Liberia: Monrovia’s Crowded Urban Spaces

... Pollution and Congestion in the wake of Urban Stress and Deprivation – The Experience of a Returnee

By David Z. Logan

I recently concluded a three-week visit to Monrovia from October to November 2022. This write-up is a few of my thoughts and experiences during the visit with an additional reflection on the future management of the city. To begin with, getting around in Monrovia’s urban spaces is cumbersome and a commuter’s nightmare. 

Somehow, the city managers and urban and transport planners have decided to reconstruct all three major road arteries in the city at about the same time. Entry into Monrovia from the northeast via Kakata through to the Red Light District (market) is a nightmare due to the ongoing reconstruction of the ELWA to the Coca-Cola Road axis and the Omega market bottleneck. From the south-eastern end of the country via Robertsfield (RIA) axis, there is also the famous reconstruction of the airport entry route into Monrovia connecting the ELWA to Liberia Revenue Authority intersection on Tubman Boulevard. All of these works are ongoing simultaneously!

And as if these are not enough, there has been the recent completion of the Duala Market building project causing further delayed access into the city from the Western (Cape Mount and Bomi) axis. The Duala Market is an important but congested open-air market in Greater Monrovia covering an area of about 0.20 km2.  These are all remarkable urban planning and project delivery efforts. It however ignores the need for efficient mobility of the population for the needed delivery of public and private services that serve as the lifeblood of urban life. 

How did we get here

It is interesting that my visit, in part, coincided with the anticipated launch of the 2022 National Population and Housing Census. Let’s remind ourselves that census data provides critical information for urban planning, transformation and delivery of services. 

Monrovia’s spatial demography has followed an important trend, showing clearly an increase in the population of the city relative to its land area and social and economic infrastructure. Greater Monrovia is the capital region of Liberia and the nucleus of the country’s economy. Over 40% of Liberians live in Greater Monrovia, which comprises the cities of Monrovia and Paynesville as well as 12 smaller townships. Urban areas in Liberia are classified with a population of more than 2,000 persons. 

By LISGIS’ own account, the total population of the Greater Monrovia area was 970,824 in 2008. However, compared to the overall population of Montserrado County (1,118,241), one soon realizes that out of every ten persons living in Montserrado, about nine reside in Greater Monrovia (87 percent). 

Furthermore, Montserrado County, of which Monrovia comprises 87 percent of its population, has the highest population growth rate of 3.5% as compared to other counties and the national population growth rate of 2.1%. Despite the drop in the average household size from 5.4 persons per household in 1984 to 4.7 in 2008, the total population of the capital has increased (LISGIS, 2009). 

The reasons for Monrovia’s high population growth include an upsurge in both rural-to-urban migration and inter-urban migration. The larger economy of Liberia is centered mainly in Monrovia, and there are large disparities between Monrovia and other parts of the country in terms of wealth, infrastructure, and possibilities for citizen participation in city governance.

During the civil war when Monrovia was under the control of peacekeeping forces, many rural Liberians fled to Monrovia for safety and security. Since the conflict ended, many of those internally displaced persons have chosen to remain in the city and can be seen working as security guards at many of the city’s supermarkets and other small businesses, while others do menial jobs across the city.

Like cities across Africa, the development of infrastructure and social services can hardly keep pace with rapid population growth, leaving many of Monrovia’s poorer neighborhoods in slum-like conditions. Combined with extensive war damage, Monrovia faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding at the same time as expanding its urban infrastructure. It is therefore understandable that the urban transport network needs to be improved — but to do so all combined and at the same time with so much congestion is bewildering.

According to a recent World Bank Report, the Greater Monrovia Urban Review, 2020, Liberia enjoys the characterization together with the Central African Republic, as being the only two countries that have experienced urbanization without economic growth. Past and present trends show that the population of persons living in urban areas in Liberia has been on the increase since 1974. Past census data show that 29 percent of the population of Liberia was living in urban areas in 1974 and the level of urbanization increased to 39 percent in 1984 and 47 percent in 2008. The current projected population of Monrovia is 1.6 million (2022) and is expected to reach 2.1 million (by 2030). 

Urban population growth can sometimes be beneficial especially if it is matched by a concomitant increase in urban trade and industry and the provision of employment. It is therefore a continuing worrying sign that Monrovia, like the rest of Liberia urban areas, is caught in this non-economic growth dynamism.  

My observations

On a typical day in Monrovia, a gridlock of vehicles and Keh-keh (mini tricycle taxis) run bumper to bumper, amid the tooting of deafening horns, throughout the city. This is even more so in the crowded adjoining urban communities of Red Light, ElWA junction, and the Duala market axis. Hundreds of weary-looking and frustrated members of the traveling public are seen shoving each other at parked buses, taxis, and Keh-keh stops, as they try to outmuscle each other to access commercial vehicles.

In addition, scores of pedestrians can also be seen struggling to meander their way through the traffic jam in a desperate attempt to get to their destinations. The various road users are constantly competing for the same inadequate road infrastructure that has no provisions for other means of urban mobility thereby offering limited options for pedestrians. No wonder motorbike accidents are commonplace. The victims of the accidents are taken to hospitals and other emergency wards and clinics in and around Monrovia.

Monrovia urban planners and city managers will need to reinforce its urban resilience systems (awareness, coping, adapting, and transforming) the urban spaces. Clearly, cities that invest in and implement policies to build resilience are better equipped to withstand shocks, address chronic stresses, and mitigate the risks derived from both. Weak urban resilience, on the other hand, perpetuates the poverty trap: the urban poor, particularly those living in unsafe areas and informal settlements, are often the most vulnerable to risk.

Planning implications of such rapid urbanization in the absence of efficient urban services, mobility and jobs 

Monrovia urban governance officials must begin to plan for other urban transport modes. The recently completed Redlight to Gardnerville and the Freeport axis seems a good place to start. This is an urgent requirement. A river transport system right through from Paynesville to the downtown waterside, and waterfront areas will greatly enhance the scenic beauty and promote the return of entertainment and other businesses.

The downtown Monrovia old central business district (CBD) can also be redesigned to accommodate a bicycle riding culture and link this to historical preservation and urban tourism initiatives that will rope in  Providence Island, Providence Baptist Church, Centennial Pavilion, the National Museum to the Ducor Hotel and Masonic Temple on the Mesurabo hills — all in downtown Monrovia. Planning for, and developing open urban spaces to serve as digital technology hubs that ‘plug in’ with existing services for young people, including the YMCA, etc., can restore vibrancy to the downtown areas.

Such an initiative will bring back jobs and growth, decent dining experiences, and vintage heritage shops. This should happen alongside the new trend that is shaping businesses away from the central downtown to the access routes into the city, especially along the Kakata-Fendell and ELWA to Robertsfield highways that are closely following the growth of residential neighborhoods along these axes.

The great urban planner of New York (NY), Mr. Robert Moses took on a similar gargantuan task when he reshaped the urban landscape and infrastructure of the city of NY early in this century. Moses’s far-reaching planning approaches and dynamism gave New York City and other public spaces in the entire state of New York its world-famous accolades. Under Robert Moses’s leadership, public parks, beltways, highways, bridges, public housing and the famous Niagara Falls in upstate NY were built.

These monumental infrastructures generated, and the urban service economy have given the city of New York its acclaimed status. Empowering city states have been shown to be good for growth.  Monrovia is in desperate need for jobs for its teeming young population. Skills will have to be built among this segment of the population and a culture of discipline must be ingrained to attract the needed investment for jobs and additional urban infrastructure and services.

China, Rwanda and other countries have developed the policies that empower local urban communities and their municipal/metropolitan governments to lead the improvement in urban services and by extension, economic growth.

Can Monrovia pick the signals for the economic growth revival of its urban spaces and services? 

One option is to use the issuance of municipal bonds to finance its urban renewal and resilience. The capacity for financing through bonds and other investment instruments will first have to be developed among key stakeholders and partners. Skills building will be critical and there are likely to be willing partners, the banks and insurance service providers, estate and other property developers etc.   In this direction, the return of the French development agency – Agence Francaise de Development (AFD) is a welcome development.

David Logan is a Policy Analyst. In the past, he has worked at the University of Liberia and the Ministry of Health in Monrovia.