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Urban Design
 
M.Arch Thesis: Discovering the African Public Space
I am a Ghanaian M. Arch student and the following is the abstract for my thesis that begins in a few weeks. I conceived the idea when I visited the Green Market Square, Cape Town a few months ago. I must say this is one of the few truly vibrant African 'squares' I have seen. I believe there are a few others in South Africa, but generally public spaces in tropical Africa have rarely been the social hubs they are meant to be. Any ideas, suggestions are welcome. Thank you


ABSTRACT
There is a distinct lack of formally planned public spaces in the African, and indeed Ghanaian, urban setting. The few that exist, like the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park or the Black Star Square are somewhat dysfunctional. Ironically, these are detached from everyday life, only to be used during certain ceremonies. The urban public space however must be a place of freedom and equality where everyone has the right to access without exclusion on economic or social bases. It can be argued that the concept of a public space has effectively been westernized and any attempts at creating such a social hub in Ghana often involve an attempt to reproduce this western concept in an African context; a more than likely reason for their failure on the continent. The identity of the African Public Space is therefore unclear. The thesis will seek to discern what would make a successful African Public Space with respect to the form it would take, its use and treatment.

Studies will be conducted on the use and form of public spaces in different global cultures and climates. The evolution of the public space as a unit in the urban fabric will also be studied; globally, in the African and Ghanaian context. Analysis of spontaneous yet inherently public areas will inform the functions that are not only feasible but necessary in the African Public Space. The effects of popular culture, including television and the internet on the identity of the contemporary African will not be neglected in the study.

The survey will result in guidelines for the successful design of The African Public Space. These will be the backbone of the design thesis which will seek to provide a usable African public space that resonates with the spirit of the place, the culture of the people and the climate of the land.
Augustine Owusu-Ansah
Responses
 
M.Arch Thesis: Discovering the African Public Space
Augustine, your topic sounds interesting, although how are you defining such "Urban Public Spaces"?

I ask because to me `an urban square` is usually both (a) a larger than normal junction / crossroads and (b) has a hard surface for vehicle and foot traffic.

Whereas, `an urban square` can also be gardens or a mini-park to be used for leisure purposes and so there are footpaths with hard surfacing, but most of the space has grass and plants.
Frank John Snelling
M.Arch Thesis: Discovering the African Public Space
Hello Frank
I believe that the very idea of a public space is an egalitarian one. A space in the urban fabric where one is free to access without being denied by reason of age, social class,...... Basically it is a space owned by the public.

These take various forms in different cultures and climates. Squares and parks (as you have already mentioned); but also streets, markets, piazzas, arcades are different forms that play the same role. I see these as merely forms of public space but not the rule.

In sub-Saharan Africa, however there is a lack of such vibrant, embracing spaces in our urban centres, though some of these forms have been attempted. They are often unused, empty, deteriorating spaces that are only used during ceremonies; rather isolated from everyday social life.

In Africa, climate and leisure take on different dimensions so it seems only fit that an African public space would as well, relating more to the social setup and climate rather than attempting to produce foreign concepts.

So in effect the research detach itself from the established forms and seek to discover what form of public space would better suit the African culture and climate (with emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa)
Augustine Owusu-Ansah
M.Arch Thesis: Discovering the African Public Space
Very interesting topic! Perhaps you can have a look at why these spaces are not fully utilised in your region. I find that public spaces in the West indies are not used in the same way that they are in other Caribbean Islands. The difference is that although we are in the same region, the West indies (British) islands were colonised in a very different way that the other non-Bristish islands. The urban planning was different and the concept of space, public and private were different. The English speaking islands were formed more on the concept of "towns" and the Spanish and French were more on the concept of "city". So where does this lead? In the English speaking islands for the most part the houses were separate and people had their own gardens. Historically, on many of the non-English speaking islands the density was much higher and so the need for pubic spaces was greater. There are many variables. I think you could delve into your own history and see if this has any role to play on the lack of care of these public spaces.
Sharni Bullock
M.Arch Thesis: Discovering the African Public Space
Augustine, Sharni makes an interesting point about the differences between British and Spanish urban types. A point I had not thought of, although I would assume the Spanish urban model would tend to courtyard spaces and the British urban model tends towards homes surrounded by gardens.

Regarding the establishment of vibrant urban squares, surely there are street markets and market squares in Africa?

I ask because now and then I see news from Nigeria and there are often scenes of lively street markets.
Frank John Snelling
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