Naming streets in urban slums part of a “street-based” upgrading approach

About half the world's urban dwellers live on streets with names. The other half don't. (World Bank)

About half of the world’s urban dwellers live on streets that don’t have names. Ghana is trying to reverse that problem in its fast-growing cities, an effort that is the subject of Citiscope’s urban innovation feature this week.

The World Bank’s Catherine Farvacque-Vitkovic has been involved in the project in Ghana and many other previous street naming exercises across Africa. She’s the co-author of the book Street Addressing and the Management of Cities and also teaches an online course in street addressing for local officials throughout the world.

I spoke with Farvacque-Vitkovic about why street addressing is such a big problem in the developing world, and some of the things cities can do once they get a handle on it.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Swope: How widespread is this problem of cities not having street names?

Catherine Farvacque-Vitkovic: It’s a very broad problem. Over 50 percent of the world’s urban dwellers do not have access to named streets.

In societies where there’s a high rate of urbanization, you may have an inner core or historic center which had been addressed in the past. The problem in many places is with extensions of the city and peri-urban areas. They may have a street addressing and numbering system and a map of the inner city, but beyond that nothing has been updated.


Ghana’s national quest to name city streets

Interview with street addressing expert Catherine Farvacque-Vitkovic

But giving names to streets is not really the problem we’re trying to solve with street addressing. The real problem is that they don’t have access to services.

So the issue includes a number of things. It includes a mapping exercise of the city. In developed countries this is a given, but in many developing cities we do not have up-to-date maps. It also provides an opportunity to provide a database of urban dwellers and to harmonize what you have in your database with actual locations.

So what street addressing is, really, is a city management tool.

Q: Other than the problem of people getting lost, why is not having street names and addresses a problem in developing cities?

A: One often overlooked item is the idea of civic identity. If you take the example of Africa, people often identify more with the villages they came from than with the city they’ve been living in for maybe 20 years. So having not just an address and a number but also being connected to the city is very much a part of the street addressing philosophy. It’s very difficult to quantify, but based on our experience of street addressing implementation and the feedback we get, this is a very important item.

Q: Why is that so important?

A: We have found that in the case of informal settlements, if you include street addressing in an upgrading program, you immediately get a sense of people having more pride in their own neighborhood. They also have a connection where people start contributing to city taxes. So there’s a lot of unseen or invisible benefits, but they’re there.

In the past, most urban upgrading programs have been high-tech and done top-down, with the beneficiary neighborhoods determined by the central government. So you had these very costly investments at the neighborhood level. We’ve realized that by doing everything at the neighborhood  level, you’re confining the impact of upgrading.

“Having not just an address and a number but also being connected to the city is very much a part of the street addressing philosophy.”

Instead of doing neighborhood-level projects, it’s better to do less but on a larger scale throughout the city.  And when you look at what can be done and have a great impact on informal settlements, a street-based approach seems the most promising. By street-based, essentially what we’re talking about is first, street addressing; second, street rehabilitation and maintenance, including rainwater drainage; and third, street lighting for security purposes.

If we were to really be innovative when it comes to upgrading programs, these are the items that should be on any central government’s list. Not small-scale, unsustainable, non-replicable little projects where we do everything. Rather, looking at the whole city, at the street level. It’s street-based upgrading. And street addressing is key for that. It provides the mapping and data you need to make a decision on what you do next.

Q: What about the link with property taxation?

A: That’s another key topic application for us. Street addressing is an alternative to previous efforts aimed at mapping property ownership. Not a replacement but an alternative. Instead of looking at plots and parcels of land, and getting bogged down into the demarcation of plot boundaries,  it’s looking at the street level blocks instead of plots. And we take a step back from all the problems of identifying the rightful owners of property, and focus instead on occupancy. That’s a major, profound departure.

And we have found that by doing so, we are able to link the street data or street index with the fiscal registers done by cities. It’s quite powerful. By doing that, we’re often able to improve the collection of taxes by 20 to 25 percent.

Q: Why is that more effective?

A: The records are not up to date. They’re not accurate and they do not have an address. They might have someone registered, but they’re not at an address where you can find and bill the taxpayer. So by using a street addressing database and index, you can update the fiscal register and also include the exact address.

Q: Why is the property side of this such a problem?

A: In many countries, defining property and ownership is very difficult. You may have cases where there’s multiple claims on the same plot of land. And there are many places where the judicial system is not functioning properly, so there’s nobody there to sort out property rights. At the same time, you have a land administration system that’s dysfunctional and behind the reality on the ground. So without any of the institutional infrastructure, it makes it difficult for any type of dispute on property rights to be resolved in a short amount of time.

In the past, many of our projects got really bogged down trying to define property rights and identify rightful owners. Now we’re moving to a more street-based upgrading approach.

Q: Ghana has a national project to name all city streets now the president last year set an 18-month deadline. But similar efforts there have failed in the past. Why is this difficult?

A: First, you need political commitment. You need a champion, a leader. I used to work in Ghana, and we had a finance minister who understood really well what street addressing could do to local revenues. And he was keen to have street addressing done in many municipalities in the country. But this gentleman passed away, so there was a vacuum and nobody picked it up.

“For street addressing to work is it needs to be owned by the municipality. You have to have a dedicated unit within government in charge of updating it.”

The second thing is you need to make sure that you do it right. That’s why we put together this book, and we also do an e-learning course. We’re trying to pass on the word that street addressing is certainly not high-tech, it’s not rocket science, but it does require a process and a methodology.

One thing that’s important for street addressing to work is it needs to be owned by the municipality. You have to have a dedicated unit within government in charge of updating it and making the connections between the street addressing data and maps and the other departments in the municipality such as the tax department and others.

To me, this is what’s most interesting about street addressing. Not what it is, but what you do with it.

Q: What are some more of the applications?

A: One is public assets and asset management. A lot of municipalities around the world do not know what they own in terms of land and public buildings. So it’s very difficult for them to program investments and resources for maintenance. One thing  street addressing can do is give you an inventory of public assets. That’s a very useful application.

Many countries have made a connection between street addressing and solid waste management. And street addressing and road maintenance. Using the map and the household survey included in the database, we can help prioritize road maintenance on an annual basis. And we can help design and implement solid waste collection.

We had a case in Conakry, Guinea. The city was in a shambles when it came to solid waste, they  had informal landfills everywhere in the city. We were able to use the street addressing map and database and work with them on designing solid waste zones and the best road to use to get from waste transfer sites to landfills.  

Q: Do these efforts get pushback from people who are just fine with the property tax system being broken?

A: People are willing to pay taxes if the services are rendered,  if they see something visible. So it’s part of the communication strategy where you need to make sure the population and community groups are on board and understand the pros and cons.

The only big issue we encountered was one time we had a governor who was a former security chief, and he wanted to identify where dissidents to the regime would be. He saw street addressing as a way to not only map but also locate where the dissidents live. That was not the intended use of this type of program!

Q: I’ve heard that naming streets after living people is a bad idea because it can incite arguments. What makes for a good street name?

A: In Sekondi-Takoradi in Ghana, when I saw the streets they came up with, they had Galaxy Street, Jerk Close Street. I asked them, did I miss the latest Star Trek episode? They wanted to stay away from political debates and find names that were politically neutral. And that’s fine, as long as people can remember the names.


Ghana’s national quest to name city streets

Interview with street addressing expert Catherine Farvacque-Vitkovic

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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