Lab Project

East Legon Past Forward

East Legon Past Forward is a project investigating the spatial, socio-cultural, and migratory characteristics of Abotsiman, one of the few remaining grown neighborhoods of East Legon, Accra, and the implications of urban transformation on it. Once surrounded by pastures and farmland, the shrinking settlement of Abotsiman is now bordered and the surrounding land overtaken by large single-family houses and gated communities, resulting in the type of urbanism that is now commonly associated with Accra’s upper-middle-class neighborhood of East Legon. Abotsiman is both the name of a place – a ‘rurban’ village – and of a community – a collection of families and boarders, a population of about 300 with a variety of migratory backgrounds. The mappings and texts collected here give a sense of narrative and detail to the urban discourse on Accra, from the vantage point of this community. 

A city with multiple centers and peripheries, Accra has districts with distinct histories and urban characters. East Legon is one of these districts, located neither in the center nor in the periphery of the larger metropolitan area. As such, urban districts like East Legon have not yet received much attention in urban studies, although they make up significant parts of the city and its transformational impetus. The scenario of Abotsiman (the village) in East Legon (the upper-middle- class neighborhood) is at once specific and at the same time representational of the processes and interrelationships occurring in Accra and other urban agglomerations on the African continent. It is one of many examples of how “[i]n recent years, even more than before, everyday urban life, with its shifting appropriations of public space, has taken on the dimension of an existential, but also deeply political, struggle for day to day survival.” 

The scenario of the Abotsiman community is characterized by a crisis regarding the negotiation of urbanization in Accra from the precarious perspective of a small community. Urban sprawl, gentrification, land speculation, planning and lack of planning, stark demographic inequalities and economic pressures, a lack of representation, and a lack of communal agency have led to shrinking possibilities for the Abotsiman community to develop their land in a way that would improve their livelihoods and build a future in the emerging East Legon. 

A variety of spaces in Abotsiman could be described as public or semi-public, all of which are in the process of disappearing. Starting from within the settlement, courtyards, niches, and pathways between buildings accommodate various activities and functions – social and otherwise. These spaces may be shared by a large family, several families, or the whole community. These interstitial urban spaces are cross-generational, multi-functional open rooms where leisure and domestic activities take place throughout the day. The porosity which these spaces generate within the urban fabric of Abotsiman also plays a vital role in the climatic comfort of the settlement, allowing air to circulate between buildings, vegetation to grow, and the creation of shaded outdoor space. Currently, these communal spaces are being threatened by the building of walls and the unsustainable densification of buildings, as land is sold off on the perimeter of Abotsiman and the community builds inwards, without having the means to densify vertically. 

Along Abotsi Street, the main tarred road that passes through the settlement, larger public spaces can be found. The zone between the road and buildings and the road itself can be described as a transitional public space with pedestrian traffic from the surroundings and within the community frequenting the commercial nodes along the road. Built shops, kiosks, and hawkers are patronized by members of the Abotsiman community as well as the surrounding single-family houses. The largest public space in Abotsiman is adjacent to the road and a historic adobe courtyard house – Kenkey House. This generous open space is shaded by old trees and has a cleared soil ground that allows diverse activities on different scales to take place. This space has so far escaped partitioning and sale. 

While not all the mappings or texts presented here have explicit political tones or conclusions, the tension between Abotsiman and its context can be felt throughout. Through meetings with individuals and groups in Abotsiman, and spending time there, the project team encountered a community with a proud history and assertiveness, but at the same time, a profound sense of threat and mistrust. 

Although the Abotsiman clan was the owner of the surrounding land, the community has not been able to prosper from past and present land sales. The economic hardship in the Abotsiman community and lack of coordination or trust within the leading family have led to uncoordinated land sales without sustainable provisions for the future of the community. This has led to community members migrating further outwards from the city, a decline in small-scale social and economic connections, and a waning sense of identity within the community. The physical and social manifestations of these developments are described in the projects collected here. 

The East Legon Past Forward project was initiated out of a concern for the future of Abotsiman by local architects Rosemary Orthner and Martin Orthner (OOA), who extended an invitation to the [applied] Foreign Affairs lab to collaborate on the subject. The team consisted of four students of architecture from the University of Applied Arts Vienna, three students of architecture from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and one student of international development from Lund University. The works presented here are the outcome of individual field research projects by the students that were developed with members of the Abotsiman community and reviewed by architects and other relevant persons in Accra. Several directions in which to continue the project and engagement with Abotsiman have been considered, to strengthen the community and support them in building a sustainable future for themselves in their city.