Accra, Ghana, MCI’s newest Millennium City, presents a unique set of challenges in its quest to attain the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. With a population of well over three million, Accra has had to deal with public sector challenges typical of many urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa, including finding solutions to the many pressing urban planning and development concerns affecting one of West Africa’s most important regional hubs.
This past spring, a group of Columbia University graduate students in planning, engineering, public health and public policy participated in a School of International and Public Affairs planning seminar, in order to learn more about this major West African city. Professor Elliott Sclar, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Urban Development, led the seminar, with support from Urban Design Lab Director Richard Plunz, Professor and Vice-Dean of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science Patricia Culligan, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation professor Kate Orff and MCI Co-Director Susan Blaustein.
Students learned about the city’s history of colonialism and economic development but focused mostly on the assets and challenges of modern Accra. Guest speakers included Princeton anthropologist Carolyn Rouse, University of Miami urban geographer Richard Grant and the Honorable Mayor of Accra himself, Mr. Alfred Vanderpuije.
Accra’s tremendous growth in recent years has largely resulted from an influx of people fleeing areas of environmental destruction and conflict, as well as those seeking greater economic opportunities. The city faces an array of urban development challenges, such as traffic congestion, water shortages and waste disposal, as well as improving access to public services, transport and jobs. Among the greatest challenges are issues regarding land use, including land ownership and claims of eminent domain.
Mayor Vanderpuije has tasked MCI and the Earth Institute with identifying solutions to address many of these problems. The work is concentrated in six of the city’s submetro districts: Ga Machie, a coastal area originally colonized by the British now facing severe infrastructure deficits but with immense tourism potential, together with the contiguous coastal neighborhoods of Chorkor and Chemuna, and Nima, a sprawling, densely populated informal settlement with no access by emergency vehicles, along with the adjacent areas of Mamobi and New Town. The Earth Institute team will work on the challenges facing each neighborhood together with faculty and graduate student colleagues from the University of Ghana at Legon, as well as with other agency and NGO partners who have become experts on aspects of these very problems through their own important work.
Students participating in last semester’s Accra seminar had the opportunity to delve into the issues and begin to identify possible solutions to many of the challenges facing Ghana’s vibrant capital. Their term projects contributed to the body of research the Earth Institute is amassing on waste-to-energy options, gender equality, access to health care, clean water and urban transport. These papers will be shared with MCI’s partners and will assist the MCI/Earth Institute team in its work with government and community stakeholders to meet the city’s challenges.
As a follow-up to the spring seminar, a number of graduate students are currently in Accra for the summer, working closely with local officials and NGOs to conduct research and identify possible solutions to some of these same pressing issues. The students’ and the Accra planning seminar’s contributions will play a significant role in our collective efforts to help the people of Accra achieve the Millennium Development Goals.