Tracing the Marine Drive, Accra

Łukasz Stanek compares colonial and postcolonial masterplans

The Marine Drive project, a large-scale coastal redevelopment in central Accra, broke ground in 2017 based on the plan by Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye. Government officials hailed the investment as a way to rectify the dilapidated condition of the area, boost Ghana’s tourism industry, and create jobs and revenue streams for the local inhabitants.1 Yet both Ghanaian and foreign journalists, academics, and activists have raised concerns that this business, commerce, tourism, and culture enclave would become a privatized space of elite consumption, noting in particular that it would displace low-income residents, urban farmers, and small businesses.2 The government rejected this critique and, during a visit to the site in 2019, Barbara Oteng-Gyasi, Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, added one more argument in favour of Marine Drive: that it would complete a project that “began during President Kwame Nkrumah’s era.”3

The area of the future Marine Drive stretches between two historic landmarks: the Anglican Cathedral in Jamestown and the Christiansborg Castle in Osu. Though it was included as part of a continuous coastal strip of open spaces in the first schematic master plan of Accra in 1944, the Marine Drive area was delineated as a planning unit in the subsequent 1958 master plan of the city, delivered just one year after Ghana’s independence.4 The designs for this area would then be revised many times by Ghanaian and foreign professionals over the course of the first decade of independence. During the socialist government of Kwame Nkrumah (1957–1966), Accra became a hub of anticolonial struggle and pan-African politics, as well as a hotspot in the Cold War. It was also a destination for architects, planners, and engineers arriving either on commercial contracts or as part of technical assistance offered by Western European countries, the United States, Israel, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and other Eastern European socialist countries.5 Yet, rather than working on a single unified plan, these foreign designers, together with their Ghanaian colleagues and decision-makers, envisaged an array of competing proposals for the Marine Drive area.

Given that these planning documents are numerous and dispersed in archives across several continents, accessing them is challenging. Equally challenging is analyzing them: how can one put into a conversation documents that stem from and reflect various planning traditions, professional practices, concepts, standards, and assumptions about political economy and society? Far from being specific to Marine Drive, such a dilemma is common when writing architecture histories of postcolonial African states, given that they were rapidly opened up to a range of architectural and planning expertise from beyond the former colonial metropolises in Western Europe. Studying the many plans for Marine Drive requires new techniques of comparing documents across multiple scales, going beyond a comparison based on predefined boundaries, whether imperial or national.

  1. “Tourism Minister Inspects Marine Drive Tourism Investment Project,” Business Ghana, 16 October 2019, 

  2. Tom Gillespie, “Accumulation by Urban Dispossession: Struggles over Urban Space in Accra, Ghana,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 41, no. 1 (January 2016): 66–77. 

  3. “Tourism Minister Inspects Marine Drive.” 

  4. Accra: A Plan for the Town. The Report for the Minister of Housing (Accra: Town Country Planning Division, 1958). This plan was delivered by B. A. W. Trevallion and Alan G. Hood under the direction of W. H. Barrett at the Town Planning Division at the Ministry of Housing. 

  5. Łukasz Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism. Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), 34–95. 

Tracings of two drawings from the 1958 master plan, Accra: A Plan for the Town, superimposed on the current map of Accra. The first is the land use and transportation plan, the second is the “Accra Central Area Development” plan (the tracing is limited to the Marine Drive area). The panel on the right allows to switch on and off particular elements of each tracing and explains their meaning.

Digital tracing of archival cartographic material is one such technique. Tracing has been frowned on by architecture scholars, who have contrasted the open-ended and potentially subversive practice of mapping with the ostensibly redundant and subservient practice of tracing.1 However, rather than a procedure of mere replication, I argue that tracing offers a way of critically reading a drawing, one that takes time and requires equal attention to each line, however thin.2 It is not a celebration of the gestures of an architect, but an opportunity to speculate on the assumptions that these gestures extended, expressed, and reinforced.

Digital tracing involves scanning and georeferencing cartographic documents, and then redrawing them within the Geographic Information System (GIS) environment. The resulting vector graphic (shapefile) is an object-oriented database that consists of discrete objects that are grouped into the three parent classes of points, lines, and polygons. Within each class, objects branch into more specific classes, characterized by attributes (textual or numerical) and distinct functionalities.3 Such a translation from a raster document into a vector graphic is an interpretative procedure that requires discerning often partially preserved or discolored archival material and negotiating frequently inconsistent symbology. In this sense, a shapefile is not a tool detached from the process of its production; rather, the process of producing shapefiles is an opportunity for a historian to record and reflect upon the techno-political regimes within and across which the architects and planners worked.

The challenges of working within a GIS environment are well known. Social historians and geographers have pointed out that GIS technology presupposes and reproduces reductive ontologies of spaces as homogenous containers, while the quantitative nature of databases is often unable to do justice to the ambiguous and enigmatic character of historical documents.4 Other scholars have voiced more fundamental objections to historiography that privileges maps, whether they are manually or digitally produced, given the entanglement of cartography in techniques used by state and military structures to surveil, normalize, correct, and racialize populations.5 These reservations are particularly relevant in the context of colonial Accra and its coast, which had been contested and negotiated by various groups since the eighteenth century. Indigenous Ga inhabitants and their political, religious, and military leaders, as well as Accra’s tradesmen, market women, educated African elites, migrants from neighbouring kingdoms, and Europeans competed over the uses and representations of the city’s coastal spaces.6

While tracing cartographic documents cannot capture all these struggles over the social production of space, it can reveal the violence behind mapping and planning, and uncover some of the everyday practices that are at odds with a map’s dominant rhetoric. Two drawings from the documentation of the 1958 Accra master plan can be used as starting points for the tracing of Marine Drive: the “Accra Central Area Development” plan and the general land use and transportation plan. The former, a black-and-white line drawing (61 x 76 cm, 1:5000 scale, no legend), was conceived of by Halcrow & Partners, a British engineering consulting firm that oversaw many development projects in West Africa during the late colonial period, in collaboration with Geoffrey Alan Jellicoe and Sylvia Crowe, two prominent British landscape architects. The plan was commissioned by the government as part of the Independence Day Improvements Programme, which prepared Accra to be the capital of an independent nation, but it remained unrealized.7 According to the commentary accompanying the master plan, the Marine Drive area was envisaged as the “forecourt or front garden of Accra” to provide a “vital part of the setting” of major governmental buildings, including the Government House, the Independence Arch, the Government Ministerial area, and the site for the future Parliament.8

The Central Area Development plan was originally drawn on top of a survey of existing buildings, topography, property boundaries, vegetation, roads, and footpaths, but with no symbology to identify and name these elements. Furthermore, some graphic patterns were used not only to represent designed elements but also to obscure existing conditions—to veil old buildings and create a backdrop for future ones. The tracing process therefore relies on the geometry, thickness, and articulation of each line in order to distinguish and classify them in a GIS environment. Tracing refracts these patterns into separate layers, making visible the key distinction between the buildings, vegetation, and paths that were part of the new vision, usually drawn with thicker lines, and those to be removed, contoured with thinner lines. While at the first glance the Central Area Development plan gives the impression that it would have resulted in a dense landscape, tracing these shapes onto separate layers reveals that the Marine Drive design was a clearance project, with the 117 buildings destined for demolition vastly outnumbering the 25 to be retained or constructed. The “front garden of Accra” was conceived of to replace the heterogenous reality of the city’s coastline, consisting of old port infrastructure, warehouses, and commercial buildings, as well as government offices deemed temporary. Also at the mercy of the clearing process were the economic activities of low-income inhabitants of the area, notably sand extraction and refuse disposal, indicated in the original survey by thin, winding lines representing footpaths that connect the beach with the city.

The second relevant drawing from the 1958 master plan of Accra is the land use and transportation plan, a colour drawing (61 x 76 cm, 1:20,000 scale, with a legend) that was the main planning document. It is by superimposing this drawing on the Central Area Development plan that the extent of the proposed demolitions becomes clear. The former plan demonstrates that core components of the urban design, such as the development around Ussherfort and the new public park opposite the Supreme Court, required large-scale demolitions not only along the coastal strip but also in neighbouring areas. The majority of the cleared land was subsequently zoned as “open public space,” with allocations for “open private spaces.” As the urban design shows, the latter included clusters of existing clubs and a community centre, while the former included government buildings and sports facilities, such as the cricket oval, football pitches, golf grounds, and a seaside area with a swimming pool, bathing facilities, and restaurants. The plan also located the future National Theatre near the Christiansborg Castle.9

These programs make it clear that the Marine Drive area was predominantly planned to be used by the emerging civil service and business elite of an independent Ghana. However, within only a few years of the 1958 plan, new proposals for Marine Drive reimagined its intended users to include much broader population groups, reflecting the sharp turn toward a socialist development path under Kwame Nkrumah. For example, Black Star Square, which was expanded several times over the course of the 1960s, was conceived of to accommodate rallies in support of the leader. Other designs for Marine Drive followed, often including areas for collective leisure, culture, and education that were at odds with the elitism of the 1958 plan: Italian architects designed a set of smaller pavilions along the coastline; a Bulgarian design institute proposed an ensemble of large sport and cultural buildings located strategically in the landscape; and designers at the School of Architecture of the Kwame Nkrumah Institute of Science and Technology in Kumasi put forward “Accra 2000,” a multifunctional, futuristic plan that included a platform floating in the ocean. Ghana’s planning institutions, notably the Town and Country Planning Department and the Ghana National Construction Corporation, delivered more realistic blueprints, including the partially implemented plan of the Osu gardens and the unbuilt mausoleum for Kwame Nkrumah.10

Comparing these numerous documents from archives in Ghana, Europe, and North America reveals the multiplicity of visions for the Marine Drive area that were put forward under Nkrumah. The current plan by Adjaye Associates shows several parallels with the 1958 Central Area Development plan, notably the delineation of Marine Drive as a single planning unit, its vision as a “forecourt of Accra” with monumental buildings, and the provision of services that cater to high-income users. However, these three decisions were questioned in several other blueprints delivered in the course of the 1960s, which proposed that sections of Marine Drive be zoned together with specific areas of central Accra and suggested more egalitarian programs and buildings at more intimate scales. Since the planning proposals developed during the Nkrumah period outlined competing urban visions, they cannot be used to legitimize any particular design strategy for Marine Drive today. However, revisiting them, and the varied imaginations of everyday life they conveyed, shows a broader, more diverse, and more inclusive spectrum of possibilities for Accra’s coastal development.

  1. James Corner, “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention,” in Mappings, ed. Denis Cosgrove (London: Reaktion, 1999), 213–214. 

  2. On tracing of architectural drawings, see Ray Lucas, Drawing Parallels: Knowledge Production in Axonometric, Isometric and Oblique Drawings (New York: Routledge, 2019). 

  3. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 194–195; Michael Goodchild, “Combining Space and Time: New Potential for Temporal GIS,” in Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, eds. Anne Kelly Knowles and Amy Hillier (Redlands, CA: ESRI, 2008), 179–198. 

  4. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, eds., The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010). 

  5. Alberto Giordano and Tim Cole, “The limits of GIS: Towards a GIS of Place,” in Transactions in GIS 22, no. 3 (June 2018): 664–676. 

  6. John Parker, Making the Town: Ga State and Society in Early Colonial Accra (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann; Oxford: James Currey, 2000). 

  7. Accra: A Plan for the Town, 27–28, 114. 

  8. Accra: A Plan for the Town, 113. 

  9. Accra: A Plan for the Town, 114–115.  

  10. Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism, 34–95. 

The tracings produced during this research are part of the GIS database of sixteen architectural and planning documents for Accra’s coast delivered during the late colonial and early postcolonial period. The database results from the course “Accra Futurism” taught by Łukasz Stanek at the Manchester School of Architecture (University of Manchester, UK) and Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning (University of Michigan, USA), from 2018 to 2020. Participants in charge of the displayed maps were Julia Arska and Ariel Chesley (MSA) and Katherine Lai (TCAUP). Postproduction: Łukasz Stanek; software: QGIS; GIS support: Jonny Huck.

Łukasz Stanek wrote this text as part of his research for the Multidisciplinary Research Project Centring Africa: Postcolonial Perspectives on Architecture.


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