Devtraco move further out into areas where they can afford rent.

This pushes the boundaries of Accra further out. They are polarised into settlement patterns which tend to be economically depressed, consisting of an underclass of economically and socially excluded households – social segregation. Areas in Accra such as Budubram, Ashiaman and Akweteman are settlements which tend to attract the poor and low-income households.

The settlement pattern as a result is one of poverty, poor amenities, alienation and overcrowding - a recipe for ghetto and slum formation. Slums are areas which contain the cheapest properties. New comers such as immigrants tend to gravitate towards these areas. They prefer not to seek housing through legitimate channels.

Urban sprawl gives traction to the Ga Adangbe (the original settlers of the Accra plains) claim that the Planning system is insensitive to their hardships- a sense of betrayal.

As the city sprawls, land becomes less of a commodity to use as wealth to transfer between generations or to promote the economic development of the Ga Adangbe people. They point a finger at government and argue that the Planning system has failed to protect their lands.

STRATEGIES FOR THE FUTURE In the introduction, I mentioned in passing, suggestions for dealing with the problem of urban sprawl. I will now present each solution in turn:

The 'Compact City Model' seeks to use land within the city in a more efficient manner. This involves the following;

i) Reducing development on the periphery of the city, redeveloping unused sites, the re-use of infrastructure, re-use of previously developed land (Brownfield sites), and the preservation of green space. (Greenfield sites) .

The suburb of Osu for instance, is a good example of where existing buildings are revamped, and previously empty homes converted into commercial facilities for the benefit and conversion of Oxford Street into Accra's premier shopping street.

ii) Rejecting the dominance of the car by re-balancing the use of our streets in favour of the pedestrian, providing larger buses (to carry more people per trip) on our principal roads as an alternative to the car. Fewer cars mean less congestion and better air quality, which in turn encourages cycling and walking rather than driving.

iii) The ability to provide a wide range of housing tenures and types which encourage social equity through interaction between people of different income levels. The Affordable housing projects in Kpong and Borteyman are one way of achieving social equity by the Government. However it appears a sense of 'community' must be promoted, and a sense of 'exclusion' prevented if they are to succeed.

THE UK EXPERIENCE
The 'Compact City' model was used successfully in the UK in a project to revitalise the London Docklands. In the 1960's the docklands (an area in East London) declined in business as container ships were developed. The Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher used market led oriented programmes of action to redevelop the Docklands.

The idea was to introduce private investment by appealing to free market forces alone. Wealth it was argued would trickle down.

By appealing to freer market forces, the Thatcher government failed to resolve the severe housing problems in the city. The local community did not benefit because of high rents and were driven out of their homes into poorer-quality accommodation (called a process of gentrification).

A new labour government under Tony Blair tackled the problem by introducing affordable housing, employment opportunities, and good transport links using both private and public initiatives. Today the population of the Docklands has more than doubled and the area has become both a major business centre and an increasingly acceptable area to live.

Green Belt Strategy The 'Green Belt' Strategy is a successful planning tool used to contain London's growth from the threat of urban sprawl since 1947.The name denotes a 'belt like area' or 'ring' around a city, reserved by official authority. Its aim is therefore to prevent urban sprawl by keeping the 'belt like area' around the city permanently open and free from inappropriate development.

There are five reasons for Accra to have a Green Belt. I) to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas, 2) to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another, 3) to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment, 4) to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns, and 5) to assist the recycling of derelict land.

The construction of a new development on Green Belt land is considered inappropriate. The only development to be allowed in a Green Belt land will include farming, forestry, recreational facilities like football pitches, golf courses, cemeteries, some changes to existing building or replacement of existing buildings and most importantly limited affordable housing for local people.

The protection of a Green Belt surrounding Accra and their boundaries must be maintained permanently. Once the belt has been approved by Law, it can only be altered in exceptional circumstances. Its success depends on the boundaries being properly defined to prevent encroachment and to maintain the degree of permanence.

Conclusion
In order to maintain our economic success and continue to prosper we must go back to the simple vision of ensuring a better quality of life for everyone now and for future generations (1987 Brundtland Report).

The ideals of a Compact City and the preservation of open space (Green Belt land) to prevent sprawl can be achieved.

The goal must be a comprehensive plan to manage future growth and development instead of allowing development to spread unchecked across the landscape. Planning decisions and regulations must knit communities together instead of tearing them apart.

This means the return to a positive and proactive Town Planning system that operates in the public interest. The strategic 'phasing' of development sites in Accra prevents sprawl. It means less roads, less water lines, less sewage services, less schools, less police stations, less transport infrastructure and fire protection which means less tax for the taxpayer. It means less consumption of land.

Succeeding in this task would not be easy – but it is not impossible. Being anti sprawl is not being anti-growth. The question is not whether our communities will grow, but how they will grow.

That is what the current masterplanning of Tripoli - Libya, Luanda - Angola, Dar es Salaam - Tanzania and Abuja - Nigeria are seeking to achieve- A compact city.

What we face is above all a moral issue. At stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice. A recognition that we are all in this together. That when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.

That is the change that can unlock our potential. This is responsibility that can only be met by us for the benefit of our beloved city – Accra.

Credit: Myjoyonline

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