I needed to find the bus station or, to be more precise, the crowded stretch of road where buses leave Kumasi, Ghana’s second-largest city, for Accra. I had been told it was near my hotel, a less-than-gracefully aging hilltop villa near Kumasi’s famous market jammed with fruit, fish, cell phones, CDs and what seems like more used shoes than there are feet in Ghana. I asked Juliet, the hotel receptionist, for directions. She took me to the porch and pointed out over the half-built concrete-and-rebar structure across the street to a spot a few blocks away, where two large trees punctured the urban canopy.

“Do you see those two trees? The place you are looking for is underneath the bigger tree,” she said, demonstrating the kind of informal descriptors that Ghanaians use to navigate cities where streets frequently go unnamed and what names that exist are often ignored.

It’s not only visitors who find the system confusing.

“In Ghana, streets are not clearly identifiable. It’s a problem,” said Smile Dem Kwamukume, a senior public sector specialist with the World Bank. “You have to say, ‘Go find this mango tree and then go two houses and on the left is a yellow gate.’ It’s quite difficult.”

In many areas, the streets literally have no names – low-income squatter communities, for example, or new developments on the urban fringe built without coordination with municipal governments. That’s the kind of neighborhood Kwamukume lives in. There, none of the streets had names until he and his neighbors banded together to map the neighborhood, name the streets and post signs so visitors could find their way around.

In other places, however, streets do have names – the problem is that no one uses them. Either the names on the maps never made it onto signs, or the names on the signs never made it into common usage.

Thus arises the need for alternative navigation tools. Mango trees do, in fact, figure prominently, as do hotels, banks and other landmarks. Businesses post their own directional signs on street corners, making every major intersection a jumble of logos and arrows. The navigation system par excellence, however, is the mobile phone: “Do you know where Radio Gold is? Go there, and then call me. I’ll come get you.”

But the missing street names and house numbers cause deeper problems than inconveniencing visitors unfamiliar with the local distribution of mango trees. “When you go to the bank and open an account, the bank wants to know where you’re staying. You have to draw them a map so they can go to that place and verify that’s where you’re staying,” said Ben Boateng, Kumasi’s town planning officer. “Or imagine if there’s an emergency and you try to call the fire services to tell them there is a fire. You have to keep describing and describing and describing.”

All that describing may soon come to an end. Last year the government launched a national initiative that aims to name every street and number every parcel in the entire country of 24 million people, and do it in 18 months. The effort is supported by a number of grants from USAID, the World Bank and others.

That’s a lot of attention for an issue that – lost visitors and inconvenienced bank underwriters notwithstanding – may seem somewhat less pressing than many others facing Ghana’s cities. However, Kwamukume explains the urgency in terms that any municipal government can understand: Property taxes. Without names and addresses to attach to any given piece of property, it’s difficult for cities to collect much-needed revenue.

Ghana’s desire to give everyone in the country an official address can be summed up in two words: Property taxes. Photo credit: Francisco Anzola via Flickr

“We’re using it as a revenue generation mechanism for local governments,” said Kwamukume. The World Bank’s support for street naming in Accra totals about $4 million, although the grant ties into a much larger Bank commitment to land administration reform, including legal reforms to clarify ownership and information technology upgrades to improve record-keeping. “For us, the main thing is for the local government to identify the properties and get their revenue.”

So how do you name all the streets in an entire country? The first step is simply to take stock of what streets are out there. Peter Fricker, a USAID-funded consultant working on street naming in Western Ghana says the satellite maps that his project funds are often the first that planners in smaller towns had ever seen.

“Western planners are used to Google Earth and so maybe it sounds like no big deal, but here, this is the first time many planners have ever seen their district with a bird’s eye view,” he said. “It really can help them figure out what’s going on and where the problems are.”

Then, using these maps, field workers go door to door to find out who lives where. Finally, the new names are chosen. According to the national guidelines, the process is supposed to include consultation with traditional authorities and residents. It’s also supposed to follow the earnest national guidelines aimed at standardization and navigability: Streets should have one name along their entire length; short streets should have short names so they fit on the maps; it’s best to name the streets in a neighborhood based on a theme, like flowers; it’s best not to name streets after living people. (Apparently things get awkward if you name a street after someone who later ends up in jail).

Still, things don’t always go smoothly. Fricker says that before any permanent street sign is installed, the project sends field workers to stencil the new names onto a few buildings to see if anyone objects.

“Usually nothing happens, but about five percent of the time the residents show up and say they don’t like the names,” he said. In that case, the names will be re-discussed, the maps changed, the walls re-stenciled and finally, when no one objects, permanent signs ordered for installation.

To George Owusu, head of the geography department at the University of Ghana, it makes perfect sense that new street names are sometimes rejected.

“If you look at our cities very carefully, you will see that the streets already have names,” he said. “If you go into a neighborhood, the taxi drivers and the residents have some sense of what the places are called. The [street naming] policies should take a stand to recognize and formalize these names.”

Owusu says that with or without signs, street names won’t stick unless they resonate with residents.

“They came through and gave my street a name: Nii Something Something,” he said. (“Nii” is a title for a traditional authority.) “We had been calling it Acropolis or something like that. But they came through and put up a sign and painted the house numbers, but nobody uses them. Not even the people on that street.”

Christopher Cripps, an urban planning consultant and longtime resident of Ghana, agrees that putting up signs won’t necessarily change the way people describe or think about their surroundings. “My street in Accra has been renamed three times,” he said. “My house has had three numbers. Nothing has ever taken with any permanence.”

But he adds that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Everybody thinks about space in a certain way,” he said. “When you say, ‘The place you’re looking for is over there, past that big tree and past Johnny’s spot on the left,’ all these associations are incredibly rich and imaginative in the way they locate you in space. We shouldn’t take for granted that street names are progress. Because maybe in some ways they’re not.”

— RACHEL PROCTOR MAY


Want more? This story is part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Informal City Dialogues, a year-long collaboration with Next City exploring stories and insights from six rapidly urbanizing cities around the world. Find more like it at nextcity.org/informalcity.