News Archive

posted 06/03/04

Contact: Jill Stoddard
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Unconventional Ghanaian City of Accra is Focus of New Research Project by The Earth Institute
Columbia Students Inform Researchers with First-Hand Data

A view 
of the back of make-shift housing in Accra

A view of the back of make-shift housing in Accra. The latrine (center) is poised over one of the many creeks susceptible to flash floods; effluent goes right into the waterways. During a flood, trash and waste wash into people's houses, creating perfect conditions for outbreaks of cholera and malaria. This is one of the many photos taken by Columbia Urban Planning students, chronicling the major challenges that Accra's growing population faces. Image credit: Lisa Fisher

The results of an intensive research trip to Accra, Ghana by Columbia University urban planning students will inform a diverse and impressive community of researchers who are heading to Accra in June 2002. Both trips, sponsored by The Earth Institute at Columbia University, are part of a new research project aimed at helping develop better transportation, housing, sanitation, waste disposal, energy and water supply, disaster management, and address population growth and economic development in the west African city, with a focus on the confluence of these factors in their research.

According to Professor Sigurd Grava of the Columbia School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning, and Klaus Jacob of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who co-led the graduate student team, Accra has several strong characteristics that make this former port, where the African people who were used as slaves were transported, an ideal research and pilot project site for the Earth Institute's 21st Century Cities project, a new initiative focusing on urban growth challenges. Accra's strengths include recent political stability; a sense of civic responsibility among officials toward the people and the city's development; a reasonable level of social and service infrastructure; and a viable economic base.

          shop vendor in the Accra neighborhood of Alajo

A shop vendor in the Accra neighborhood of Alajo. Urban Planning students found that most of the small shops and markets were run by women. Image credit: Cynthia Golembeski

But there is much that needs to be done. According to Professors Grava and Jacob, the people of Accra are in great need of natural hazards planning to mitigate the regular flooding of urban zones, which exacerbates health problems like malaria. They also are in great need of clean, potable water and better urban sanitation. Another natural threat to be managed is the destructive earthquakes which take place periodically in and around the city.

"I believe that the Earth Institute can be helpful by bringing expertise and technical knowledge to the policy makers and the government of Ghana," says Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs. "The 21st Century Cities project is based on the realization that this century will be heavily influenced by the rapid expansion of cities in developing countries. Population growth leads to economic growth, technological innovation, and cultural exchange. But these cities also suffer from poverty, environmental pollution, disease, and water issues. Our task at the Earth Institute is to help these cities reach their great potential."

"Science and technology, combined with an understanding of interconnected urban development processes, can be used by urban leaders in Accra to improve the quality of life in the city," adds Roberta Balstad Miller, who is coordinating the Earth Institute’s 21st Century Cities project.

A house in Accra

A house in Accra, outside the central city.

Sara Sievers, executive director of the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, which is sponsoring the 21st Century Cities project, traveled to Accra early this past April to meet with several ministers in President John Agyekum Kufuor's government. "We have been invited to develop an analysis and implementation strategy that is compatible with the political, cultural, and soci-economic realities of Ghana," she says. "Science and technology are increasingly essential for urban development."

"The government of Accra has already made incredible steps towards a commitment to the health and economic development of their country," adds Sachs. "The 21st Century Cities project will build on this commitment to move the city of Accra towards sustainability."

On November 20, 2002, President Kufour launched the Ghana Macroeconomics and Health Initiative, based on a report issued in 2001 by the World Health Organization's (WHO) Commission on Macroeconomics and Health (which was chaired by Jeffrey Sachs). The report analyzed the impact of health on development, and health-related interventions, including their impact on economic growth and equity in developing countries.

"The policy makers in the government of Ghana are very keen right now to make a breakthrough -- from the kind of instability and slow growth they've had, to real dynamism -- but in a sustainable manner," says Sachs. "They, and we, are such believers in what's about to happen. We think it can be a great success to make Accra one of the great centers of economic growth and development in Africa."

Cynthia Golembeski, an Architecture, Planning and Preservation graduate student who participated in the urban studio trip to Accra, says her experience there made a lasting impression on her. "I understood the purpose of the studio to be to assist in the planning and management efforts in Accra as a component of a broad-based multi-dimensional cooperative program. But I was unaware of the impact that a personal visit would have in helping me gain a greater conceptual understanding of the predominant issues affecting the people and communities of Accra."

Golembeski added: "I feel as though I have already received an incredible level of education and inspiration in relation to better understanding the complex issues that affect the region."

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.