Strengthening from Within:
Building Community in Accra, Ghana

In 2012, KPF partnered with the Millennium Cities Initiative, a project of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, to analyze housing issues and design prototypes for housing improvements in Ga Mashie,1 an urban slum in Accra, Ghana.

Note 01

Ga Mashie is also known as the regions of Jamestown and Usshertown

If the architectural analysis completed in this slum area were to be implemented, it could open Accra to greater economic and social benefit. For the community, the attention that such a project would bring would increase the overall consideration of the region. Yet, for the architects at KPF, such a project was not an obvious addition to their already robust practice. Taking on the Accra project would not produce financial revenue, but in two years’ time, the Ghana pro-bono work, which examined basic infrastructural services, has become one of the office’s most esteemed projects. The bottom line was redrawn to reflect the importance of investing in three futures: that of the people of Ga Mashie, the future of slum housing, and the influence of architectural thinking.2

Note 02

For centuries architecture was relegated to special buildings—cathedrals, office buildings, skyscrapers. Many people assume that that was architecture, everything else is building. And what we seen is that we can create designs for the masses, designs that inspire, delight and bring joy to uplift people and uplift the soul. All the power of architecture could be made to reach everybody.’

Ghana, and its city of Accra, are densifying and expanding exponentially. Once a 16th century European trading outpost, today Accra is considered the gateway city to West Africa. In the past decade, substantial oil reserves were discovered in the Gulf of Guinea off of Accra’s coast, and there is significant foreign interest to develop the fledgling industry. There is much concern that most Ghanaians may not benefit from these oil discoveries. Many experts (foreign and Ghanaian) anticipate most of the profit will go into the pockets of a few. However, the discovery and extraction of oil contributes substantially to Ghana’s GDP, and is predicted to do so for several years into the future. The effects of this international industry plus very high population growth, have brought an estimated four million people to live in the city, and another 500,000 daily commuters.3

Note 03

Franca Hoffman, Accra Invaded

Ga Mashie, a neighborhood in the original settled part of the city, sits only one kilometer from the city’s significant urban districts, including Accra’s financial center, national law courts, cultural institutions and civic places on the Gulf of Guinea coastline. In addition to its placement on some of the most economically and socially valuable land, Ga Mashie is the ancestral homeland for the Ga tribe, whose population is one of the largest in Accra.

Ghana is located on Africa’s west coast, directly north of the Gulf of Guinea.

In spite of Ga Mashie’s cultural and geographic signification, the area has become a dense urban slum over the past several decades.4 Though the population density of Ga Mashie has grown to 25 times that of Accra’s average, new development in Ga Mashie is almost non-existent. One contributing factor is the complicated system of land ownership. In Ga Mashie, much of the land is owned by the Ga Paramount Chief (tribal leader), who operates a legal, but parallel, system to the democratic government of Accra. Few families have legal title to the land on which they live, and little ability to change the properties they currently rent or inhabit.5 While local organizations are assisting families in gaining titles to the land they occupy, this process is slow and land ownership tenure unclear.

Another factor exacerbating the difficulties, is the unplanned nature of the district. While Ga Mashie was once carefully laid out, today the vestiges of that plan are hard to discern. Very high levels of population growth led to uncontrolled infill development (within the larger block), which is irregular in position and size. There are a number of pedestrian paths that penetrate the block interior, but most are narrow and hard to navigate, confusing the distinction between private and public, street (fast) and courtyards (slow), and generating more disorder amidst the deteriorating, poorly constructed housing stock.

Notes 04 & 05

A devastating earthquake in 1939 damaged a significant number of buildings and few were rebuilt formally. The port was relocated to a town outside of the city, taking with it a traditional source of jobs for many Ga Mashie residents. General disinvestment in housing stock and poor infrastructure systems compromise the livability of the neighborhood.According to research conducted by Columbia University, the ambiguous system of land ownership might be one of the reasons external real estate interests have been unrealized in Ga Mashie. While not a simple task, clarification of land titles could help the local population gain from their profitable lands.
L: Site visit, photo of Ga Mashie, 2012. R: Accra, aerial photo showing city’s dense urban fabric.

These informal streets also lack names, which makes it nearly impossible for navigation, especially when planning new services. In a city of anonymous streets, how do you know who lives where? How can you plan sanitation or waste disposal routes without a map? Unnamed streets are administratively invisible, preventing local authorities from taxing property, further diminishing the resources available for improvements6.

Note 06

Anny Osabutey: Where the streets now have names

Because many of Accra’s most congested areas were never planned or prepared for inhabitation, residences were built on properties “unwired” for basic infrastructures (plumbing, sewage, power). Many homes lack piped water and indoor plumbing and over-served, exposed sewage drains are clogged easily, making sanitation a critical issue. With households often having more than 45 people living together, the need for more and better housing, commercial space (to support informal businesses), and basic infrastructure is extremely pressing.

Refuse collects on water’s edge in Lavender Hill area. (Photograph: Linda Strande)

In her article about housing in Accra, journalist Sharon Benzoni describes theconditions of many residents:

“Most of the time, especially on Sundays, families stay outdoors, where there’s more elbow room. At night, the streets of Ga Mashie are sardined with slumbering bodies—one 2010 study by CHF found nearly 3,000 people sleeping outside in an area less than one-fifth of a square kilometer.”7

During rainy nights, thousands crowd back into already crowded interiors. Benzoni reports that, “in the most crowded areas, where there’s literally not enough space for everyone to lie down simultaneously, people sleep in shifts.”8

In addition to poor housing stock and infrastructure, extreme environmental degradation plagues Ga Mashie’s lands. A municipal waste treatment facility, built in 2000 at a cost of $22 million on Korle Lagoon (a natural depression at the neighborhood’s western edge), quickly fell into disrepair after its construction and is no longer able to process any of the city’s waste.9

L: Lavender Hill, informal sewage canal where human waste is directly released into the open sea. (Photograph: Linda Strande) R: Outdated public toilets, Accra. (Photograph: by Linda Strande)

Consequently, Accra has cultivated a mountainous open air sewer: nicknamed “Lavender Hill,’10 this sewage dune and adjacent “lagoon” are among the most polluted on earth, as they have become the receptacle for all of Accra’s human and industrial waste.

Also on the beach are informal dumps for the city’s garbage.11 Foul odors leach into the surrounding gulf, as boaters steer away from the sludge.

Increasing urban density, lack of sufficient shelter, and uncertain land ownership are factors that complicate potential development. To address the multitude of pressures, the KPF team (composed of architects Jamie von Klemperer and Bruce Fisher, with planner Jen Pehr) proposed several new block layout strategies.

This new type of block, a defined unit of urban development, would create a rationale for infrastructure planning by increasing access and open space, and boosting land use efficiency. The main design strategy for the proposed Ga Mashie housing block would aggregate select properties from smaller, fragmented ones. The resultant properties would facilitate the construction of larger buildings, made for multi-family occupancy, which would provide more space for residents. Without the creation of these larger, aggregated blocks, the pattern of housing development would not change, but instead accelerate according to the piecemeal, under planned, overcrowded disarray of the slum.

Above: A new design for Ga Mashie would open intersections to accommodate pedestrian and vehicular traffic, while encouraging traditional commercial and cultural activities.Below: While each proposed home would be unique, these three cutaway views show how the homes would be organized: shared courtyards below, with more private chambers above. The collective housing would be passively ventilated, through the careful modulations of the lifted roof.

The KPF team used a number of methods to learn about and study Ga Mashie.12 Based on their findings, the team created a design that blends traditional housing and social structures, with global living standards.

Overall, the design priorities focused on increasing height and density, strategies that would achieve the simple—but very difficult—objective of providing more viable square footage for a living and working.13 Not radical by any means, the newly designed housing units would also provide wider alleyways and increased open spaces at the ground level. Seemingly minor tweaks and adjustments would have far reaching repercussions by creating a larger variety of living and working spaces that could provide residents with more per person space, better privacy, and a far higher level of comfort.

Note 12 & 13

This included: several site visits; meetings with residents, chiefs, NGOs, community organizers, people from Ga Mashie currently living in the United States, Ghanaian architects and local politicians; GIS surveys; measured drawings; questionnaires; and consultations with experts in a range of fields.Homes are designed to be two to four stories, with occasional five-story structures marking key places along main streets. The ground floor level includes retail space for income-generating activities, family and commercial kitchens and private living spaces for elderly and disabled household members. The bulk of private living spaces are located in the upper levels of the home and include additional kitchen and food preparation areas, bedrooms, bathrooms and private living spaces. Roofs are lifted +/- 2.1 meters to increase airflow and natural ventilation throughout the home and utilize the area below the roof. Here, outdoor living, utility and sleeping spaces are provided.

KPF’s strategy created both indoor and outdoor spaces that answered the unique habitation pattern of Ga Mashie’s residents.14 There is an extremely strong emphasis on social networks and social activities: large extended families absorb new family members as they leave their villages and move to the city; people watch televisions in informal squares; small marketplaces provide shopping for all food and household goods; funerals are the social event of the week. In this setting, the architectural solution didn’t try to change these large networks. Instead, the architectural ambition was to create a place for such networks to thrive.

Note 14

Indoor areas include: private living space for families; kitchens; indoor toilets; and communal living spaces. Outdoor areas include: communal living spaces and courtyards.

Another part of KPF’s architecture work for Ga Mashie never materialized in the building’s design. Yet, this component—one that considered the financing—made a strong impression on the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (the local governing body and client), and represented an intriguing aspect of KPF’s thinking.

Since investment in basic infrastructure and housing is expensive, any improvement requires additional capital. Where does this money come from?

KPF’s proposal was to link the monetization of nearby coastal land to redevelopment in the slums of Ga Mashie. Suitable areas along the coast would be developed for market-rate residential, commercial and cultural uses. Funds generated from this coastal development would fund the construction of infrastructure and housing within Ga Mashie, as well as support the development of more affordable (below market-rate) housing along the coast.

Ga Mashie, proposed masterplan overview.

Such a plan leverages the inherent value of untapped coastal land, linking its value back to help subsidize the costly development of neighborhood-scale infrastructure. This same development would provide incentives for the environmental remediation of toxic areas through the cleanup of beaches, reestablishing currently unused coastal areas as places of traditional activities, such as fishing, and locating resources, such as salt and firewood.15 The initiation of costal redevelopment would also help to increase tourism, taking advantage of Ghana’s wonderful beaches and landmarks like Elmina castle, the oldest European building in Africa, which is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site as part of the Atlantic slave trade.

This vision of development along Ga Mashie’s coastline would increase real estate value, ensuring that Ga Mashie’s urban and coastal areas realize their full potential and avoid further deterioration.16

KPF has identified over 500,000 square meters of land along Korle Lagoon and the Ga Mashie coast for redevelopment. Within these areas, a variety of infill structures and design proposals would bring in needed amenities (for Ga Mashie residents), as well as market-rate housing and commercial development for the entire city of Accra. For Ussher and James Forts, the architectural proposal connects these historic areas to Accra’s ‘Cultural Ribbon’ along the waterfront. With more activities happening along the coast, the community and the former port area will become relinked, and subsequently forge a connection to Accra’s Central Business District, and the city as a whole.

Note 15 & 16

Robert Bourgoing, Ghana: The Nightmare LagoonsSuch development helps provide needed housing for Ga Mashie residents, accommodate market-rate housing for the middle-class and ex-pat markets, and reconnect Ga Mashie with Accra’s central city functions.
Elmina Castle, Ghana coast.

Implementationof the Ga Mashie Housing and Coastal Master Plan faces a number of genuinechallenges. The remediation of Korle Lagoon, cleaning up Lavender Hill, andrepairing the city’s broken municipal waste treatment facility areprerequisites for successful development along the coast. Yet sanitation issuesin Accra and Ga Mashie remain large (the city spends approximately seventypercent of its budget on sanitation, with poor results), and the prospect offixing the municipal waste facility seems remote in the short term.

There is great potential for improved living standards in Ga Mashie; yet the reality of transforming the social, economic and urban structures that impact the neighborhood remain challenging. Local community members face a range of daily trials, from finding work to accessing safe water and sanitation.

More important than the delivery of a conceptual housing design and master plan for coastal development, is the understanding that Ga Mashie’s land has intrinsic value, historically and socially for the Ga people as well as for Ghanaians and West Africans at large. Connecting the rehabilitation and revitalization of these ravaged areas with architectural solutions is not just about the design of singular buildings, it is the thinking through of a whole series of concerns and pressures to devise comprehensive solutions that are physical, financial, cultural, and social.