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Private sector involvement in heritage protection, also in Accra?

The hall of the Children’s Library (photo BvdL)

From 25-27 February this year, the Children’s Library in the centre of Accra formed the nucleus of ‘Accra Revisited’, an event with presentations, debates and workshops that brought together a group of visionary thinkers in architecture and urban space from West Africa. Also present were students from the Berlage Institute from Delft and a group of Dutch consultants and architects in an attempt to identify common grounds and fields of operation.

For the Berlage students, the event was an insightful introduction for their commencing studio work, aiming at developing proposals for three nodes in Accra’s urban fabric. The urban challenges were not only debated by architects and urban planners. Also finance, mobility, education, design, marketing, the social and other sectors were represented, offering multiple dimensions and perspectives on Accra and the way it is developing.

Rap, dance and architecture in the Old Kingsway Building (photo BvdL)

The Children’s Library was a manifestation in itself; ArchiAfrika, the local organiser of the event, made a huge efford through local support in funding and in kind to restore some of the glory of this 1956 monument that is threatened by demolition. ArchiAfrika showed what it stands for by not only bringing back life into the library, but also bringing the key note lecture of upcoming star architect Kunle Adeyemi to a public stage in the derelict Old Kingsway Building in James Town, sided by two of Ghana’s most successful rappers of today. This event was literally ground shaking and was attended by many, all impressed by Adeyemi’s approach and stamina in introducing new ways to architecture and city development in Nigeria and elsewhere.

Workshop sessions focused on specific issues and challenges of a variety of scales in Accra. African Architecture Matters was present as well, to workshop the role that heritage can play in the city and to project the private investment model that has been successful in Amsterdam for over 60 years and in recent years has been effectively adapted in Paramaribo and Zanzibar on the case of Accra.

Results of Stadsherstel Amsterdam and Paramaribo (photos Stadsherstel)

Heritage constitutes an important source of identity and cohesion for communities. Losses caused to heritage can deprive a community of its memory, the physical testimony to its past, but also of a precious resource for social and economic development. Heritage tourism is a main source of income for many historic cities.

In Accra, parts of the city can also be identified as highly valuable heritage. This is not limited to sites listed by UNESCO, it is even likely that areas like James and Usher Town are of more importance for identity and cohesion for the communities and have great potential for economic development. ArchiAfrika showed this by organising Adeyemi’s lecture in the Old Kingsway Building.

It seems obvious that care of heritage is in the hands of the governments. However, capacities may be insufficient and governments may lack the visionary approach towards opportunities that is characteristic for the private sector. Successful examples of private contribution to heritage protection are scarse. Stadsherstel Amsterdam N.V. is such an example that started as a private initiative in 1956, developed later into a public private partnership with the local government and contributed largely to the development of the historic city centre into an important economic driver for Amsterdam. Interest from overseas triggered the company to assist in similar initiatives elsewhere in the world. Stadsherstel Paramaribo has restored and is renting out a growing number of historic buildings since 2009. On Zanzibar some of the larger investors joined hands and are about to start with Hifadhi Zanzibar (Preserve Zanzibar ) on the East African island, famous for its World Heritage Site that is in needy shape.

Key in the three cases is, that the shareholders, mostly representatives of the local private sector, retain only a modest dividend, while the remainder of the profit is reinvested in extending the portfolio of the company. Property is never sold, but rented out on a profitable basis and well maintained. The visionary shareholders aim at maximising the investment in heritage based development of the city. Their benefit is long term; a more healthy urban environment also will be a better business environment.

A recent shareholders meeting of Hifadhi Zanzibar (photo BvdL)

Is this a model that could work in Accra as well? Berend van der Lans, closely involved in the establishment of Hifadhi Zanzibar, presented what has been reached so far in Amsterdam, Surinam and Zanzibar, followed by a discussion on the fertility for such an initiative in Accra on the basis of concrete examples.

The most important conclusions of the discussions were:

1 The model needs a small group of visionary investors, who are keen to take this up as a challenge. It was believed that in Accra such a group could be formed;

2 An extensively discussed issue was the land ownership situation, especially in James Town, the example that was taken as a potential pilot site. Many plots are in family ownership and traces of family history go back centuries. This on the one hand underpins the great heritage value of the property, on the other hand it may result in extensive negotiations with a large number of family members who all have or claim a say in an eventual transfer.

3 Also, it was mentioned that the value of the plots in Accra and/or James Town is overrated. Expectations of owners may be far too high. This is a potential problem.

4 Nevertheless, examples from for instance Johannesburg show that the potential of investment in built heritage can be very profitable. It means a critical look at sites and buildings in the larger region of Accra. Feasibility studies for buildings in James Town but also in other areas that historically are valuable need to be set up, to test the profitability. Similar studies have been set up in Paramaribo and Zanzibar, prior to the establishment of the respective companies.

5 There was a concern that projects undertaken by such a company would mean that original inhabitants would be evicted and replaced by wealthier inhabitants, so called gentrification. This is partly a fair point, but the example companies from Amsterdam, Surinam and Zanzibar have high standards in that sense and either give existing inhabitants the possibility to come back at decent costs, or offer alternative housing. Also, the companies contribute to job creation and by improving the urban environment; the chances for work and development are improving as well.

James Town with Sea View Hotel in the front (photo

ArchiAfrika and co-organiser Dasuda both issued reports on the event recently, each reflecting on the eventful February days with their own eyes. The ArchiAfrika Magazine showcases the great input that among others Lesley Lokko, Theo Lawson, Kunle Adeyemi, Isa Diabaté, Jean-Charles Tall and Mpho Matsipa had. The Dasuda publication focuses mainly on their fields of expertise. With the above, a more or less complete picture of the event emerges. Although it would have been better just to be there …

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