Johannesburg and Accra: two very different versions of a contemporary African city

Johannesburg in 2009. Image: Getty.

Like it or not, we measure the success – or failure – of cities according to broad principles of urban culture inherited largely from the west. This includes quantitative data: infrastructure, transportation, access to health care, education, amenities and so on. Harder to measure, but no less important, are “other” factors like a sense of belonging, community, identity and history. The Conversation

What makes a good city? Or what makes a city “good”, as opposed to “bad”? In the past 30 years or so, measuring urban success has become an industry in its own right. There are a host of companies willing to answer that question. They use a mixture of factors that include political stability, economic performance, environmental issues, safety and security, transportation and public services. Add to it more nuanced indices like inclusion, diversity, multiculturalism and choice.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in 2017, European cities dominated the top 20, with Singapore, Tokyo, Melbourne and Auckland also in the mix. African cities are always in the bottom quartile of every survey, from Mercer’s Quality of Life Index (QoL) to the UN’s World Cities Report. Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Louis and Durban are the continent’s highest-ranked cities. In Mercer’s 2016 QoL Index, Accra, the capital city of Ghana, Africa’s first independent nation, is at number 166, one slot ahead of Riyadh and one behind Cairo.

Partly because Accra and Johannesburg are the only two African cities I can claim to know in detail, and partly because they represent two very different versions of a contemporary African city, this article looks at their slow climb up the urban food chain.

Cities of the same generation

Accra and Johannesburg are roughly the same age. Gold was discovered just outside present day Johannesburg in 1884, triggering the rush that founded the city. The British declared Accra the colonial administrative capital of the Gold Coast in 1877, both events occurring within a decade of each other.

Today, metropolitan Johannesburg’s population is around 5m, whilst Accra’s is just over 2.5m. Johannesburg’s brand identity, prominently displayed in its media image, is of a “world class African city”. Accra makes fewer claims to “world class” status, but in 2016, was awarded the title of Africa’s “most expensive city”.

Companies like Mercer Consulting, Moody’s, Fitch, Standard & Poor’s, and PricewaterhouseCoopers cover almost every conceivable inch and index of global urbanity. It’s mostly according to the indices covered above. Yet the lived, daily life experience of millions of city-dwellers, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, is hardly, if ever, captured by this data. So who is this data actually for? There’s an important clue on Mercer Consulting’s website:

These rankings indicate differences in quality of living factors affecting expatriates in popular assignment destinations. These rankings shouldn’t be used as the basis for determining hardship premiums, as many complex and dynamic factors must be taken into account.

Among the indicators used in determining the “value” of a given global city, the price of groceries, transport, utility bills, restaurants and rent are seen as benchmarks. But this says next-to-nothing about wages, recreation (other than restaurants), local class structures, social patterns, language and even “local” culture, most commonly described by expatriates as “traditions”.

Multinational expatriates may not be the site’s only users, but they’re certainly its target market. Presumably, then, the true purpose of the index is to work out how much to pay the average Briton, European or American in far-flung exotic or dangerous locations.

Booming economies

Ghana is classified by the World Bank as a lower middle-income economy with a per capita GDP of $1,100.

In principle, citizens of Accra, Kumasi and Takoradi (Ghana’s three largest cities) should be entitled to expect at least a reasonable quality of urban existence in line with their own aspirations and ambitions. One of the least talked-about issues in African city-making discourses, however, is precisely what these aspirations and ambitions are, should be … or even could be.

Expatriate expectations (and their salary scales) hardly ever take local realities into account. For your average Ghanaian, going to a funeral or visiting extended family relatives at the weekend may be infinitely more socially rewarding than sitting in an air-conditioned restaurant a deux, listening to piped musak.

Shopping for food in an open-air market where prices can be negotiated may be more convenient than going to an impersonal mall. Yet funerals and roadside markets don’t feature anywhere on any urban index. Given Accra’s current position (166), alongside the vast majority of other African cities, whatever local aspirations and expectations may be, they are neither being articulated nor met.

A man selling coconuts on the streets of Accra. Image: Legnan Koula/EPA.

At the “other” end of the scale is Johannesburg, an African city unlike any other. Narrowly within the world’s top 100, it’s a city undergoing enormous changes, although, like Accra, the pace of transformation is often perceived by its citizens to be too slow.

By and large, South African cities are closer in form, behaviour and appearance to their “world-class” counterparts – or at least those portions of the city that conform to the stereotype of ordered, well-organised and consensual urbanity. Informal settlements, squatter camps, inner cities, townships and rural landscapes are markedly different for complex historical, political and economic reasons.

Largely due to its demographic make-up, there’s no real expatriate culture in South Africa (with the possible exception of Cape Town, which holds large numbers of non-resident Europeans and Americans). In marked contrast to Accra, expressed as a percentage of the total urban population, middle-class Jo'burgers enjoy relatively easy access to a comfortably bourgeois lifestyle without the input or demands of expatriates.

The gentrification of inner city Johannesburg has prompted much debate, including outcry. But the truth of the matter is that in a context where race and class have historically meant the same thing (you’re poor because you’re black, and black because you’re poor), it’s neither possible nor productive to talk about gentrification in the same way as it’s in London, New York or Paris.

Some of the up-and-coming inner city neighbourhoods on which architects and urbanists pour such scorn are the few – if not only – places where young South Africans of all races freely mix. Yes, they do so on the basis of bourgeois values and common class interests, but what’s the alternative? Segregated cities? South Africans have had nearly two centuries of those: forgive a foreigner’s assumption, but I’m guessing the answer is “no”.

Up the urban food chain

Both Accra and Johannesburg have some way to go before they make it onto anyone’s top 20. Both cities have considerable challenges to overcome, not least the dramatic and desperate gap between rich and poor, haves and have-nots (which, certainly in most African cities, includes the gap between locals and expatriates).

But inequality is not a uniquely African problem; neither is intolerance, immigration and displacement. As we’ve seen only too dramatically in the past year, these are issues that continue to confound and confront cities across the globe. Developing more nuanced tools and yardsticks to measure the health and wealth of African cities may be more useful to the rest of the world than we currently acknowledge.

Lesley Lokko is associate professor of architecture at the University of Johannesburg.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.