Accra: How mega is a megacity?

Mon, 20 Jun 2011 Source: Adom-Mensah, Yaw

Many of us may have heard of the latest buzz noun in urban diction – the megacity! This concept, realism, phenomena or perhaps disposition has acquired enormous prominence and depth especially within the last five years. Alongside, a new breed of global urban research and management has emerged. Currently, a number of programs have been initiated or are being actively developed to create the desired awareness on values, ideals, opportunities and challenges of the megacity. Cisco has the Smart Connected Communities Institute, ongoing, the World Bank is actively preparing to lunch its delayed Urbanization Knowledge Platform and media houses like the BBC recently with Andrew Marr aired a series of widely viewed documentaries on megacities.

So is the megacity really worth all this attention? In reality yes but in practicality no! From ancient Cairo to Athens, humanity has experienced some form of city cluster, concentration and agglomeration coalesced in harmonious or disoriented manner. We have also since the mid 1950’s observed the formation of polycentric clusters, conurbations or megalopolis’.

Part of a global trend, the world has become more urban than rural. Today more than 55% of humans are living in the urban centres with that figure projected to topple at least the 70% mark by mid-century. With it comes the obvious, a shift in attention towards a more urban focused policy dissemination, urgency and technical controls.

One factor is plausible, nonetheless; that increases in absolute population numbers directly increases factor demand variables, pressures, constraints and challenges that affect urban city life. The variables of interest include but not limited to conventional city management essentials such as waste, utility, transportation, trade, environment and security managements.

However, a fuzzy misconception comes from the actual definition of the megacity it-self, while generally speaking, the term megacity has become accepted to mean in absolute numbers – cities with a population of 10 million plus, the boundary of the city remains ambiguous – some are taken as urban conglomerates, others as metropolitan areas while other definitions focus on the inner city itself. In lay terms, emphasis on the city itself shares extended technical resemblance with the identification in function and classification of the central business district (CBD) during the 19th Century industrial city evolution. Comparing to the megacity variant, the city itself can be approximated as a sort of extended central business district (ECBD).

The urban conglomerates and metropolitan boundary categorization fails to draw a line in the sand and rely on certain subjective characteristics that connect two or more urban areas. In the United States for instance, the cities of New York and Newark which are part of the greater New York metropolitan area have an aggregate population in excess of 18 million residents and regarded as one of the world’s most foremost megacities and the most urbanized area in United States. Although the proximity of these two cities, about 18 kilometers apart largely account for their inclusion in the greater New York Metropolitan Area, the amount of human and non-human interactions engaged in a daily bi-directional flow between these two cities is more important to emphasize the communication links between them.

Urban centres such as Accra, in Ghana or for instance, Khartoum, in Sudan that per generic classifications are only middleweights –cities with a population between 150,000 and 10 million residents and far from being (conventional) megacities –exhibit their own degree of vastitude. As an example, each of them makes a disproportionate contribution to their national economies. Common to these cities and most in the developing world is the extent of control they have on their surrounding environments. These dominate cities unlike in developed regions attract a uni-directional flow of human and non-human resources at the expense of a fragile limitless environment visibly emptied within the national boundaries. The result, a constant requirement to design and implement [new] urbanization policies to deal with the increasing city challenges. As Harvard’s Edward Glaeser puts it: “In this age we can live in whatever sylvan spot appeals to our biophilia and just dial it in [to work], and yet we don’t”. Meaning, although population mobility options/choices have become substantially larger as a function of aggregate progress in time, yet we often choose to go where everybody else is likely to go. Glaeser‘s thought especially explains our observations in most developing regions such as the mass exodus of all worker categories to Accra although other options exist.

A recent practical approach to clarify megacities considers supplementing absolute numbers with city densities. However, this classification fails to properly distinguish relativity in densities from the spatial characteristics of the urban spaces and the external environment. Cities such as Accra continue to exhibit high urban primacy rates compounding urban economic inefficiencies and discrepancies in matching workers with jobs. A resulting effect is the desire to separate political / administrative activities from economic activities by creating an entirely new urban centre / city.

The Accra example offers new insights in the classification of megacities. A fundamental insight is to be relativistic and consider dominance in relation to a country’s upper population limits, socio-technical resourcefulness and urban management efficiencies. The dynamic complexities in urban management efficiencies should consider how the various worker categories – highly skilled, middle-level and hawkers – are affected by the urban systems and policies inferring from their aspirations.

Author: Yaw Adom-Mensah

School of Systems and Enterprises

Stevens Institute of Technology

APA Associate


Columnist: Adom-Mensah, Yaw