Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The public space in Western Africa

Street in Accra Ghana. Photo by Stacey Passmore
As I´ve stated so many times, cultural values should always be present at the moment of designing a city, a town or even a small intervention. Of course we´d like to add open spaces, plazas, everywhere, and this is the last tendency of landscape urbanism, but in some places, like Western Africa, it wouldn´t be acceptable.
Here, some paragraphs from the excellent article by Stacey Passmore, for re:place Magazine, and the link below to read it in full:
Black Star Square, in Ghana. Photo by Stacey Passmore
¨Of the 163 public spaces included on the Project for Public Spaces’s list of “The World’s Best” only a single nomination is located on the African continent (Greenmarket Square in Capetown, South Africa). The other 162 parks, squares and plazas are European, North American and a handful are South or Central American. Is the absence of African pubic spaces on this list due to lack of recognition? Does this expose a European cultural proclivity for public space? Or perhaps there are not enough African public spaces that meet the standards of this review, which is a cultural standard in itself. At best, we must recognize that the details of African urbanism, such as public space and parks, are relatively un-discussed, and therefore may have an untold story.(...)
It would also be easy to make an assumption that the lack of public spaces is relative to the lack of resources. However, during urban design conversations with Ghanaians and Nigerians, it became clear to me that the discourse on the existence (or absence) of formal public spaces and urban parks often has an underlining cultural bias, and is specifically a doctrine of the Western town planning tradition. (...)
As we discussed public spaces further, my Ghanaian colleagues (urban planners, architects and engineers) argued that parks were not important in their culture, and that they were a feature brought by Europeans. They expressed concern that the open spaces would be taken over by kiosks and vendors, and also reminded me that activities like picnics on grassy lawns were more a British tradition than a Ghanaian one. As it became clear that Ghanaians had a different perspective on the role of open space and parks in their city, they recognized that special public spaces do exist, but that they were more informal than planned, like the Black Star Square. Thus, in spite of some opposition to the idea of formal public spaces, my West African friends do acknowledge social spaces and a places for common ground - and this is found in the streetscape.
Streets, though structurally different from parks or plazas, fulfill the same social need and become the ‘living tissue’ of West African placemaking. As sites for ceremonies such as funeral processions, masquerade, games and play, club meetings, and weddings, streets are equitable and accessible. Because many ceremonies and festivals are processions and take over the streets, it allows the whole community to participate (or at least observe), with crowds spilling and carrying the movement of the event. We saw informal spaces such as taxis parks, street kiosks, markets, beaches, and football pitches fulfilling the same use. The consistently high temperature also makes it very difficult to want to spend much time in a large un-shaded open area, thus trees are extremely powerful attractions that automatically create informal gathering spaces; the wide branches forming the space of an outdoor room. Larger conservation-style parks exist, but they are disjointed from daily life and are treated like sanctuaries, (Kakum or Mole in Ghana) functionally operating for tourists.¨

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