FUTURE CAPE TOWN | From Accra to Cape Town: A conversation with urbanist Victoria Okoye

“…these can be colourful, socially strong, culturally rich places, even in the face of economic challenges.”

Jamestown High Street_Chale Wote (Victoria Okoye)Rashiq Fataar speaks with Victoria Okoye, the creator of African Urbanism, on the themes that connect her home city Accra and Cape Town.

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Victoria Okoye is an urban planner, writer and the creator of African Urbanism, an online initiative to document dynamic urban development in West Africa, and an offline initiative to engage communities in urban improvements. Rashiq Fataar and our Young Urbanists met with her during a recent visit to Cape Town.

Rashiq Fataar : I realise you have only spent a few days in Cape Town but I am still tempted to ask: What are your initial thoughts on Cape Town?

Victoria Okoye: I’m always interested in the history of cities and spaces, so that was foremost for me during my visit to Cape Town – as part of my attempt to learn about and appreciate the city in an appropriate context. Accra and Cape Town are so different in terms of their specific indigenous, colonial, political and socioeconomic histories, but they also share some deep similarities. In my short time in the city, I had some very enlightening conversations about Cape Town’s contrasts as a world class, creative city on the one hand, but then its racial and class exclusions on the other. Accra faces something similar.

RF: Any particular neighbourhoods or communities that shaped your experiences here?

VO: I visited Langa and Gugulethu townships and I wanted to explore the extent to which the history I had learned matched the reality of the experience; I also wanted to learn about the structure of social relationships there, and the impact of some upgrading programs. I learned about residents’ enduring social connections and vibrancy, which reminded me of Jamestown in Accra although spatially Jamestown looks completely different. It shows us how people create space, and these can be colourful, socially strong, culturally rich places, even in the face of economic challenges.

Jamestown High Street (Victoria Okoye)

RF: What are your immediate thoughts around the topics and themes that Accra and Cape Town could have valuable dialogue about  – especially where the learning is both ways.

VO: When it comes to urban planning, urban development and urbanism topics, African cities so frequently look outside — to Latin American and European models of sustainable transport solutions, for example — rather than looking to each other for relevant models of innovation, efficiency and improvement. So, this is a great question. Cape Town provides an example of how a city like Accra could leverage its own cultural, artistic and tourism potential as a viable economic force. Through the promotion of arts in public spaces, historic tourism locations, design and culture, Cape Town is a tourism destination, and Accra could learn much about how to do that by supporting the creative talent of its residents on a much larger scale. On the other hand, a common challenge or missed opportunity for both cities is the undervalued and often marginalized contributions of the informal economy to the wider urban economy. This is something that Accra, a city where an estimated 60 percent work (in some form) as part of the informal economy, struggles with. It’s at a different scale and workings in Cape Town, I learned.

RF: Which projects in Accra are dominating the discussion in terms of how contentious or problematic they are?
VO: The city’s development itself is quite fragmented; it’s not always clear who this city is for, and who aims to benefit from certain fast-tracked development projects (residents, tourists or businesses, for example). The result is that there are quite a few “faces” of Accra.hope-city
I think one of the recurring challenges are “flashy” projects in the city that are in discordance with the realities, needs and desires of the majority of the populace. In general, it’s an investment in the aesthetics of a city without addressing the real, underlying economic, social and political issues that inform that aesthetic. Before, there were various satellite city projects. The launched (now, seemingly stalled) Hope City, a $10 billion tech hub project planned as an economic driver in the outskirts of Accra, is another perfect example: It was envisioned as a luxury office and tech park development, replete with six state-of-the-art office buildings, commercial shopping, all set in what would be the country’s highest building (75 floors). It’s hard to imagine the government’s priorities when it supports such a large huge investment in this property development when the country’s currency was flagging, power and water outages were increasing and amidst a continued housing shortage.

RF: The informal economy seems like an ongoing struggle for many cities in Africa. It is so important and yet barely finds its way onto the agenda.

VO: I think planners, policymakers and designers in many African cities still need to address the question of how to best integrate informal economy contributions into an inclusive urban development agenda — and how to harness these activities to drive cities forward. In both our cities, I think the most obvious example is market and street vendors. There’s a big paradigm shift that’s needed; it requires moving away from a very divisive stance of clamping down on informal workers’ activities and recognizing the extent to which their activities are linked to the formal economy and moving toward an appreciation and desire to plan for it as part of the urban landscape (for example, as part of a vibrant mixed-use development program to support more walkable, accessible cities). So, conversations about how cities could move this forward are needed.

RF: When we met we discussed how young people could be more instrumental in sharing a more “holistic” or “layered” view of a city, beyond that which is currently dominating academic literature and essays. What could you and I bring to the table about our cities, that adds a different dimension, or perhaps interprets the challenges of our cities with an eye on the future.

VO: I think it’s important to engage a range of voices, including but not limited to young people, on the discourse of our cities. And finding ways to tap into and share those voices is key. I’m passionate about using the tools of journalism and urban planning to document urban issues and engage stakeholders on their visions of the city.

RF: Absolutely, and we are doing this through creating platforms too.

VO: Yes,  I think it’s also about creating our own platforms through which we can voice our perspectives — and creating connections between these platforms so that we are also learning and sharing with one another. That’s a role that we can play — creating and supporting platforms in our respective locales to broaden the discussion on our cities, and to impact the development and evolution of our cities moving forward.

RF: If visitors were to stop over in Accra, which 3 or 4 projects or communities should they visit to get a sense of where urbanism or the urban development of the city is moving? 
VO: Accra’s moving in a lot of different directions at the same time, in terms of its urban development, so I would suggest exploring the city’s contrasts.  I’ll highlight a few that I think people should visit to get a sense of where Accra has been and is going:
1. Jamestown, Old Accra
I’ve been exploring and writing on this historic district in the city, thanks to continuing opportunities to participate in the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, an annual event that brings international and local artists together in celebration of art, music, performance and other creative endeavors in this two-day community-inspired event. 
Jamestown Brazil House Graffiti (Victoria Okoye)
Anyone visiting Jamestown should connect with Jamestown Walking Tours , for an exploration guided by community residents on the history and cultural significance of this space. 
2. Oxford Street, Osu
Oxford Street has sort of become Accra’s main “downtown” area — although Osu itself is historically a traditional Ga district, the main thoroughfare of Cantonments Road (known colloquially as Oxford Street) has evolved into an area attracting locals and expats alike with a huge selection of bars and restaurants, commercial and social activities. Osu’s becoming this built-up, high-density core that actually encourages massive mixed-use development and walkability. Along the street you have multi-story commercial and office buildings sandwiched next to restaurants and apartments, and myriad informal street vendors, along the streetscape. 
3. Airport City
There’s also a number of sites of high-end development in Accra, mostly out of demand (or, perhaps anticipation of demand) of the city’s expatriate and affluent classes. The city’s “local” central business district is still Old Accra (where Makola, Tudu and Kantomanto markets as well as the government ministry buildings exist) proximal to Jamestown.


  1. Image courtesy of Tech Talk Africa