Published on Sustainable Cities

A road by any other name: street naming and property addressing system in Accra, Ghana

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Street names in Accra, Ghana
Street names in Accra, Ghana. Photo credit: Ben Welle/ Flickr CC
When I used to work in Rwanda, I lived on a small street in Kigali. Every time I invited friends over, I would tell them to “walk past the Embassy, look out for the Church, and then continue to the house with the black gate.” The day a street sign was erected on my street was a game changer.

So how do more than two million citizens of Accra navigate the busy city without the help of street names? While some street names are commonly known, most streets do not have any official name, street sign or house number. Instead, people usually refer to palm trees, speed bumps, street vendors, etc.

But, what happens when the palm tree is cut or when the street vendor changes the location?

The absence of street names poses not only challenges for orientation, but also for property tax collection, postal services, emergency services, and the private sector. Especially, new economy companies, such as Amazon or Uber, depend on street addressing systems and are eager to cater to market demands of a growing middle class.

To address these challenges, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), financed by the World Bank’s second Land Administration Project , is implementing a street addressing and property numbering system in Accra. Other Metropolitan areas received funding from other World Bank-funded projects for similar purposes.

Street addressing system

The AMA’s Metropolitan Town and Country Planning Department (now the Land Use and Spatial Planning Authority), piloted the street addressing in three sub-metropolitan areas between 2010 and 2012, and rolled out the full program to all 10 Accra sub-metropolitan areas in three steps in 2013.

Step 1: Digitization
The AMA staff layered digitized existing block sketches with satellite imagery to identify new and unnamed streets.
Block sketch
Block sketch Photo credit: Linus Pott

Step 2: Training
Two hundred residents from the concerned areas were trained to verify the produced maps and identify streets that had not yet been captured. These were further validated by the AMA staff.
Map used for field work
Map used for field work. Photo credit: Linus Pott

Step 3: Naming of the Streets
Over 50 community and Steering Committee meetings, comprising local chiefs and civil servants, were created to propose street names. These were then printed on maps, and displayed in different locations per community for validation. Two city-wide validation forums were held to exhibit the proposed names to the public.
Map displayed for community validation
Map displayed for community validation. Photo credit: Linus Pott
When communities ran out of ideas for street names, a concept-based system was applied. The concepts are based on local food, dance, and festival names and some examples include: Coffee Crescent, Cocoa Street, and Cinnamon Street.

However, complaints about street names sometimes occurred when:
  • Existing street names were changed – a necessary process for street names that had been duplicated.
  • Local chiefs and communities could not agree on the boundaries of their areas. AMA solved this by ensuring that each chief and family in these areas could name similar numbers of streets.
  • Local chiefs and settlers in informal settlements wanted to make the decision on street names, since they considered themselves as the landowners.
Once these disputes were resolved and the street names validated, 3,782 street signs were erected, and 12,952 signs were posted in 2015.

The road ahead

While street naming can cause conflicts as it delves into the issue of overlapping family territories and the breadth of a local chief’s influence, it can also contribute to the resolution of unresolved conflicts. The combination of existing spatial data, participatory field work, and the use of geographic information systems (GIS) have proven to be necessary to generate street names on a large scale.  

Street naming not only facilitates urban planning, but also has far-reaching economic and social impacts , such as:
  • Increased revenue generation. Through the property identification exercise, new buildings were identified and can therefore be taxed.
  • The newly produced maps will form the basis for mass property valuations.
  • Emergency services can reach calls faster due to better navigation systems.
  • Drawing private sector interest. A company contacted the AMA to acquire the data to develop a navigation software for taxi drivers.
  • The banking sector can identify properties for loans and mortgages.
Now as the world's urban population steadily grows to reach 6 billion by 2045, I believe that street naming will be an important piece of the urban planning puzzle. As street names are a new concept in some areas, it might take a while before citizens get used to the new system. So how can we better bridge the imaginative ways local communities locate themselves in space with public geographical information systems? 

How will we ensure that the world’s cities keep up with street naming to build inclusive and sustainable communities?  

This blog post was written with input from Bernard Makafui Agbelengor (Accra Metropolitan Assembly, Land Use and Spatial Planning Authority, Ghana)

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Linus Pott

Senior Land Administration Specialist, Urban, Resilience and Land (URL) Global Practice

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