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City in Africa I: Urbanism and Informality

The alley as an expression of urban form: Understanding the logic of African urban dynamics



Academic discourse has recently opened viewpoints that appreciate the qualities of “African cities” and have called attention to overlooked and neglected knowledge on formative socio-cultural systems. Yet, the scholarly literature falls short on the diversity and specifics of morphological/spatial characteristics and their interplay with spatial practice. We aim to understand factors, which contribute to the contingencies of African cities, by looking at Addis Ababa and Kumasi and the extent to which these factors are shaping their morphology and spatial form. We approach and understand the city through the analysis of the alley/access roads as the smallest constitutive unit to the city. The results show that despite initially similar morphologies, the persisting historical urban cultures and land management regimes influencing the conceived and lived experience of the spaces play out differently. These insights can contribute to a contextualized and nuanced urban planning and development and consciousness of urban heritage.


Contemporary research has come to acknowledge that African cities, their history, and socio-spatial underpinnings have been insufficiently considered in urban studies (Anderson & Rathbone, Citation2000; Appelhans, Citation2017; Myers, Citation2011; Robinson, Citation2006). To date, there are relatively few studies on the properties of “city” and urban from the socio-cultural perspectives of African societies. Meanwhile, the academic and artistic discourses have picked up a recurring motif of the “Afropolis” (Pinther et al., Citation2012). While the efforts of these contributions have led to an increased awareness for the “urban” on the African continent, they can also be understood as assuming a generic typology of the “African City.” And the discourse on spatial forms of African cities often dwells on the rhetoric of “informality,” “slums,” “unplanned settlements” and crisis laden places.

Robinson (Citation2006) underlines that African cities, similar to all other cities in the world, are diverse and complex and contends that the production of knowledge and insight about cities in poorer places has been tied to their poverty and concerned with things they lack. While Myers (Citation2011, p. 2) notes the fixation and exaggeration of urban problems by scholars such as Davis (Citation2006) loses out multifaceted urbanity in Africa, Roy (Citation2005) describes the power-related mechanisms of universally applied framings such as slums and informal and the consequences for the dwellers losing out in urban development. Simone (Citation2004, Citation2010) and Robinson (Citation2006) have introduced new insights into the qualities of African cities by calling attention to the overlooked and neglected knowledge on formative social systems through the analysis of informal networks in these cities. Such networks are key resources for people in informal settlements to access employments and other resources (McFarlane & Silver, Citation2017, p. 4). Referring to African and other cities in the Global South, Simone (Citation2010) notes the importance of understanding cities as places of opportunities that are constructed by processes of everyday life and experimentation of residents, which in turn are shaped by the possibilities and capacities of people to overcome multitude of urban problems rather than by the problems themselves. In the same vein, Robinson (Citation2006, p. 109) argues that such “ordinary cities” are rich in a variety of networks and spatial patterns arising from their diverse social, economic, and political processes. This discourse has been underpinned by postcolonial and southern theories, which search knowledge to understand, in this case, cities from the perspective of their own socio-historical setup and the meaning of this setup to their residents (Connell, Citation2014; Robinson, Citation2013; Watson, Citation2009). Yet, when it comes to the diversity and specifics of morphological and spatial characteristics and their interplay with spatial practice and institutional context to form the contingent city characteristic, the scholarly literature often falls short.

In this paper, we aim to understand factors that contribute to the contingencies of African Cities by looking at Addis Ababa and Kumasi and the extent to which these factors are shaping and transforming their morphology and the spatial form. By looking at the neighborhoods of Addis-Ketema in Addis Ababa and Anlo-Fante New Town in Kumasi, this paper discusses both the historical processes that gave shape to the alleys and the role of everyday life in interpreting and transforming these spaces. The alley, which includes all kinds of access roads that primarily serve the people to come out of their private domain to the public one, is an integral part of most African cities with multiple functions and values for urban life. Alleys and their surrounding environment are the urban spaces of social encounter and interactions. Thus, alleys are the social spaces where the city begins to exist (Alem, Citation2016; Amin, Citation2008). Yet, there has been no comparative research on the spaces of the alley as social space in the context of cities in Africa. Existing studies are limited to historical perspectives (Schmidt, Citation2005; Tufa, Citation2008). Hence, the alley as a social space for many neighborhoods in African cities remains largely unexplored.

The paper argues that the African cities, in particular their urban form, can be better understood through urban spaces and practices at the local level. The practices constituting these contingent spaces are linked to larger urban and national socio-cultural contexts. These spaces are the arenas where respective urban culture and form mutually shape each other. From the perspective of urban form, the paper argues that the distinctive and unique characters of ordinary cities (Robinson, Citation2006, pp. 4, 16, 49, 170) are imbedded in everyday urbanism, where residents are the main actors who shape and live their cities.

The aim of this research is to contribute to the debate on spatial form and urban life in African cities by recognizing and considering the qualities of these spaces. Beyond creating consciousness of specific urban heritage, these insights on morphology and socio-spatial characteristics can contribute to a contextualized and nuanced urban planning and development. Consequently, highlighting the local perspectives on space production in Addis Ababa and Kumasi, the paper contributes to the discourse of southern perspectives and in particular, to the concept of “ordinary cities.”

Urban spaces: Social spaces shaping the built-environment

Addis Ababa and Kumasi are “ordinary cities” that have individual qualities and uniqueness, which can be understood from the perspective of local social interactions. At the local level, the residents shape their cities through the diverse urban spaces that they continuously contest and transform with their daily social interactions. Robinson (Citation2006) coined the concept of “ordinary cities,” arguing to view cities from their contingent historical and socioeconomic experiences. Robinson (Citation2006, p. 171) notes “for those who live in them, very often individual cities are special and particularly meaningful places.” In exploring urban studies through the concepts of modernity and development, he takes the exclusion of knowledge developed outside the western urban culture as inconsistent. We, therefore, take the challenge to search for this knowledge, which makes cities unique and different from each other.

Each city has a unique urban experience, which is relevant and crucial in building or shaping the global urban theory. In addition, cities are constructs of cultural practices. Cultural underpinnings guide social interactions in the form of socio-spatial administration, networks of individuals and groups, norms, and rules that people use to foster networks and live in partnership with each other (Alem, Citation2011; Banz, Citation1970). These cultural underpinnings of each city are unique as they are shaped by historical processes, i.e. everyday urbanism and planned interventions belonging to each city (Palat Narayanan, Citation2020).

The next step is then how to search for this knowledge, which has shaped the urban form starting from the very local level. We find that the theory of social production of space is useful in understanding and analyzing local urban spaces because it allows the integration of different perspectives from the individual and communal levels toward the general or city level. Particularly, the theory provides three dimensions of looking into social spaces as a connection of place, people, and actions (Lefebvre, Citation1991, p. 33). The multitude of processes and connections between people and activities, mostly unique to their socio-spatial environment, are continuously transforming the built environment. The production of space is a heuristic view into the social space, which, among other things, explains the domination of economic and/or the state produced abstract space over the social space of everyday life (Gottdiener, Citation1985; Soja, Citation1996). Hence, it helps to understand urban space as a tangible physical space, dynamic social space, and an abstraction of knowledge and/or experience obtained from what is built and lived (Lefebvre, Citation1991). The production of space is explained in three different moments of social space, which is practiced (perceived), conceived (represented/projected) and lived. Spatial practice is the routine of social life organized through the physical environment. It is the product of land use, i.e. the location of working and living areas, temporal and spatial distribution of recreational activities and action, as well as roads and transport networks shaping the pattern of mobility. The perceived space—or spatial practice—is, hence, the tangible space that the people could sense and transform, while engaging in everyday urbanism. Therefore, this space is historical and requires the past to understand what is experienced in the present. In contrast, the conceived space is the space of technocrats, for instance, an urban plan (Lefebvre, Citation1991, p. 38; Phillips de Lucas, Citation2020, p. 354). It is also an abstraction of knowledge accumulated through perceived and lived space (Phillips de Lucas, Citation2020, p. 11). This space is mainly found represented in urban design and general planning schemes of land use and infrastructure planning ().

Figure 1. Analytical framework—Urban space as a triad of space.

Source: Own construct based on (Lefebvre, Citation1991)
Figure 1. Analytical framework—Urban space as a triad of space.

The third moment of space is highly relevant for the understanding of urban spaces from the users’ and residents’ perspective. Here, people become part and parcel of the space making process (Lynch, Citation1960). Lynch (Citation1960, p. 2) note the inseparability of the observer/user from the object of observation, i.e. the environment. Through observation and social interaction, the individual becomes part of its social and physical environment. In the moment that someone is engaging oneself in space, they are, in the first place, deciphering the meaning of symbols and codes using their knowhow (Kinkaid, Citation2020, p. 169; Phillips de Lucas, Citation2020, pp. 353–354). This process is part of spatial production, as the user acts to contest and appropriate social space and with that changes the social and built environment (Lefebvre, Citation1991, p. 39).

Research design

From the analytical framework (), it was possible to derive three guiding questions:

  • Conceived space: how was space conceived by planners and other agents and why?

  • Perceived space: what is produced by historical processes of individual and collective actions/interactions and space appropriation?

  • Lived space: how is space lived and continuously shaped at the local level?

To respond to these questions, the paper combines qualitative historical research with a case study (). Historical research is used to understand, first, the conceived space, and second, to complement the analysis on perceived space. Yin (Citation2009) notes the use of historical research as the sole and combined method of research. In situations, where events are not observable and participants could not be interviewed, research has to rely on secondary data. Historical research therefore becomes crucial for investigating conceived spaces in the past. On the other hand, the perceived space, i.e. the built-environment is a product of both historical process and the actual everyday urbanism. Hence, both historical research and case study approach are applied to grasp how the built-environment physically appears and how it is shaped. The third question on the lived space is concerned with the present. Therefore, a case study is applied to understand how space is lived and continuously shaped.

Figure 2. Research design.

Figure 2. Research design.

Concepts, processes, built environment, and urban spaces are the units of analysis to understand the triad of space (). Urban plans, traditional land use, and settlement patterns, as well as historical social appropriation processes are analyzed to identify and understand concepts and processes behind the actual urban form. At the same time, patterns of roads and blocks, alignment of buildings, and their reciprocal relationship with everyday urbanism are analyzed to understand both perceived and lived spaces. The key data collection methods are literature review and archival study for qualitative secondary data, while primary data are collected through observation and in-depth interview ( and ). Data are analyzed through content analysis. Using the units of analysis and key variables, data are categorized, tabulated, and summarized. In addition, these data are grouped in general contextual related and case specific, i.e. neighborhood, to get clear insights into the dynamics at the local level and context-related factors affecting the production of space.

Table 1. Analytical components with corresponding unit of analysis, methods, and source of data.

Data collection was structured in different phases. The first phase was dedicated to literature review. As a continuous process, review of the literature has persisted throughout the research. In the second phase, a first round of in-depth interviews of key informants were conducted. In the third phase, direct observation with a second-round in-depth interviews of residents. In the final phase of the research, a third round of in-depth interviews were conducted focusing on issues that had emerged during observation and the second-round in-depth interviews. The research was mainly done in 2019 and partly in 2020. The key-informants were purposefully identified through the snowball sampling method. The key informants were also important in establishing contacts in the neighborhoods, facilitating support in the field, and clarifying issues resident interviewees had raised through combined interviews with the residents. Overall, eight key informants (three in Kumasi; five in Addis Ababa) and 13 residents (seven in Addis Ababa; six in Kumasi) were interviewed. The informants were selected based on their role and knowledge on historical and recent transformation of cities, the transformation of built environment and underpinning negotiation processes in the selected neighborhoods. For instance, residents were interviewed as key agents of the actual transformation of the built environment and their knowledge on the negotiation process. In contrast, key informants, architects, and planners were useful to understand historical development of the selected neighborhoods and the cities in general. These informants have worked and researched topics related to urban planning and urbanization in Ethiopia and Ghana. Hence, the samples are not representative but informative. Our aim is to understand the distinctive character of urban spaces and the processes of their production but not a generalization. Therefore, the attempt of data collection was focused on the quality of information rather than representation.

The in-depth interviews are designed to obtain understanding into the processes and actions shaping the built environment. The themes of guidelines for the in-depth interview with key informants had included historical facts and urban development in Kumasi/Addis Ababa and in Anlo-Fante New Town/Addis Ketema; transformation of alleys and residential blocks in Addis-Ketema/compound houses in Anlo-Fante New Town; urban planning and its role in both neighborhoods. On the other hand, the interview with residents focused, among other things, on the observed modifications, rationale for using alleys for private and communal activities, norms and processes of negotiation while contesting urban spaces.

Addis Ababa and Kumasi: Urban spaces in different African urban traditions

Although Addis Ababa was established two centuries after the foundation of Kumasi, both cities have rich and unique historical origins. These cities were established as indigenous socio-political centers and play important roles in the contemporaneous and historical urban development and urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa (Freund, Citation2007). On the other hand, Addis Ababa, as the capital city of Ethiopia and Kumasi as the second biggest and important urban center in Ghana represent different socio-cultural contexts in two different geographical regions, i.e. West Africa and the horn of Africa. Yet, we consider both cities as good examples of African indigenous urban culture, which are undergoing structural changes due to urbanization processes and capital investment (Cobbinah et al., Citation2016; Givental, Citation2017). This and their combined historical makeups, pre-colonial urban development experiences, and colonial and post-colonial land use planning interventions provide an excellent ground for comparative analysis of extreme cases in the landscape of cities in sub-Saharan Africa (Gerring, Citation2007). The sections below discuss the production of urban spaces, which are shaped by two different urban cultures. In addition, Addis-Ketema and Anlo-Fante New Town present persisting rigid land use planning despite piecemeal transformation of built environment.

Addis Ababa: Evolving forms, planning, and contestation of urban spaces

Addis Ababa, despite rapid urbanization and drastic urban development interventions, still exhibits different faces commensurate with its foundation and key historical phases. These historical phases are attached to different governance regimes, interventions, and population influx with larger impact on the built-environment. To understand the production of space in Addis Ababa, the section discusses past and actual factors that have and are shaping the built environment: traditional land use and governance systems and state-led land-use planning. In addition, using the case of the Addis-Ketema neighborhood, the paper discusses everyday urbanism and piecemeal development as locally anchored production of social spaces and the resultant transformation of the built environment.

Traditional land use and governance system

The reason behind Addis Ababa’s establishment is not different from those of former capitals in Ethiopian history, where topography, i.e. an elevation of at least 2,000 meter and more had permitted the installation of the traditional defense system, nor is the basis for guiding its administration, i.e. the historical legal documents “Ser’ata Mengest”Footnote1 and “Ser’ata GeberFootnote2” (Alem, Citation2016; Kropp, Citation1988; Scholler, Citation2005). The conceived space, imbedded in the mentioned historical documents, aims to project an ideal socio-spatial administration order on the ground. Most importantly, this concept ensures the visibility of socio-political hierarchy through a center-periphery relationship and vertical hierarchy. For instance, a location with the higher elevation was allocated to the highest authority in a settlement (Tufa, Citation2008, p. 34).

The so-called “Etege Taitu Master Plan” of Addis Ababa (1886) is a traditional land use map that also includes provisions that give more emphasis to the military aspect of the organization (Alem, Citation2011). This becomes more obvious when one looks at the location of the royal palace and the strategic position of key military officers to control access to the city and protect the palace. In addition, the plan ensures central locations for the palace, main cathedral, and market with a square, “Adebabay.” This has made administration, trade, and church as the main land use components structuring Addis Ababa in the period following its establishment (Alem, Citation2016).

The “Etege Taitu Master Plan” (1886) was also a legal document of land distribution that proclaims the power of land administration. In particular, the officials indicated on the traditional land use map of Addis Ababa had “Gult” right, which is similar to fief, where the holder of this “Gult” title had full land administration rights, including taxation right. This has led to demand driven piecemeal subdivisions and dense organic settlements in the oldest neighborhoods of Addis Ababa (Jembere, Citation2000; Pankhurst, Citation1966).

State led land use planning

The Italian invasion in 1935 and the following 5 years of occupation changed not only the built-environment but also the conception on the meaning of urban settlements or the city in general. Though modernization in Ethiopia had begun in the late 19th century, from an urban planning perspective, the Italian occupation not only brought a new settlement order but also left its spatial form and symbols as a sign of progress in collective memory. This was observed in interviews with Ethiopian architects, urban planners, and other key-informants, who consider neighborhoods with gridded street pattern and storied houses as proper urban setups. Indeed, architects and planners could easily associate the settlement pattern developed according to the Italian master plan with what they learn in schools about planning and architecture. An informant, an architect, and urban planner, referring to a neighborhood called “Beherawi-Theater,” which was developed during the Italian occupation as a business center said:

… look at Beherawi-Theatre area, you have tidy blocks with porches for pedestrian, proper car parks. But the rest of our city is a disaster and more of a village full of single story building and crooked roads. Look at how Paris is designed, roads are not merely infrastructure but design elements organized to create visual linkage of landmarks. (Key-informant, Addis Ababa, June 2019).

The Italian Master Plan aimed to establish a city worthy of the occupying power, a capital for Italian East Africa and a symbol, which shows the superiority of Italians over the indigenous society (Antonsich, Citation2000; Garvin, Citation2020). To meet these objectives, the Italian commissioned, first, the renowned architect Le Corbusier and later on Gaudi and Valle (Ahderom, Citation1987; Antonsich, Citation2000). As a typical colonial urban plan, key components of the plan were strong physical separation of the native population from the white. Major elements of this masterplan, which have shaped the morphology of the city and, in particular, Addis-Ketema, are, for instance, the simple and tight grid settlements for the native population and storied business and residential neighborhoods for the foreign occupiers ().

Figure 3. Concept (b) and layout (a) of colonial master plan by Guidi and Valle, 1937.

Source: Own drawing based on figures in (Ahderom, Citation1987; Antonsich, Citation2000).
Figure 3. Concept (b) and layout (a) of colonial master plan by Guidi and Valle, 1937.

After the liberation of the country from Italian occupation and the return of the emperor in 1941, the Italian Master Plan served as basis for the creation of a new image for the imperial capital. However, it can be observed that the reestablishment of Ethiopian Empire made some symbolic changes on the colonial masterplan. For instance, the center, i.e. Arada, which was moved by the Italian to the south part of the city, was returned to its original place. This made the cathedral of St George and the reerected monument of Menilik II, commemorating the victory of Adwa against Italian invasion in 1896, important symbols of victory over colonization. Otherwise, the elements of the plan were integrated and used to the advantage of Emperor Haile Selassie’s ambition to build an imperial capital (Levin, Citation2016). Indeed, the emperor, after reestablishing his empire, was under pressure to show that the country was “modern and civilized” enough to manage newly re-integrated territories such as Eritrea. In fact, primitivism was one of the pretext for Italians to colonize Ethiopia (Fuller, Citation1996; Levin, Citation2016; McClelland, Citation2018, pp. 72–73). Hence, urban forms and architecture were at the time used to prove progress and modernization. Fuller (Citation1996, pp. 399–400) noted that in the colonizers discourse, civilization is measured in architectural form and surprisingly, this was explicitly imbedded within Haile Selassie’s modernist interventions (). This was in particular obvious in the 1960s, as the role of Ethiopia in the decolonization of Africa grew. The Emperor commissioned several foreign architects and urban planners to recreate the image of Addis Ababa “true” to its role, not only as the national capital but also for the whole continent (Levin, Citation2016). In reality, the conceived image for Addis Ababa has little to do with its inherent tradition and is far from representing its continent. The models for Addis Ababa were indeed foreign and had little to do with their own cultural and socio-political reality.

Figure 4. Master plans from 1937 to 1965.

Source: Own drawing based on figures in (Ahderom, Citation1987).
Figure 4. Master plans from 1937 to 1965.

After the 1975 Ethiopian revolution, matters related to land management, in particular land ownership changed drastically. The proclamation No. 47 of 1975 enacted by the provisional military administrative council (Citation1975) nationalized all urban lands and extra houses. This, marking the beginning of command economy, arrested the urban growth as private investment was halted (Alem, Citation2011). Yet, for the first time, after several attempts of master planning, planning was institutionalized through the establishment of a ministry dedicated to urban development and the National Urban Planning Institute in 1977 and 1986, respectively (Alem, Citation2011). Though two foreign entities were commissioned to prepare master plans for the city (Ahderom, Citation1987; ORAAMP, Citation2002), the fabric of Addis Ababa’s inner-city remained to the most part unaffected by these plans (Anteneh, Citation1995). Nonetheless, one of the two commissioned plans, the “1986 Master Plan” had made a considerable impact on the actual planning practice. The master plan reserved most of the inner-city as Central-Business-District and major intervention area for urban renewal and upgrading. Addis-Ketema as dominantly a single story settlement and adjacent to one of the main market centers of Addis Ababa, i.e. Merkato, was indicated by the plan as an intervention area (Ahderom & Cecarelli, Citation1986). This proposal, except for few modifications, was adopted by following generation of plans. For instance, Addis-Ketema, partially, was integrated with one of the pilot project areas for local development projects (LDP), known as “Mercato LDP,” in the 2002 Development Plan of Addis Ababa. This plan, under the expected outcome of the LDP, indicates most of the buildings to be demolished (ORAAMP, Citation2002). However, the implementation of this plan, so far, has been limited to the main market area. Consequently, Addis-Ketema and its residents’ remained safe from demolition and eviction hitherto.

Everyday urbanism and piecemeal development in Addis-Ketema

The Addis-Ketema neighborhood is a result of Italian urban planning intervention. It is a dense grid settlement with striking alignment of alleys compared to the organic pattern of the old city. In contrast to the grid form of the alleys, the blocks are a result of piecemeal expansion of indoor spaces. Before the nationalization of extra urban housesFootnote3 and land, owners step-by-step had reconstructed the original small houses into bigger family houses, adding small rooms for service quarters and renting purposes along the fences. According to the informants, this plot-level densification was intensified after the nationalization in 1975. The reason was that the tenants of nationalized houses, using the gap in public management of rented houses, modified the small rented houses to enlarge indoor spaces (Bogerd, Citation2015). Hence, a neighborhood of plots of single houses in the late 1930s, transformed into multi-family plots from 1943 to 1974, and after that, the densification through fragmented construction activities of tenants consumed most of the communal spaces (). This has converted most of the alleys into a communal space of laundry and food processing. Also, the alleys provided spaces where religious events are celebrated, and tents are pitched to hold mourning services and wedding celebrations (). On weekdays and Saturdays, the alleys begin to awaken in the morning and the production of space gets intensified to the midday and abate toward the afternoon.

Figure 5. Block structure of Addis-Ketema.

Source: Own drawing based on GoogleEarth, 2020.
Figure 5. Block structure of Addis-Ketema.

Figure 6. Alley as site of temporary private and communal spaces: (a) daily use of alley for extended household activities; (b) communal events: mourning ceremony (left); religious fest (right).

Source: Selamawit and Tazanesh Alem, Fieldwork September 2020.
Figure 6. Alley as site of temporary private and communal spaces: (a) daily use of alley for extended household activities; (b) communal events: mourning ceremony (left); religious fest (right).

The processes of gradual transformation have converted the alley, which were planned and developed to keep uniformity of a grid settlement, into a different hierarchy of urban spaces with a dynamic use pattern. Depending on the type of occasional religious festivities and social gatherings, such as weddings and mourning, the access roads change from private use to communal sites of events. These activities, look random and unregulated. Yet, the interviews with residents have revealed that activities are guided by unwritten and strict informal rules.

… it is clear to everyone that if there is a wedding or if someone in the neighborhood has passed away, you don’t block the road with hanging clothes or draying chilies! In our area, we help each other. If there is a wedding or death in a family, the neighbors are the ones organizing things to use the road for the particular occasion. (Informant, Addis Ababa, June 2019)

The pattern of the mentioned activities has then produced a hierarchy of lived spaces influenced by the connectivity and proximity with major roads and transport lines. However, the roads in these neighborhoods are almost identical in their size and surface quality, but the flow of traffic and use type varies. Consequently, it was possible to discern three types of urban spaces within a three-layer hierarchy. This three-layer hierarchy is observed as follows.

The first type of alleys are roads, which are informally used for and shaped by daily household chores (a in ). During daytime, except on Sundays, these alleys are blocked by household-related activities such as washing and tending clothes, hence, in most cases, becoming inaccessible for motorized traffic. The roads are also meeting places, where neighbors meet and chat, while some are doing their laundry and processing food for private use. There are also roads, which are occasionally used to celebrate religious and private festivities, as well as to hold mourning and memorial services (b in ). Although this type of use is informal, it is regulated by implicit informal rules, such as on when and who uses the space, and the dos and don’ts of using the spaces. Such rules are part and parcel of the urban tradition of the whole city (Fieldwork notes, 2019).

Similar to other neighborhoods all over Addis Ababa, for the residents of the study area, the alleys along their property have become de facto theirs. This is a paradox especially because all land in Ethiopia is under state ownership. Urban administrations, despite having a strong hand in regulating and controlling construction activities, encourage and support self-help interventions to improve road and sanitation facilities (Alem, Citation2011, p. 181). As such, residents usually mobilize resources, sometimes in collaboration with local administrations, for the construction and surface improvement of all types of access roads along their properties. Hence, this has reinforced the residents’ feeling as owners of the alleys and has made such alleys private/communal space. One of the informants, reaffirming this said:

… you know, I paid for this road. I am poor, but paid and we have now good roads. It is our place. It’s where we do our laundries. … I use it like my neighbors for drying grain and chilies. Everybody knows that s/he has to walk or use the main road. There is no space here to drive cars. (Informant, Addis Ababa, June 2019)

The second group of alleys exhibits dense commercial activities. These, in particular, serve blocks near major transport lines (light rail and minibus stops), roads connecting two major roads and roads connected to Merkato (the central market). These groups of alleys are crowded with small shops, tea houses, cafes, and few guesthouses, which in most cases are annexed to residential houses but open toward the alleys. These small business establishments change the character of these alleys in two ways. First, for the passerby, the alleys are distinct as there are fewer fences physically separating the activities on the alleys from what exists inside the fences. Second, such shops and small businesses are meeting places where people gather. This situation makes the publicness of these alleys greater and the communal character less when compared to the other type of alleys without such services. In addition, these alleys are kept free of activities, which impede the flow of traffic, and instead encourage traffic whose destination is not necessarily the particular neighborhood ().

Figure 7. Business dominated (a) and lonely alleys (b).

Source: Selamawit and Tazanesh Alem, September 2020.
Figure 7. Business dominated (a) and lonely alleys (b).

The third group of alleys is a collective of relatively quiet and lonely roads. Such roads are few and, in some cases, do not represent the whole segment of a single alley. Nonetheless, they give the impression of halted social production of space. In most cases, compounds along such roads are big and accessed from only the other side of the block. Continuous fences and building walls border these alleys. In most cases, the fences and walls have no gates, doors, or windows opening toward the alleys (b in ). In fewer cases, multi-family compounds along such alleys have a bit of open spaces inside the compound. As a result, the residents of these compounds rarely use the alleys along their properties for household chores.

In conclusion, Addis-Ketema’s gridded alley system is a dynamic urban space accommodating daily and occasional needs of the residents. This urban space is an infrastructure facilitating the flow of activities from the most private to communal and public domain. Every day, the residents contest these public spaces and shape them temporarily into different types of spaces. Though densification within the private spaces still continues, to the most part, the space production process is limited to temporary changes of the physical form of the alleys and the morphology of the whole built-environment. Therefore, such alleys appear different depending on the time and date.

Kumasi: Evolving forms, planning, and contestation of urban spaces

Kumasi is one of the biggest cities in Ghana. As the capital of the Ashanti Region in the center of the country, the city has experienced transformation of urban form effected by different sociopolitical regimes. Within these regimes, factors that have influenced the production of space and transformation of built-environment will be discussed under: traditional land use and governance system; state-led land use planning under colonial and independent republic of Ghana; and everyday urbanism and piecemeal development in Anlo-Fante New Town.

Traditional land use and governance system: The Asante Kingdom

Kumasi was founded in the late 17th century as the political, administrative, and spiritual capital of the Asante Kingdom. During this period, the territorial boundaries of the Asante Kingdom extended far beyond the present borders of Ghana (Amoako & Korboe, Citation2011, p. 35). The city’s growth during this phase was a result of its strategic position along the important Trans-Sahara trade route (Amoako & Korboe, Citation2011, p. 35; Schmidt, Citation2005, p. 356). In 1817, Kumasi had a population of about 10,000 inhabitants within a densely populated urban area of 2 km2. Early records and plans of the city show urban spaces with multiple public squares and special-use quarters. The general spatial organization was influenced by factors related to socio-political administration, military logistic mobility that structures different neighborhoods within walking distance of each other (Damptey, Citation1981). Similar to the first case (Addis Ababa), residential function dominated the land-use and socio-political hierarchy was the concept behind the settlement’s organization. Yet, in contrast to the first case, the neighborhoods were nucleated along tribal lines. At the city level, the king’s palace, surrounded by the elders’ houses of the royal family, was the center. And in the nucleated neighborhoods, the chief’s house played this role. Despite their important role in shaping the urban form and patterns of activities, the nonresidential components were few. For instance, the central square was the place where daily market, traditional court, and assembly of elders and other public gatherings used to take place. In addition, in the pre-colonial Kumasi, the temple within a cluster of trees in the central area, public latrine, and cemetery at the periphery of the settlement were important components of the urban form. The main authorities in subdividing and distributing land were the chiefs. Even though there were no known legal provisions guiding the action of the chiefs, yet, conflicts related to the use of land were dealt with and meditated publicly at the public court (Damptey, Citation1981, p. 470).

Today, the ancient culture of the Asante, with its hierarchical system, cultural ceremonies, and institutions, is still present. Despite the official role of the Town and Country Planning Department in subdividing and distributing urban land, most of the land in Kumasi remains under the traditional authorities who play a strong role in land administration and development (Cobbinah & Niminga-Beka, Citation2017, p. 390; Fieldwork interview, 2019). Their role in social and land governance is accommodated under colonial and current administration systems (Owusu-Ansah & Braimah, Citation2013; Owusu-Mensah, Citation2014). Consequently, the actual urban form and transformation processes of Kumasi’s neighborhoods, such as those of Anlo-Fante New Town, are still underpinned by this legacy of pre-colonial tradition (Adotey, Citation2019; Owusu-Ansah & Braimah, Citation2013).

State led land use planning transformation during colonization

After the occupation of Kumasi by the British in 1896 the urban construct underwent a drastic change (Amoako & Korboe, Citation2011, p. 36). Existing urban structures were largely destroyed in order to assert and manifest political power and adapt the city to European standards (). The import of European planning standards during the first decades of the 20th century had a significant impact on the social, cultural, and physical structure of Kumasi (Korboe & Tippel, Citation1995, p. 267). Planning interventions were based on three main principles: sanitary requirements, residential segregation, and the creation of European urban environment.

Figure 8. Native neighborhood with compound houses before (a) and after (b) British layout planning.

Source: (Schmidt, Citation2005).
Figure 8. Native neighborhood with compound houses before (a) and after (b) British layout planning.

The introduction of a grid system around 1915 represented a far-reaching urban planning intervention. The existing road system was expanded and sewage latrines were installed. Block sizes were enlarged and the alleys as a disposal lane and access roads were introduced into the cityscape (Amoako & Korboe, Citation2011; Schmidt, Citation2005, p. 362). The segregation of residential areas was aimed to keep contacts between the locals and the colonial settlers to a minimum (King, Citation1976, p. 38). In addition, segregation was used to ensure the separation of different local ethnic groups. Exclusive settlements for the colonial masters were built on elevated areas of Kumasi, creating isolated neighborhoods in addition to the ones for Asante and other tribes (Schmidt, Citation2005, pp. 362–363).

The 1920s and 1930s are considered turning points in the development of the modern city of Kumasi. During this period, the prospect of economic prosperity and better living standards attracted migrants from all parts of the country and beyond. Ashanti, Ewe, Fante, and other tribes from northern Ghana and Burkina Faso have settled in the city. As discussed in the above section, pre-colonial Kumasi had neighborhoods belonging to distinct tribes. Yet, Ashanti New Town, Fanti New Town, New Amakom or Anloga have emerged with parts of the colonial principles of spatial segregation. These settlements have similar gridded patterns and building structures as illustrated in (Amoako & Korboe, Citation2011, p. 40; Stanley, Citation1980, p. 80).

Figure 9. Compound Houses and pattern of alleys, Anlo-Fante New Town.

Source: Own drawing based on Google Maps 2019.
Figure 9. Compound Houses and pattern of alleys, Anlo-Fante New Town.

State led land use planning after independence: Modernization and urbanization

After independence in 1957 and the first elections, political and administrative functions became increasingly centralized in Accra. Kumasi, once the influential capital of the Ashanti Empire, became the political opposition of the national government. With the nationalization of land and other properties, an attempt was made to balance the political power between the central government and Kumasi. However, a large part of the land in Kumasi has remained in the hands of the Asantehene (Asante Kings) and thereof, the city has become difficult for centrally coordinated urban planning (Cobbinah & Darkwah, Citation2017; Owusu-Ansah & Braimah, Citation2013; Owusu-Mensah, Citation2014).

Since independence, the structures and spaces created in colonial times are under a continuous transformation process. In particular, the growth of the informal economy demands different types of spaces and modification of the space created by colonial planning (Schmidt, Citation2005, pp. 365–367). Meanwhile, rapid urbanization and the development plan, which was prepared in 1964, brought important changes in the urban form. The construction of infrastructure and public buildings, such as the university campus, airport, and the cultural center, are the result of the development plan (Amoako & Korboe, Citation2011, p. 40; Korboe & Tippel, Citation1995, p. 269).

While the influence of the Ashanti culture and the widespread small-scale corporate structure initially averted the influence of large international corporations, the urban landscape has changed under the recent influence of globalization and modernization. Consequently, the urban spaces in Kumasi have become increasingly commercialized and privatized, also becoming an object of speculation. International banks, hotel complexes, shopping centers, and gated communities are spreading throughout the city (Hammond, Citation2011, p. 57). At the same time, the supply of affordable housing stagnated. Though the Ashanti culture, initially, prevented large-scale modifications (Devas & Korboe, Citation2000; Korboe & Tippel, Citation1995, p. 133), the demand for housing led to an increased market for in-room apartments and houses in informal settlements (Afrane & Asamoah, Citation2011, pp. 82–83).

Everyday urbanism and piecemeal development: Anlo-Fante New Town

Anlo-Fante New Town is a typical compound house settlement common in West Africa. As discussed in the above section, the settlement is developed based on British colonial planning ideals in the period between the 1920s and 1930s for the ethnic groups of the Anlo-Ewe and Fante. The settlement is dominated by single-story compound house structures. The inner courtyards of the compound houses serve as the center of coexistence and multi-purpose space (Afram & Owusu, Citation2006, pp. 93–94). Spaces for living, storage, cooking, and sanitary facilities are organized around the courtyard. Built on a platform, the houses in Anlo-Fante New Town stand out from the street profile and form an overhang, also as a protection against flooding. A characteristic feature of the study area is the grid-shaped road network (Afram & Owusu, Citation2006, pp. 93–94; Eskemose Andersen et al., Citation2006). The central road running from east to west forms the main traffic axis. Another five roads accessible to motor traffic run from north to south and form the basic infrastructure of the area ().

The alleys between buildings, which were once constructed to facilitate access and connection to basic services, characterize the settlement. As the rooms in the compound houses are relatively affordable, the settlement attracts migrants and other low-income households. This has led to overcrowding of the compound houses and the extension of in-compound activities toward the alleys. Consequently, the alley has become an important urban space for private and communal activities and with that a site of dynamic social space ().

Figure 10. Private (a) and communal (b) use of alleys in Anlo-Fante New Town.

Source: Own photo, Fieldwork, 2019.
Figure 10. Private (a) and communal (b) use of alleys in Anlo-Fante New Town.

Figure 11. Alleys used to accommodate commercial activities, Anlo-Fante New Town.

Source: Own photo, Fieldwork, 2019.
Figure 11. Alleys used to accommodate commercial activities, Anlo-Fante New Town.

In its original function, the alley still operates as an access road and supply and disposal lane. The lanes contain pipes for water supply and sewage ditches as well as cesspit and cistern. The alley, in addition to these original functions, have been subjected to a continuous transformation process through everyday urbanism. This transformation process is a result of household and communal production of social spaces. The production of space in Anlo-Fante New Town is underpinned by immediate needs of additional private space, household income, and a shortage of affordable housing and rooms for small-scale businesses. One of the informants in the neighborhood stressed these needs: “nowadays, we like to have private toilets and kitchens, nobody really wants to share these with other families” (Informant, Kumasi, February 2019).

As courtyards and alleys are used to increase indoor spaces, all these factors have led to densification of the neighborhood. In addition, temporary and permanent changes in the use pattern of public spaces have created differences, not only in the physical appearance of the alleys but also in how these spaces are lived. Consequently, these differences led to different types of space productions. The observed space productions are private, communal, and trade-related social spaces.

The first group of alleys are the ones with private production of spaces. The reason is that, in some cases, the spaces are fully constructed into a storage and other service rooms for the compound houses or they are temporarily blocked by household chores, such as cooking, washing, and small vegetable gardens as well as new buildings (). Some of these alleys only have a narrow passage or are totally blocked by structures.

The second group of alleys is the site of communal production of space and is a relatively dominant form of space. It is indeed rare to find an alley without an outdoor sitting area. This is observed, in some cases, on the extended platforms and stairs of the houses, and in other cases, on sitting places arranged with benches and tables. The comfortable breeze drifting through the alleys also attracts school children to sit on the platforms of their houses, while reading and doing their assignments. Some of the compound houses even have broad and decorated platforms, which are used for both sitting and lying down. Indeed, residents frequent alleys, with such comfortable sitting facilities (b in ). The use of the alleys as communal spaces is normally intensified toward the late afternoon, when residents come back from work and children from school. The alleys are also the play parlors, where residents sit to play games such as Checkers. Temporary drawings and engravings on the surfaces of the architectural furnishings of the alleys point to the importance of this area as a playground for children. Children use materials such as crown caps and stones to play on the platforms, the draining sewers or sewage tanks.

The third group of alleys is the one with the most public character. Along such alleys, there are small businesses such as shops, groceries, hairdressers, carpenters, bars, and other types of small businesses. This kind of alleys becomes lively around midday, when the traders open their shops and grocery stores. In addition, at this time of the day, street vendors’ setup stalls with their products. The shops and grocery stores in containers, huts, and shades annexed to the compound houses attract more people and convert the alleys into a site of active social interaction. The absence of spaces for such small trade activities along the main roads also increasingly entice traders toward the alleys encouraging property owners to create or reserve more room for such businesses. Indeed, the absence and/or limited share of motorized traffic in the neighborhood may have also contributed to the intensification of trade activities in such alleys ().

The fourth group of alleys are spaces of temporary events. This social space exists temporarily, and occasionally, it converts the alleys, which normally are dominated by other types of space production process, into a site of social and religious events. In most cases, this form of space production does not induce modification of the built-environment. These occasions are weddings and funeral related traditional ceremonies. At such moments, the alley becomes a gathering place for larger groups of people, outflowing beyond a particular alley. Hence, the alley, virtually opens and becomes part of public spaces outside the neighborhood. Political rallies do also take place in the same manner. In such instances, residents come together into the alleys and beyond to exchange ideas and discuss their problems.

The alleys, which were conceived and built to facilitate ordered flow of traffic and the supply of basic infrastructure, have now become the center of social life with varying uses. The use pattern, despite the above-observed uses, is under a continuous and dynamic transformation process guided by needs and aspirations of the residents, as well as external citywide dynamics of urbanization. The unclear roles of urban planning and strong role of landowners strengthen the capacity and potential of residents to produce their own social spaces and transform the corresponding built-environment. Interviews with residents revealed that their actions are guided by a set of informal norms that ensure the obligations and rights in using the alleys for private and communal purposes. As in other parts of Kumasi, the Asante chief coordinates and enforces these norms in the neighborhood under the recognition and respect of the inhabitants. Large-scale building activities and meetings are carried out only with the consent of the chief. In the middle of the alleys, there are usually informal boundaries. These boundaries limit the construction and uses of the alley space by the owner of the adjacent compound houses. There are also informal agreements and regulations used to coordinate construction activities. Generally, the informal boundaries could be trespassed after prior negotiations and agreements.

The alleyway can be seen as a boundary. … If you want to build an extension in the alleyway, nobody cares, but if you cross over in the middle, your neighbor will not allow you. It’s not documented but everyone knows this rule. (Informant, Kumasi, February 2019)

Alleys as arenas of spatial production and contingent urban dynamics

By analyzing just two cases of Addis-Ketema and Anlo-Fante New Town, this research can prove that the production of space is dominated by lived spaces, i.e., individual and collective actions and interactions. The reason is that alleys as conceived spaces are planned to serve certain purposes. For instance, to permit accesses to services and ordered flow of activities required for daily life. There are also certain systems of implicitly understood rules and regulations (see last paragraph in the former section), which make part of the conceived space and contributes to the historical process shaping the built-environment. However, every day, through living the space, everything is negotiated, contested, and/or subjugated by the temporary, in the case of Addis-Ketema, and/or permanently changed, in the case of Anlo-Fante New Town. This process of space production is accompanied by local factors of land management and roles of actors engaged in land administration. Consequently, these local factors have produced different ways of engagement with the built-environment. In Anlo-Fante New Town, landowners, and actors at grassroot levels can decide to change the function of the alleys. While in Addis-Ketema, in a settlement dominated by tenants of government houses and in a context of public land ownership, the impact of local production of space on the built-environment is limited (). Hence, changes brought about by the produced space remain temporary. In Addis-Ketema, space is contested every day without causing lasting changes on the physical form of the alleys. In addition, traditionally, people in the subtropical highland Addis Ababa (2,355 m elevation) do not use outdoor spaces just to sit with friends and families. The production of spaces in Addis-Ketema reduces drastically when it gets late, while, in Anlo-Fante New Town, it becomes intensified. Residents in Addis Ababa do not arrange outdoor sitting places to sit outside in the late afternoon. Indeed, the weather gets colder and uncomfortable in most parts of the city even indoors.

Further notable differences exist in actors involved in the production of spaces. In Addis-Ketema, the urban administration, as administrator of state-owned land and the landlord of most of the houses, is the invisible participant in the production of spaces. Residents rarely break the rules of the administration but integrate them with their activities. In contrast, in Anlo-Fante New Town, it is difficult to sense the role of the urban administration. The neighborhood appears autonomous within the city of Kumasi, since the actors involved in the space production are the residents, i.e. landowners and tenants. Authorities or actors outside the neighborhood are not present in the negotiation process and are not mentioned by the informants. In addition, the users of the services and infrastructures like access roads, in the neighborhood are the residents.

Looking back to the analytical framework (), the case in Addis Ababa shows us that the conceived and perceived spaces dominate the lived spaces. The social production of space accommodates itself within the framework of the built-environment and the legal framework. In contrast, residents of Anlo-Fante New Town, modify the rules and the built environment to accommodate their needs. With that, the lived space is a dynamic component of the production of space, overriding conceived spaces and modifying the perceived one.

Neither of the two study areas are representatives of their wider urban or national contexts. For instance, due to the short-lived Italian occupation of Ethiopia, it is difficult to say that the conceived space of Addis Ketema represents any other neighborhood in the country or even in Addis Ababa. The morphology of the alleys studied stems from a popular colonial conception of space. The idea of this conceived space has been implemented in a variety of African cities, which may be a part of the factors influencing spatial practice. However, the actual lived space and the impact on the built-environment are closely linked to local culture. Lived space of everyday urbanization is a result of knowhow on traditional use and meaning of space as well as experience obtained from the usual encounter with market and state forces shaping the built-environment (Alem, Citation2011). Hence, the production of space and its impact on the built environment is unique to its context. Therefore, the analytical framework can demonstrate contingencies for specific sites. While these might contain “typical” elements of spatial structure or use, the combination of factors is not interchangeable and therefore does not promote attempts to generate a generic understanding of “the African city.”

The cases showcase the residents’ capacities, inventiveness, wits, and willingness to experiment (Robinson, Citation2006; Simone, Citation2010). From a distance and with the perspective of conventional land use planning, the whole modification processes may be seen as chaos created out of unauthorized land use conversions and lack of enforcement. Yet, it is a piecemeal problem-solving process with implicit norms and social framework, guiding the negotiations for more spaces with flexibility to accommodate socioeconomic needs. In the absence of a formal body to provide employment, housing, other urban services and weak urban management, life in such neighborhoods depends on the socioeconomic and cultural resources of the residents (Alem & Namangaya, Citation2021; Simone, Citation2004, Citation2010). Hence, the space produced by the residents, despite problems of overcrowding and sanitation, are valuable contribution of homegrown urban culture (Robinson, Citation2013).

What we learn from this study is that African cities offer varied forms of space productions. Both examples might have similar problems cause by rapid urbanization and weak urban management. But, the dynamic transformation processes of the built-environment and how their residents shape the social space are unique to each case. As ordinary cities, Addis Ababa and Kumasi are not outstanding global examples of urban development. However, the experiences shaping their socio-spatial qualities enrich the knowledge on ordinary cities and with that urban theory. For planning to make an impact, it is essential to learn from the ground, not only the problems but also the qualities of homegrown urbanism (Cobbinah & Niminga-Beka, Citation2017, p. 390; Watson, Citation2009, p. 2261). This also requires to reflect on genuine participation, self-initiatives and mobilization of resources for meeting the challenges of urbanization (Alem & Namangaya, Citation2021; McFarlane & Silver, Citation2017; Simone, Citation2004, Citation2010). The responses to the urban problems in Africa should begin by recognizing the diverse and local form of urbanism borne in the narrow access roads of neighborhoods such as Addis-Ketema and Anlo-Fante New Town. Planning education and practice in Africa thus need reforms to accommodate and use local knowledge. Consequently, further multiple case studies are imperative to enlarge the knowledge base and contribute to urban studies in general. Nevertheless, layout planning and urban design in Addis Ababa and Kumasi should be based on concepts that integrate multiple functions of access roads. Access roads are not only amenities facilitating the supply of basic infrastructure and traffic flow. In practice, they are sites of social interaction, which requires flexibility to accommodate dynamic and changing patterns of activities (McFarlane & Silver, Citation2017). Rigid lines of layout planning will otherwise end up being constraints, requiring continuous modifications by fragmented interventions whenever the need arises.


We would like to acknowledge the people who supported and facilitated the fieldwork: Dr Eric Oduro-Ofori; Prof Samuel Owusu Afram; and Selamawit and Tazanesh Alem. We also thank Dr Lia G. Woldesadik for her critical feedbacks and inputs. We are highly indebted to the key informants and informants in Addis Ketema and Anlo-Fante New Town. We are touched by their enormous kindness and understanding. The fieldwork in Kumasi was supported by Martin-Schmeißer-Stiftung in Germany.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Genet Alem

Genet Alem is a lecturer in the Department of Spatial Planning at Technical University Dortmund. In the past, she has worked as a lecturer at Dohuk University in Iraq and at the Ethiopian Civil Service University. As a practicing planner, she has served at the Federal Urban Planning Institute, Addis Ababa Works and Urban Development Bureau, and Office for the Revision of the Addis Ababa Master Plan. Alem holds a PhD in Spatial Planning from TU Dortmund, an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from a joint study program of TU Dortmund and Dar es Salaam Universities, and a degree in architecture from Technical University of Havana José Antonio Echeverría (La CUJAE) in Cuba. Genet Alem is a member of the Network-Association of European Researchers on Urbanization in the South (N-earus), Planners for Climate Action (P4CA) and TRIALOG e.V.—Association for Scientific Research into Planning and Building in the Developing World.

Felix Domogalla

Felix Domogalla is an urban planner and social worker whose interest focuses on urban development, urban design, social planning, migration and social diversity in cities. With his current practice-oriented work as a neighborhood manager, he is dedicated to the participation and equal opportunities of people in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, organizing community events, creating networks or supporting civic projects.


1. Ser’ata Mengest means order of government (Scholler, Citation2005, p. 9).

2. Ser’ata Geber means order of tasks (Kropp, Citation1988).

3. The nationalization of private property, enacted by proclamation no. 47 of 1975, prohibited residents to own more than one house or apartment per family. The rest was nationalized.


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