How a New Kind of “Modern” Urban Development Can Include Street Vendors

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Victoria Okoye

By Victoria Okoye, Urban Advocacy Specialist, WIEGO

In Accra, there exists a perpetual tension between the city’s street vendors and hawkers who hustle for a living on the city’s sidewalks and pavement, and the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), which seeks to limit and clear their activities from these public spaces. Nowhere is this tension more apparent than in the city’s centre, known as Accra Central. Here, thriving enterprise, industry and markets converge, creating a major hub that attracts an estimated 70 per cent of the city’s daily traffic - and, the AMA believes, street vendors, hawkers and traders only make an already overgrown congestion issue much worse.

Kiosks marked for removal by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly are a common sight across the city. Here on a sidewalk in Jamestown, empty kiosks painted in Ghana's national colors stand empty.

At the October 2015 City Lab Summit in London, the Mayor of Accra spoke about his attempt to clear the “chaotic mix of vehicular, pedestrian and market traffic” resulting from vendors’ encroachment from sidewalks onto the streets of Accra Central. After painting red-lined sidewalk boundaries and deploying AMA guards, the mayor reported that he had successfully limited vendors’ encroachment and cleared up the CBD. However, despite a history of harassment, confiscation of goods, evictions, arrests and demolitions of their structures, and even the more recent red lines, street vendors and hawkers continue to return to their places of work: the streets and the sidewalks on which they trade.

Accra strives to become a modern city—but Accra’s version of modernity has to be rooted in the dreams, needs and demands of its own citizens. This includes the street vendors and market traders (who together make up a substantial portion of the city’s sizeable informal economy) and the city’s residents who patronize them and these public spaces.

 For now, the tension between street stakeholders erupts in chaotic and often disorganized streets. But proper planning and considerations, rooted in citizen needs and demandscould support more vibrant streets that live up to their potential as shared resources. Here’s how:

City designers can recognize that popular patronage of street vending demonstrates demand for these services, and see the bottom-up tendency toward mixed-use development that blends a variety of activities at the accessible street level. Accra’s street vendors and hawkers capitalize on spaces easily accessible to pedestrians and commuters. They select locations with strong, steady pedestrian flows and slower levels of vehicle traffic to set up shop, becoming regular fixtures with their kiosks, stalls or stationary container shops in neighbourhoods along sidewalks, street corners and intersections, at busy trotro bus stops, taxi ranks and lorry parks, in front of offices, residences and commercial companies, under the shades of large trees, and in vacant lots and near public parks. To do this, they establish their own individual rental agreements with land owners or supervisors, negotiating usage of these spaces, and compensating owners before they set up shop. For example, in the busy central neighbourhood of Osu, James, a coconut seller and regular fixture at a busy T-junction along Oxford Street, says each day he makes about 50 Ghana Cedis (approximately US $13) per day and then pays the landowner 20 Ghana Cedis (US $5.25) per day as rent for selling from this space. In addition, James pays tolls to the AMA for the right to operate here.

At all of these and other locations, pedestrians and commuters patronize street vendors and hawkers and their goodspurchasing takeaway foods, phone recharge cards, household items, fruits and vegetables, and commercial retail. In an informal, bottom-up manner, these stakeholders’ activities contribute to a hybrid, mixed-use development pattern in the city. This is the same type of land use pattern that urban planners desire to create around the world alongside compact urban development, open streets with sidewalks, and strong urban transport systems to improve land use efficiency, reduce traffic congestion and transport costs, and to encourage more active and walkable streetscapes.

A street scene in Osu, where the street vendors commercial activity not only adds to the buzz of the area, they have helped define a neighborhood as both globally and locally commercial in character.

City officials can frame urban development in more citizen-centred narratives of how the city can serve and be used by its citizens. While the city government designs streets with transport flows in mind, Accra’s citizens use these public spaces for transport along with commercial, social, art and other community-creating activities. Citizens walk along sidewalks (when they exist) and bicycle along with cars on streets. They sit or stand at bus stops as they wait for the next trotro heading in the direction of their destination. They look for vendors selling phone cards, foods like candy, biscuits, roasted plantain, corn and yam and other small items to take along with them on their route. So, the city’s streets and sidewalks can incorporate this range of activities—as safe and open spaces for walking, standing, looking, waiting, sitting, cycling, socializing, buying and selling. More complete streets in the city could include not just the bare minimum of roads, but also sidewalks with clearly marked bus stops, trees and shade, seats, lighting and rubbish bins, bicycle lanes and clear and safe pedestrian crosswalks for connectivity.

Early morning at the busy intersection of Dzorwulu Junction, where a stationary street vendor sells donuts while a street hawker walks up and down the roadway selling pure water sachets.

City officials have to plan for the realities of street-based commerce, designing new solutions at the existing street level. The Accra Metropolitan Assembly plans for construction of new, large-scale markets as separated retail spaces for market vendors, but it is the city’s street personality that gives each part of the city a sense of place by supporting a unique mix of commercial activity at key junctions on commuters’ everyday routes. Street vendors are an integral part of each street’s character. So a more equitable street design strategy would balance the need for vendors to use public spaces and earn their livelihoods with the city government's need to ensure an organized, flowing network of streets and public spaces that support the social, cultural and economic life of its citizens.


Top photo: In Osu, coconut vendor James attends to pedestrian customers. 
All photos courtesy of Victoria Okoye

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