A New Accra for a Better Ghana?

As you drive down Accra’s High Street from the old commercial district and the historically Ga districts of Jamestown and Usshertown toward the modern center of cosmopolitanism on Oxford Street, you travel around a roundabout.  Independence Arch rises out of the middle of the roundabout, a symbol of the promise of an independent Ghana, atop which Kwame Nkrumah stood on March 6, 1957, and declared that “Ghana, your beloved country is free forever!”  Travel just a little further and you reach a branch in the road, which leads to Christiansborg Castle, the seat of both colonial and postcolonial government.  Between Independence Arch and the Castle, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) has erected a new sign with a new sort of promise, proclaiming, “A New Accra for a Better Ghana”.

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The sign seems to be the gateway to a new vision of the future, ushering visitors from the the center of precolonial and colonial power to new displays of cosmopolitan prosperity in areas like Oxford Street, Cantonments, Ridge, Airport City, Airport Residential, and East Legon.  Ato Quayson’s book, Oxford Street, Accra, details some of the cosmopolitanism of this “new Accra” and historicizes the city’s long history of cosmopolitan culture.  But Quayson’s book and this new sign suggest a new series of questions about both historical and contemporary urban visions.  What, for example, is the “new Accra”?  And what does a “better Ghana” look like?  How much of this is actually new?  Who is included in the processes of change that this sign seems to herald?

As I wrote more than a year ago, reflecting on the rapid “development” of some parts of the city in the years since I first arrived in Accra, the inequality that has long been inscribed in historically cosmopolitan districts like Osu has since spread into other parts of the city.  Anchored by the development of new shopping malls and the emergence of a new cafe and bistro culture among the city’s Afropolitan middle-class, this new urban culture is both a symptom and a cause of growing social and economic inequality throughout the country.  As I experienced when I drove myself through the city in an air conditioned car for the first time last year, it is indeed increasingly possible for people of means to feel like they live in a world apart from the masses of the city, traveling between shopping malls, bistros, cafes, art museums, shops, bars, clubs, and luxury apartment complexes, insulated from the world outside by technology, glass, and air conditioning.  And those “two Accra” – new and old, for lack of better categories – does exist for some people.  And that separation is reified in various forms of international news coverage, popular culture, and social media.  That separation, as I’ve argued before, is also reified in the logics and practices of development and urban planning.

So, what is the “new Accra”?

The “new Accra” emerges out of theories of development, new urbanism, and the creative class, which have reshaped urban planning and development practice in Ghana. According to the Congress on New Urbanism, “New Urbanism is a planning and development approach based on the principles of how cities and towns had been built for the last several centuries: walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in close proximity, and accessible public spaces. In other words: New Urbanism focuses on human-scaled urban design.”  The charter of the new urbanism lays out these principles in more detail and at different scales – the region, the neighborhood, and the block.  While, in theory, new urbanism’s focus on creating walking, sustainable development is modeled on the inclusiveness of the village, in practice, new urbanism’s focus on sustainable development and walkable communities has created a sort of omnibus of planning models. Some of those models have become hegemonic in themselves. The focus on bus rapid transit in urban plans to the exclusion of both local mobility systems/solutions and  other possible technological alternatives, for example, has been a waste of resources in many cities like Accra, which can ill afford the loss, and diverts attention from the central issues facing mobile urban residents. Driven by the interests of private corporations and western urban planners, these models take on imperialistic overtones.  In a sort of parallel to critiques of gentrification, the preference for more expensive Western models marginalizes the majority of urban residents who are unable to afford access to new housing developments, transit systems, and other amenities.

In Accra, much of that community building has focused on the interests of an Afropolitan middle- and upper-class. Highly educated, entrepreneurial, and cosmopolitan, this urban elite constitutes Accra’s version of the “creative class”.  Richard Florida, who originated the term, acknowledges that this creative class constitutes only about 30% of the average population.  However, he argues that they have outsized importance as the drivers of innovation and economic development/growth.  Corporations follow these populations and create new business opportunities, which he predicts will ultimately improve the economic welfare of the broader urban community.  Florida argues that cities should create an ambiance that seeks to attract and retain members of this creative class, developing “cool” neighborhoods with “vibrant street culture”, “authenticity”, and, above all, “quality of place” (Florida’s phrase to refer to the aesthetics or beauty of place).  New urbanism and Florida’s theory of the creative class converge in this concern for “quality of place”, with its emphasis on mixed use neighborhoods, defined by walkable communities, accessible public transportation, investment in diverse arts and cultures, sustainable development, and heritage-based construction techniques.

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In so far as this Afropolitan class constitutes a “creative class” and much of the recent urban development has been shaped by their interests, they seem to fit Florida’s narrative well.  However, the growth of “Afropolitanism” in Accra has not attracted corporations and generated large-scale development so much as it has encouraged new forms of entrepreneurialism in the city.  The kinds of “cool” that Florida associates with the creative class are relative innovations in Accra – cafes, tea shops, cupcake stores, bistros, boutiques, and wine bars were difficult to find in Accra only 10 years ago.  Thus, Afropolitans simultaneously attract this culture and create it.  African Americans and second generation immigrants, who are now returning to Ghana from the US and Europe to escape increasing racial tensions in the West and to seize the new possibilities for growth in “developing” economies like Ghana, have taken up jobs in the expanding oil economy.  But some have also used their connections and cosmopolitan sensibilities to create new forms of urban culture that make Accra a more “comfortable” (i.e. Western) place to live and create new space for innovation, experimentation, creativity, and socialization.  Co-working spaces, tech/entrepreneurial hubs, media consulting firms, and social media outlets interact and overlap with new culinary spaces, arts venues, and fashion houses.  If this sounds a lot like the “new Detroit”, that’s because it is remarkably similar, complete with accusations of gentrification, exclusion, and inaccessibility.

If urban planning and development policies are aimed at addressing concerns about precarity, these recent developments seem to be an awkward and inadequate solution.  Cupcake stores, boutiques, art galleries, bistros, cafes and wine bars certainly attract the attention of the New York Times. And they do form the core of a growing and increasingly visible urban elite that are interconnected in exciting ways. And I would not deny that their presence makes Accra more comfortable for foreigners like myself who find familiarity in these institutions.  These spaces are certainly beautiful.  And the energy surrounding these activities is infectious.  But they are also inaccessible for the vast majority of Accra’s population.  The cost alone is often prohibitive – impossible, really – for many Accra residents.  But the cosmopolitanism of these spaces also makes them sites of dislocation and alienation for some, requiring new regimes of behavior and rules of engagement and dress.  Meanwhile, economic opportunities seem to be shrinking for the vast majority of Accra’s residents.  As the tech demands for wage labor employment increase, even those with college educations are finding it difficult to obtain good-paying full-time jobs.  Meanwhile, city’s population continues to increase due to natural population growth and rural-urban migration.  The “informal economy” continues to absorb many of these underemployed workers.  But, as my book illustrates, these forms of entrepreneurial economic activity no longer provide the same sorts of paths to prosperity that they did for a previous generation.  Oversaturated markets mean smaller profit margins for everyone.  People have long lived precarious lives and often not only survived but thrived through their ability to manage precarity and risk.  Today, however, their ability to “manage” seems undermined.

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People in Ghana notice these disjunctures.  In 2007, when Ghanaians endured extensive load-shedding amid electricity shortages in the lead-up to the celebration of Ghana’s 50th anniversary of independence, Ghanaians were simultaneously proud of their nation and critical of its leaders and their visions of the future.  In the midst of one blackout, we heard the students of Commonwealth Hall at the University of Ghana join in an ironic chant of “Ghana at 50” as a form of critique of the tone-deaf nature of national celebrations.  Many pointed to Malaysia, which achieved independence from British colonial rule in the same year and yet experienced much greater economic prosperity at its 50th anniversary.

This year, Ghanaians approach the 60th anniversary of independence in the immediate aftermath of a contentious presidential election in which debates about economic inequalities and inadequate development featured prominently.  The electricity problems have, in some ways, worsened.  Particularly in cities like Accra, economic development and expanded prosperity for some have resulted in increased demands on the electrical grid.  Frequent blackouts and load-shedding – nicknamed dumsor – provoked widespread protest in the city and inspired criticism of the former president, John Mahama.  The new president, Nana Akuffo Addo, has been criticized as a member of the national elite, disconnected from the concerns of the masses, too willing to embrace neoliberalism.  And, while the international media has been quick to pick up stories lauding Accra’s Afropolitan culture, local media has devoted much less attention and space/time to covering the changes.  Instead, the conversation has developed on social media, where individuals create community by connecting through events, experiences, and entrepreneurialism.  The Accra Goods Market creates pop-up markets for local culinary and fashion entrepreneurs, but the location shifts, requiring attention to the organization’s Facebook or Instagram accounts.  New designers create invitation-only sales and showings.  New people have emerged as “trend-makers” and “influencers”, using their social media following and marketing skills to direct new members of the community to targeted events, brands, and spaces.

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In the midst of these processes that seem to exacerbate income inequalities, there also seems to be a new creative working class emerging in the city, who move between these seemingly disconnected spheres.  They ride trotros and walk across a busy street to visit the ultra modern West Hills Mall.  They spend hours nursing relatively affordable iced teas, coffees, and smoothies, using their computers and charging their cell phones in generator-fueled air conditioned comfort.  Their modern style is crafted from carefully curated second-hand clothing/shoe/accessory purchases and locally-produced fashion.  They access the internet through ubiquitous mobile phones, carefully curating social media personas, which they seek to transform into careers or start-ups.  They create art and build cultural centers that provide new opportunities for young people in the poorest areas of the city.  They seek to address social and economic problems using local knowledge, appreciating local culture and economy.  They are often college educated, but they do not have the same kinds of economic resources and family connections as the city’s most elite populations.  They aspire to more and they make do with less.  They use their connections and communities and technologies to “make things happen”.

In October, some of my students were speaking with the founders of the Tumblr site/social media/podcast community Accra We Dey. Students were struck by the similarities between Joey and Nii’s concerns and the expressed concerns among American millennials – uncertain job markets and uncertain futures mean that young people have been forced to create their own paths to prosperity, using new technologies to invent jobs and create demand for their unique skills in social media marketing, computer programming, and global communications.  And yet, I noted, they seemed excited about the untapped potential and opportunity that this new and untested sphere provided – the same opportunity that seems to have generated well-documented anxiety among American millennials.  When I mentioned my surprise, Joey astutely observed that, when precarity has always been your reality, it doesn’t seem new; there’s nothing to be anxious about.  It just is.

These young people, it seems to me, sit at the intersection of these 2 seemingly contrasting understandings of urban life in the city – the city as precarious and the city as the site of luxury and creativity.  Their experiences highlight the history of precarity in Accra, as well as the real transformations of the urban present.  They imagine a possible future that bridges the gaps.

Will this make for a better Ghana?  I have no idea.  As app developers and entrepreneurial incubators in Accra will readily tell you, there have been lots of ideas, but few of them have taken off at any significant scale.  It’s easy to be critical and we should be rightly skeptical, but we should also be mindful of the ways in which young Ghanaians are reinterpreting and redeploying frameworks and theories like “new urbanism”, “the creative class” and “precarity” to create new visions that might yet defy our expectations.

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