ACCRA, Ghana — Without street addresses, how can a city function?
Most city streets in Ghana — as in many parts of the developing world — have no names, or at least no formal names that are widely accepted and publicly marked with signs. To identify buildings, people use landmarks. Make a right at the mango tree next to the uncompleted building, and look for the petty trader selling on table top. He'll tell you where to go.
There are some obvious problems with this system. The tree may have been cut down. The trader may be away from his usual spot. Accra and other Ghanaian cities are growing so fast that even locals can easily get lost amid the new settlements. Urban navigation is even harder for visitors and tourists.
But wayfinding problems are just the beginning. In a city with no addresses, it’s difficult for local authorities to tax property. And without tax revenues, it's difficult to upgrade infrastructure and services in the slums that are home to half of Ghana's urban population. Delivering emergency services in a city with no addresses is a particularly serious problem. The moment your house is burning down is no time to hope that firefighters can find the right mango tree.
To fix these problems, Ghana is on a national quest to name its city streets. About a year ago, President John Mahama issued an ultimatum to municipal assemblies across the country to name their streets within 18 months. The effort is backed by several international aid agencies.
Since then, thousands of conversations and more than a few arguments have broken out as neighbors come together to decide what to call the road they live on. Local planners have been facilitating these conversations. Street by street, they're logging the new names into geographic information systems and producing new maps. In some places, road signs have begun going up.
It's an exercise that fast-growing cities across Africa, Southeast Asia and elsewhere can learn from. According to Catherine Farvacque-Vitkovic, a lead urban development specialist at the World Bank and co-author of a book on street addressing, about half of the world's urban dwellers live on streets that have no names. Her book includes case studies from Guinea, Mauritania, Niger and other countries. "It's a very broad problem," she says.
But Farvacque-Vitkovic is quick to point out that giving names to streets is only a means to an end. The real problem cities are trying to solve is service delivery. When properties have actual addresses and those addresses reside in databases, all kinds of things become possible. Solid waste pickups can be routed more efficiently. Road maintenance can be done more systematically. And cities can manage their inventories of public buildings and land more effectively.
"You have to remember the various applications you can do with street addressing," Farvacque-Vitkovic says. "To me, this is what’s most interesting about street addressing. Not what it is, but what you can do with it."
In Accra, the effort to name streets is not new. Major thoroughfares such as High Street and Ring Road are well known by their names. There's even a George Walker Bush Highway named after the former U.S. President who delivered financial aid that helped pay for the road. A pilot project from 2005 to 2009 got some additional streets in the capital named, but the funding for it dried up.
Since Mahama’s directive, street naming has picked up again in Accra. The effort falls to the municipal government’s Town and Country Planning Department. The project’s focal person is Ernestina Clottey, a soft-spoken woman in her early 30s. Clottey is well aware that picking a street name can get political very fast. That's especially true in a densely populated urban setting where indigenous people live alongside recently arrived migrants and tensions already exist between the local families and chiefs who control much of the land.
"It's important we get things right," Clottey says, "and avoid a situation where people will rise up and resist should the final work be put out."
An early test came in an area known as Ashiedu Keteke, one of Accra's 11 "sub-metro" areas. Ashiedu Keteke borders Accra's central business district on one side and the Gulf of Guinea on another. It also includes Ga Mashie, the historic heart of Accra during the colonial era and now one of the city’s most impoverished areas. Fishing is the main source of employment, and families live in tiny wooden shacks with rusty corrugated metal roofs.
Clottey began by holding a series of community meetings where residents could submit street names. She also consulted with local chiefs and opinion leaders. Clottey encouraged them to offer names based on prominent landmarks or historical figures — and to avoid proposing names of living people who might stir controversy. "We asked them to provide us with names of prominent chiefs or persons now deceased but who contributed to the area’s development," she says.
She points to the newly named Salaga Market Street as an example. Salaga is a small town in the north of Ghana, known historically as a trading area and the one-time site of a busy slave market. "If you look at Salaga Market, we spoke with most of the residents," Clottey says. "They narrated a close association with the people of Salaga and the trading activities that existed between them."
'Nobody Seems to Care'
Assana Adjetey, 32, lives on Salaga Market Street and is skeptical of the street naming exercise. A single mother with three young children, she sells cooked rice with tomato stew for a living on the street. With her nicely permed hair locked in a blue scarf, Adjetey says the road is often choked with illegal structures and filth.
Like many Ghanaians, Adjetey has little faith in the ability of local authorities to deliver effective services or spend money wisely. To her, the idea of naming streets as a means to raising more tax revenue sounds like a bad deal.
"Look at this particular thing," Adjetey says, pointing to garbage gathered close to an open drain. "It has been here for more than three days and nobody seems to care."
"We pay daily toll (a tax) to the metropolitan authorities, and yet nothing new has been done for us."
Adjetey was one of several community members who attended the forums on street names. She recalls a situation where a name of a Chief Fisherman was proposed for a street. When the name was to be posted on the street as part of a pilot project, some youths in the area mobilized and threatened to take it down.
"It was a clear sign we had to step up our outreach and community discussions," she says. "Especially when you consider the chieftaincy conflicts that had existed in this area among some of the families, and how suspicious they have become of one another."
Long Road to Termite Alley
Despite the occasional disputes, much progress has been made. In Accra, more than 4,000 streets have been identified and named. Electronic maps have been produced, and street names that already existed have been inventoried. More names need to be collated and stakeholder meetings need to be held. In the coming months, street signs will be mounted.
Sekondi-Takoradi, a booming oil center a few hours west of Accra, is even farther along. The initiative there, which comes under the IncluCity Project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and preceded President Mahama's directive, has served as something of a national test case to inform efforts in other cities. There, 3,440 streets and alleys have been given names, including such colorful entries as Termite Alley, Galaxy Street and Jerk Close. Some 42,000 properties have been given address numbers and property valuations. All of the data has been encoded and put into a geographic information system for property tax and business licensing purposes. Street names have been stenciled in ink on the sides of buildings as permanent signs are put up.
Global Communities, a U.S.-based nonprofit, is working with local authorities on the Sekondi-Takoradi project. Importantly, the effort linked street addressing to a survey of public attitudes about the adequacy of municipal services called a "citizen's report card." Ishmael Adams, IncluCity project director with Global Communities in Ghana, says this gives residents a tool to hold local officials accountable on how they spend the new revenue that will result from street addressing. "Through that," he says, "they can demand improvements in those services."
Recently, President Mahama reiterated his commitment to the street naming goal and said the September deadline will be met. Some people can’t wait for that moment to arrive. Oforiwa MacCarthy (left) is one of them. MacCarthy is a public relations consultant who moved back to Ghana from London a year ago. She recalls getting lost recently while trying to drive from Accra to a suburb.
"This was the directions given me: When you get to American House, drive straight and go 'round the roundabout. Drive straight ‘til you see a blue sign board advertising a church. Turn right at the junction and drive straight ‘til you get to a T-junction." She described the experience as one of the most torturous experiences she’s had to endure.
MacCarthy says having addresses will be good for businesses. Finally, it will be easy to find them. "It will not only help in my navigation around Accra, but also help many businesses put themselves on the map," she says. "So, not only good for Oforiwa but the economy in the long term."
A newly named street in Accra. Ghana is on a national quest to name all of its city streets. Photo by Anny Osabutey.
This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.