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Building permanence: fire outbreaks and emergent tenure security in urban Ghana

  • Jeffrey W. Paller


Fire outbreaks are common sources of anxiety and insecurity in informal settlements, but they can also provide new opportunities for claim making and governance of urban space. This article examines how a series of four fires in Accra, Ghana – three of which took place in its largest squatter settlement – offered new opportunities to experiment with governance, or a new way for residents and leaders to imagine and construct the future. Empirically, I document how, in the process of reconstruction, residents redrew property lines and reshaped social relations. They did this through the emergent political action I call building permanence, or a physical claim to the urban space one inhabits, as well as a new existential state of being and living in environs that will last and remain unharmed. The article offers a possible way towards achieving more secure tenure beyond formalization and infrastructure upgrades, and focuses attention on how institutions change in the context of daily life after a moment of crisis.

Les incendies sont des sources courantes d'anxiété et d'insécurité dans les peuplements informels, mais ils peuvent aussi offrir de nouvelles opportunités de revendication et de gouvernance de l'espace urbain. Cet article examine comment une série de quatre incendies à Accra au Ghana (dont trois survenus dans son plus grand quartier d'habitat spontané) a donné l'occasion d'expérimenter la gouvernance, ou un nouveau moyen pour les résidents et les dirigeants d'imaginer et de construire l'avenir. De manière empirique, l'auteur relate comment, lors du processus de reconstruction, les résidents ont redéfini les limites de propriété et refaçonné les rapports sociaux. Ils l'ont fait par le biais de l'action politique émergente que l'auteur appelle « construction de permanence », ou une revendication physique à l'espace urbain habité, ainsi qu'un nouvel état existentiel d’être et de vivre dans un cadre qui va durer et rester intact. Cet article offre une voie possible vers une plus grande sécurité foncière, au-delà de la formalisation et des améliorations infrastructurelles, et se concentre sur la manière dont les institutions évoluent dans le contexte de la vie quotidienne après un moment de crise.



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