Urban encroachment in ecologically sensitive areas: drivers, impediments and consequences

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The drivers and consequences of unregulated urban expansion processes in Accra, Ghana, are examined together with the associated encroachment upon ecologically sensitive areas in the city’s rapidly growing periphery. Three sites are considered which attracted settlers from vastly different economic segments of the urban population from the 2000s and onwards. A combination of geographical information system (GIS)-based analysis, evidence from a recent household survey, insights from a range of key informant interviews and field observations provide evidence for the dynamics of urban expansion and settlement consolidation. These dynamics wield significant pressure on ecologically sensitive areas, e.g. wetlands, riparian zones and coastal lagoons, which are transformed into housing development through drainage, landfilling, channelling of streams and construction of barriers. Encroachment upon ecologically sensitive areas is associated with intensifying flood hazards. Key impediments are identified for the preservation of ecologically sensitive areas within the specific urban governance context of Accra. Encroachment is not necessarily driven by poverty or low income; it occurs for several socio-economic situations. Governance and enforcement in planning need improvement. Such insights must inform efforts to promote more sustainable trajectories of urban expansion, allowing cities to accommodate rapidly growing populations while preserving ecologically sensitive areas and benefiting from crucial ecosystem services.

Policy relevance

Critical impediments exist in planning urban expansion. Insights are provided on why ecologically sensitive areas are not sufficiently protected from urban encroachment. These include the intricacies of regulating land transactions in rural and peri-urban areas before incorporation into the built-up area of the city, the ambivalent and overlapping land administration systems, the strong incentives for traditional authorities to commercialise marginal land, the unfeasibility of policing permanent structures, and the lack of cooperation and coordination among local government entities concerning the management of urban watersheds. Within the urban governance context of Accra, encroachment upon ecologically sensitive areas constitutes a ‘wicked’ planning problem that defies rational, technical solutions and which is fraught with multi-causality, multiple perspectives and diverging interests. Insights into these complexities must inform efforts to promote more sustainable trajectories of urban expansion.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBuildings and Cities
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)920–938
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - 2022

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