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Sunday, June 14, 2009

III: Design of a Good City – Creating a 21st Century City in Africa (and bringing about Social Reform).

The design of a good city is closely linked to the social life of its citizens; “The way we build affects the way we live.” In this last article of the “Good City Series,” I will attempt to outline what I believe to be the basic steps a developing country needs to take in becoming a better city for a good life.

Three simple letters define a much larger problem in many African cities – GPS (Global Positioning System). From my personal experience in Accra, a GPS system in a car is about as useless as a snow making machine is to an Eskimo. Streets have no names and can barely be defined as a proper means of automobile travel, some neighborhoods are actual fields of aluminum sheds with no discernible urban pattern or addresses, and this is in the capital city of Ghana, Accra. Socially, this means that there is absolutely no accountability for one’s actions which breeds a culture of corruption, all because of a poor urban infrastructure.

Here are a couple of scenarios to explain what I mean:

1. A car runs a red light in a developed country. A camera mounted on the light takes a picture of the car’s license plate. The license plate is linked to a registration which provides the culprits’ name and address. A week later, the culprit receives a ticket for the violation in the mail.

2. A person on a bike grabs a lady’s purse on the street. A chase ensues and the person drops the bike and jumps a fence. The bike is retrieved. The police scan the barcode on the bike and find out where the bike was purchased. The police take the bike to the store and the store determines when the bike was purchased and exactly when it was scanned through the register. It was paid for by a credit card, and the name of the owner is provided, which gives the police the address of a possible suspect.

Why are these scenarios important? Because a person who runs a red light in Accra simply keeps going without any repercussions. Even if a police officer is close by and pulls you over, there is no address to mail a ticket if the summons is not paid. That means the officer is supposed to escort the culprit to jail until the fine is paid. What usually happens is the officer gets paid and the culprit leaves. In the second scenario, sorry ma’am, but your purse is gone forever. Hope there was nothing important in the purse and you like the bike left behind.

How does the Design of a Good City bring about social reform while updating a city to 21st century standards? Here are my basic steps for improving the urban infrastructure of any city in a developing country.

Step #1: Record the existing infrastructure.
Survey the current existing infrastructure and document everything electronically (CAD).


Step #2: Honor your past.
After the initial survey is completed, every “street” should be given a name. This gives a country an opportunity to honor its past by dedicating streets in the name of past (and present) people of significance. (Sometimes simply using numbers and letters for street names can be an easier solution. eg. NYC) Once every street has a name, every building needs a number. (Street name + building number = building address).

Step #3: Quadrants/ Townships.
Take a look at the overall city plan (with its named streets and numbered housing) and divide the city into smaller townships or quadrants. This system allows for every quadrant to have all the components of a city at a smaller scale, creating multiple centers for the city and eliminating the problems of cities with single centers.

Step #4: Master Plan.
Create new roads/ streets where needed. Plan out new building sites and renovations to existing structures of use.

Step #5: New Building Types.
Invent new building types to support the current lifestyle of the city. What Accra and most African cities sorely lack are mixed-use building types. Too often people put aluminum containers in front of their homes and turn them into shops. There cities are divided according to use creating residential and commercial zones. By creating mixed-use building types, we begin to alleviate the problems created by improper zoning outlined in the previous articles.

Step #6: Public Spaces.
Create usable public spaces for multiple uses. The idea of a public space in Ghana is a formal open space with a singular use such as Independence Square. It is a great space but also a waste of space and not defined by anything. Public spaces need to have multiple uses and should be defined by buildings. Look at European precedents.

Step #7: Love your City and take pride in it!
“Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her!” G.K. Chesterton. The same can be said for any city considered to be “great” such as Paris, London, New York, etc. We must take pride in where we live and love where we live in order to make it a great place. That means not throwing trash wherever we see fit, not making our entire city a public restroom, and holding ourselves accountable for the maintenance and upkeep of our buildings, while holding our leaders accountable for the public buildings and streets.

If these 7 basic steps are followed, I am very sure we will see a wonderful improvement in the urban infrastructure of African cities. The social reform will follow when everyone is held accountable for their actions because we can now trace people to a physical location (address) and make them pay for any transgressions. This will lower the corruption and hopefully create a better sense of community. Through the planning of a city with multiple centers, crowds will become less of an issue, traffic will be more efficient and pedestrians will become a priority again.

I look forward to reading what people have to say about these comments. I am quite sure there may be other valid points to add and possibly some amendments to be made, but please keep the bigger picture in mind. The goal of this blog is to come up with solutions to resolve the current state of our African cities. While it is quite easy to read and tear apart what someone else has taken time to research and write, I would suggest that our time will be better served to come up with solutions for whatever we may disagree with. Thanks for taking the time to read my writings and I humbly look forward to reading your comments and suggestions.