Urban Green Space in Accra’s Informal Settlements: Slum Residents’ Perceptions

Urban Green Spaces (UGS) contribute to the functioning of a city´s urban (eco)system. With the rapid urban expansion and the emergence of new slums, Patrick Brandful Cobbinah and Michael Osei Asibey call to include the residents in protecting UGS.

Urban Green Space and the Affordable Cities Discourse

The impacts of rapid urbanisation and particularly slum growth threaten the environmental sustainability and conservation of UGS in Ghanaian cities. UGS generally connote natural or semi-natural areas within the city that are set aside for enjoyment and recreation or the protection of wildlife. They encompass open space, nature reserves, public parks, and urban forests. Due to their role in promoting health, social and economic wellbeing, and environmental quality, UGS remain a critical component in sustaining the functionality of the entire urban (eco)system. Accra – Ghana’s capital and largest city – is noted for major UGS including the 12-acre Efua Sutherland Children’s Park, and the Achimota Forest, which are two of the largest UGS in the city.

Despite their irrefutable significance within the city system, there has been a significant reduction in UGS in Accra over the past two decades. For example, as of 2014 only 0.4 per cent out of the total land area of 175,491 hectares constitutes UGS in Accra, Ghana’s capital. As a result, the major UGS are underutilized. Surprisingly, the Ghanaian President issued an Executive Instrument (E.I 144) effective May 1, 2022, declassifying portions (146.30 hectares) of the over hundred years old Achimota Forest Reserve, one of the largest urban green infrastructures in Accra, a non-forest reserve. The ecological injury the E.I inflicts on the over hundred-year-old revered ecologically secured and trusted Achimota Forest Reserve in Accra is worrisome. The reserve has already lost 27 per cent of its area to developers and will further lose another 41 to E.I 144 – the biggest loss in the history of the Achimota Forest Reserve. Currently, the original size of the Forest Reserve has been reduced from 495 hectares since the year 1927 to 214 hectares with E.I 144 in force in 2022, thereby posing an immediate threat to urban ecological security and integrity in Accra.

Generally, while it is widely reported in the global north that the positive impacts of UGS often translate into higher land and housing prices, it remains to be demonstrated in the city of Accra. This is because as the city is attracting investments, land rents and urban expansion increase, and slums emerge, but the protection of UGS seems to be a low priority as the enforcement of development controls is rather lax. In this case, the UGS–affordable cities discourse is challenged as the notion that positive impacts of UGS on housing values contributing to the gentrification process that frequently excludes the less favoured citizens is not occurring in Accra. Affordable cities discourse in the context of UGS in Accra is rather manifesting in the location, occupation, and habitation of less favoured citizens in areas broadly described as UGS, producing tensions between municipal authorities and slum residents.

Slum Emergence and Characteristics in Ghanaian Cities

Similar to other cities of the global south, slums in most Ghanaian cities develop at city fringes or less valued urban lands, which were once green areas including watersides, steep hills, dumping grounds, idle plots, old and/or abandoned industrial areas, and unused state lands. In some cases, slums are the result of the displacement of communities affected by natural disasters or forced eviction by the state. Residents often lack access to improved water and sanitation adequate and durable living space, parks, and secure tenure. Yet, by 2030 the slum population is estimated to increase to two billion people.

About 38 per cent of urban residents in Ghana live in slum housing characterised by deteriorating environmental conditions, and inadequate availability of social amenities and public spaces. These issues pose serious threats to urban planning and management of the urban landscape in many Ghanaian cities, specifically, Accra, where some of the largest slums are located – Old Fadama, Agbogbloshie, Glefe, Chemuna, Gbegbeyise and Avenor. Most of these slums experience frequent flood events and have been threatened with eviction or demolition by the respective municipal authorities. The growth of slums in Ghana generally reflects uncontrolled urbanisation rates, and the inability of current urban planning and management structures and resources to address all the overwhelming associated consequences, particularly, creating and improving access to parks, which is deemed crucial in promoting healthy living and improving the aesthetics and value of neighbourhoods.

Nature of UGS in Informal Settlements and Residents’ Perception Thereof

The growth of slums and their population in Ghanaian cities have adverse implications on the destruction of UGS despite their numerous positive contributions. One of the major challenges with slum expansion is the difficulty to control the rapid destruction and conversion of UGS to other uses, especially in major cities. In Accra, for example, low knowledge of the preservation of and poor attitudes toward UGS are cited as major factors in the rapid decline of UGS. The situation in slums is even worse considering that urban planning authorities neglect to promote environmental quality, improve access to basic community infrastructure and most importantly, protect UGS in such neighbourhoods.

Contrary to many claims that slum residents are ignorant about the significance of UGS, available evidence suggests otherwise. They have an understanding of the importance of UGS to improve the aesthetic beauty of the environment, minimise soil erosion and air pollution, and are used for social gathering purposes such as community activities. They hold the view that UGS need to be protected because of their contributions to the well-being and the urban environment. Below are some key perceptions of slum residents on UGS:

‘‘UGS make the environment look beautiful, protect our houses from being destroyed by strong winds and reduce soil erosion”

“UGS give us fresh air. … If the last tree dies, the last human also dies…meaning trees are important”

Moreover, residents in some of Accra’s informal settlements have formed community associations such as “keep-fit clubs” and youth groups that discuss among others, issues on UGS development and management. They are also concerned about the need to create, protect and restore depleted UGS, all aimed at improving access to UGS. This level of importance placed on UGS indicates that slum residents value the significance of UGS to the general urban landscape. They do know that UGS protect the environment from erosion, reduce the extent of air pollution in the urban area, enhance the aesthetics of the urban area, and acknowledge the need to develop and improve access to urban parks, particularly, in Accra’s informal communities.

In conclusion, despite the deteriorating conditions of UGS in Accra, residents in informal communities, particularly slums, understand the value of UGS and are willing to support their management. This is an opportunity for the municipal authorities to engage and co-design management strategies with residents of these communities to improve the image and functionality of UGS, especially in this period of rapid urbanisation in Accra.

Patrick Brandful Cobbinah
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    Michael Osei Asibey
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