A birdseye view of the city of Accra, with terra cotta colored roads in a curvy grid, and lots of houses and buildings.

Architecting a “New Normal”? Past Pandemics and the Medicine of Urban Planning

COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere. Months into the global pandemic, when many parts of the world have entered a second wave of outbreaks, health experts have cautioned the need for a “new normal” in which medical precautions guide most of our daily activities. Since cities have been hit hardest by the pandemic, policymakers have begun discussing what this new normal might look like in metropolitan environments. In some cases, urban planners have framed COVID-19 as an opportunity to reimagine and improve cities’ built landscapes. In April, we started seeing pitches prescribing urban planning as the medicine essential to creating a post-pandemic urban world. Such calls follow a common, and dreamy, prescriptive: that post-epidemic urban planning will allow us to reinvent cities into dreamscapes of public health, equality, and technological progress.

Alissa Walker recently argued that now is not the time for imagining an urbanist utopia. Instead, she opines, we must come to terms with the historical processes that have “made COVID-19 more catastrophic than it should have been,” particularly for Black Americans. Doing so, however, requires an honest accounting of the role that fields like urban planning, public health, and social work have played in the production of urban inequality. It also requires situating US urban development within wider global conversations about the relationship between urban planning and public health. The connection between these fields has roots in 19th– and 20th-century empire. Colonial officials exploited outbreaks of disease to implement racial segregation and create economic systems that intentionally marginalized Africans. In British colonial Africa, urban planners and public health officials earned their professional chops refining segregationist techniques, leaving long-lasting impacts on cities and on their wider disciplines.

outlined map of the continent of Africa, with the British colonial holdings highlighted in Pink and red, including British East Africa, stretching from modern day Egypt to modern day Kenya, British South Africa, and British West Africa, in the Gold Coast and Nigeria.
Map of British possessions in colonial Africa in 1913. (Wikimedia Commons)

We are historians of the West African nation of Ghana, each currently writing a history of urbanism in a different major city (Kumasi, Accra, and Sekondi-Takoradi, respectively). In our research efforts – and in those of many other urban scholars examining African contexts – we’ve repeatedly seen how medical experts and modernist urban planners exploited outbreaks of disease to legitimize their emerging systems of technical expertise and advance white supremacy, global capitalism, and imperial order. In the late 19th century, colonial governments often gave segregationist-minded medical authorities wide latitude as the de facto architects of urban space, inspired by outdated scientific theories of contagion and disease. As urban planning emerged as a distinct field in the 20th century, its practitioners built on these earlier models, reinforcing existing patterns of racial segregation and economic inequality. As they did so, they insisted that they were making cities safer and better.

Take the example of Accra, Ghana’s current capital city, which became the capital of the country then called Gold Coast in 1877. After 1877, British officials sought to decongest the city center so that they could better control populations and create space for their own administrative and economic activities. Their efforts, however, only gained significant traction in the aftermath of epidemics and natural disasters: occasions when urgent public health needs emboldened official action and left local communities vulnerable and in need of assistance. Following the city’s first plague outbreak in 1908, colonial officials evacuated the most congested districts and relocated residents to “safe” peripheral areas, a move that marked the beginning of 20th-century suburbanization. An earthquake in 1939 inspired additional relocations, allowing the government to seize large tracts of land needed for its own administrative purposes.

Black and white photo of a neighborhood in Accra, Ghana. Seems to be from a rooftop overlooking a street and several other small houses.
Accra Views: September 19, 1958. (Photo courtesy of Ghana Information Services Department Photograph Library.)

Similar patterns unfolded in Kumasi, the capital of the Asante Kingdom and a regional trade hub. In 1924, residents experienced their first plague pandemic; shortly thereafter, they experienced drastic spatial reconfigurations in the name of sanitation and urban order. Making a “safer” Kumasi began with the state-sponsored eviction and destruction of the city’s zongo or majority Muslim quarters. Government-cleared sites were redeveloped for European residential, commercial, or recreational needs while prior residents were shuttled into government-built houses that lacked architectural features fundamental to healthy urban life. Most of them, for instance, lacked an essential compartment of the city’s folk architecture—the courtyard, which had long facilitated forms of social interaction central to people’s daily lives.

In Sekondi-Takoradi, now a joint city in western Ghana comprised in part by that country’s first “planned city” of Takoradi, outbreaks of disease – real and imagined – were frequent flashpoints for the flexing of urban planning and public health muscle. In 1940, when Takoradi became home to a British Royal Air Force base and Allied aircraft assembly station needed for the Second World War, experts designed a plan for the demolition of numerous city structures and erection of armed roadblocks so as to “protect” incoming British and American soldiers from malaria, a mosquito-borne illness. For long-standing residents, these “emergency” planning measures were an entrenchment of, not departure from, the city’s segregationist status quo. Almost thirty years prior, the British colonial government had used an outbreak of yellow fever to impose new measures designed to increase the “safety” of Sekondi’s white-dominated quarter (the not-so-subtly titled “European Town”). As an anonymous columnist in a local newspaper, the Gold Coast Leader, quipped, the real disease warranting attention was that of “class and colour prejudice.”1

These examples emphasize two fundamental points. The first is that the development of urban planning models and legitimization of urban planning expertise were tightly tethered to the interests of British Empire and oppression of colonized people. Throughout much of the 20th century, in Ghana and elsewhere, public health crises were a means of imposing marginalization and stasis – not improvement and change – on African urbanites. As historian John Parker notes, “’Sanitation’ and ‘order’ became linked by an emerging imperial ideology in which the new concern with tropical medicine contained a variety of encoded messages about wider social control.”2 Land clearances and decongestion schemes backed by imperial health experts such as Dr. W. J. Simpson were as much informed by administrative needs and racist assumptions as medical research. In cities like Accra and Kumasi, which had been settled long before the arrival of the British, outbreaks of disease were opportunities to dramatically remake the towns and seize land from local residents. In the planned town of Takoradi, concerns about disease gave planners another chance to alter, control, and “improve” the behaviors of urban residents. Their efforts produced two distinct zones for both the colonized population and the so-called experts of the colonizing regime – urban extensions of the logic of indirect rule. As Franz Fanon noted in 1961, the colonial city became brutally divided between the “white folks’ sector” and “the ‘native’ quarters,” divisions that remain visible today.3

Second, colonial state planning and public health efforts often targeted, and at times destroyed, local forms of urban knowledge and city design. In many cases, local sanitation and hygiene practices were far more effective than those touted by European experts, a point that urban residents often tried to communicate to willfully ignorant state officials through protests and petitions, reappropriations of land and infrastructure, and the open violation of public health regulations. Colonial officials and urban experts alike often viewed these actions as a reflection of African backwardness – as proof that African cities needed additional fixing so as to protect urban populations from themselves. The resilience of African urban spatial, social, and economic cultures in the face of this social engineering warrants more attention, but we also need to come to terms with the spatial, cultural, and economic violence that urban Africans long endured in the name of urban improvements.

These kinds of reflections are important in Ghana right now, as the Accra Metropolitan Assembly continues to demolish homes in working-class communities in Accra. This practice and its antecedents require our renewed attention and critique if we wish to create more just, equitable, and sustainable cities. But they also provide an important perspective on experts’ self-touted ability to imagine urban futures for others. Place, as Caroline Wanjiku Kihato and Loren Landau remind us, is political. The patterns of colonial spatial violence that played out in Ghanaian cities echo in US and European cities just as much as they do in other parts of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. If colonial Ghana has previously seemed too far afield for thinking about the future of US cities, contemporary debates about gentrification, inequality, and social determinants of health in 21st-century US cities like Detroit, Minneapolis, New York and Baltimore point to the importance of revisiting the politics of colonial capitalism and public health. Building new cities needs to start with new conversations about the practice of urban planning, the development of urban policy, and the imagination of urban futures, conversations that place cities like Accra, Kumasi, and Sekondi-Takoradi at their center. It also requires a recognition that colonial logics continue to pervade the structures, disciplines, and professional fields charged with improving urban life. How to initiate their removal is a topic for another piece, but it starts with seeing and listening to the communities that experts have long excluded from policy debates.

Notes

  1. J.E. Casely-Hayford, The Truth About the West African Land Question, Second Edition (London: Frank Cass, 1971), 110. Return to text.
  2. John Parker, Making the Town: Ga State and Society in Early Colonial Accra (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000): 99–100. Return to text.
  3. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 4–5. Return to text.

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