Douglas C. Comer, Ph.D.

Director, US/ICOMOS Cultural Site Analysis Initiative

Historic Cape Coast Site Analysis

Utilizing Geographical Information System (GIS) and Aerial Imagery Analysis Technology for Integrated Planning


All landscapes in our time are cultural landscapes. This is nowhere more apparent than in the historic district of Cape Coast, Ghana where shrines of high aesthetic value are spread throughout the city and ceremonies with roots entwined with events of great historic significance are frequent occurrences. Preservation of the World Heritage Site and historic district there will ultimately depend upon understanding the interrelationship among a variety of cultural and natural parameters. A landscape analysis utilizing remote sensing and GIS technology is being conducted at Cape Coast in the service of planning for a revitalized town that will preserve not only historic sites, but traditional cultural forms as well. As importantly, poverty reduction is a goal of this project. A successful plan and implementation will enhance the economic status of groups that occupy the historic district, generally the most impoverished among urban residents.

Historical Background

The Central Region of Ghana contains a number of fifteenth through eighteenth century forts and related structures that served historically as the most important nodes in a trading network that linked Africa, Europe, and the New World. Among these structures are three World Heritage Sites: Cape Coast Castle, Elmina Castle, and Fort St. Jago. They are situated along a coastline remarkable for its natural beauty and among cities and villages that retain traditional lifeways and numerous historic structures, many related to the important trading history of the region.

The commerce along what was once known as the Gold Coast included not only gold and cocoa, but also the infamous slave trade. Because slaves were put on ships to the New World from the castles, preserving the castles is essential to the accurate telling of a history that is both a profoundly disturbing and significant episode in world history. In recent years, the castles have undergone extensive conservation. The structures are now stable, and enhanced interpretive programs are attracting considerable numbers of international tourists, notably Americans of African descent.

Providing Economic Benefits to an Increasingly Impoverished Local Community

The benefits of increasing tourism, however, have not accrued to the populations of the towns in which the World Heritage Sites are located. The situation of the town of Cape Coast, which is the focus of this study, is typical. Tourists arrive on buses, visit the castle briefly, and depart without staying in local hotels, visiting related historic sites and other cultural attractions, visiting nearby Kakum National Park, or purchasing local handicrafts. Many are probably unaware of the broad range of sites and activities that exist within the town or are nearby. Those who are aware of potential attractions are probably uncertain as to how to get to them or to find lodging and food if they do.

This is especially unfortunate because stimulation of the economic condition of Cape Coast is urgently needed. Buildings are collapsing, those few utilities and sanitary facilities that exist are in urgent need of repair, and roads need to be upgraded.

Cape Coast and other towns that contain historic sites are rapidly becoming living places for the poor, as more affluent residents move to the suburbs to escape the deteriorating infrastructures and unsatisfactory living conditions of the towns.

Sensitive and Sustainable Site Development

Bringing the economic benefits of tourism to Cape Coast can be accomplished by

increasing the length of time visitors stay, which in particular involves:

Some Historic Sites in Cape Coast

This can be accomplished in a sustainable way only by providing appropriate access to the potential attractions of the town. That is, access should be managed in such a way as to minimize disruption to the daily life of the town, or more broadly to prevent damage to the social cohesion of the community. Residents must feel as if the benefits of tourism outweigh its detriments or site developments made for the purpose of enhancing tourism will not be sustained. Access must be structured in a culturally sensitive way especially because attractions include not only historic structures and districts, but also other cultural experiences. Other cultural experiences potentially available to visitors include shrines, many of high aesthetic value, and ceremonies with performances of traditional songs and dances. In particular, these sorts of attractions are best thought of as opportunities for cultural interaction from which all participants can learn to better understand other views of the world and alternate expressions of essential human concerns.

Shrines in Cape Coast and Elmina

GIS as a Tool for Site Analysis Prior to Planning and Design
The analysis is utilizing aerial and satellite imagery analysis being conducted with the use of ERDAS IMAGINE software donated by the ERDAS Corporation, and spatial analyses carried out with the use of ArcView software and its extensions, which have been donated by Esri Corporation. Esri has entered into a multi-year program of support for the Cultural Site Analysis Initiative. Imagery enhanced, analyzed, and brought into the GIS includes declassified American intelligence Corona satellite photographs, color aerial photographs obtained by Conservation International and donated to the project, and various black and white aerial stereo pairs. The aerial stereo pairs had been utilized by the Survey Department of Ghana to produce topographic maps. As a part of GIS construction, digital data from these maps were used to produce surface models that were in turn utilized in viewshed, hydrological, and other analyses.

The analysis and its GIS are also incorporating information presented in two inventories of Cape Coast infrastructure. These are:

It can not be overemphasized, however, that an essential part of the GIS is being provided by Cape Coast residents or residents of nearby areas who have intimate knowledge of the cultural sites and setting of the town. These residents have identified traditional use areas as well as recommendations as to appropriate levels of access to these areas by visitors. Without such local knowledge, for example, open areas that are periodically used as sites for ceremonies would go unrecognized as traditional use areas. Some traditional use areas, in particular certain shrines, are considered by local groups to be inappropriate subjects for photography. A visit to many areas by an unknown person would be regarded as an invasion of privacy. Involving local persons in data collection, a serious effort is being made to incorporate the experience of living on the landscape into the analysis

Ferdinand Addo, who comes from Cape Coast and is the Deputy Project Director for the US/ICOMOS Consolidation Phase, Natural Resources Conservation and Historic Preservation Project, Central Region, Ghana, greatly assisted in collection of data for the GIS, as did Gina Haney, the Project Director, who is living in Cape Coast. Data collection is also being accomplished by survey teams of architecture students from the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, and national service workers.

These persons are also conducting an inventory of historic sites and districts in Cape Coast. Major historic structures include Cape Coast Castle itself, Government House, Gothic House, Fort William, and Fort Victoria.

Initial results of the site analysis have been presented in a number of maps that have been provided to those who will participate in a design charette in late August of 1999. Some of these maps appear in this paper (see example at left). These maps are, however, static documents that have been generated by a dynamic system. The GIS contains a great deal of data, both spatial and tabular, that can be queried in any number of ways. The GIS will be available to query interactively during the August charette.


Broadly speaking, the results of the site analysis, conducted and presented largely by means of a GIS, will be used to:

Construction of the GIS will also contribute greatly to empowering local stewardship institutions and involving the public in preservation efforts. Experience in planning for park and cultural and natural site management over the past two decades indicates that effective management is not possible without substantial public support. The manner in which the GIS will be formulated and the analysis conducted will help to enlist this necessary public support.

Capacity Building

The Cape Coast site analysis is a demonstration project of the US/ICOMOS Cultural Site Analysis Initiative. It is a goal of this initiative to develop the capacity to employ remote sensing and GIS technology at a number of laocations in the world. In addition to Ghana, other countries where nodes of cultural resource management expertise from which remote sensing and GIS technology can be deployed for the purposes of identifying and preserving cultural sites include Thailand, Cambodia, Jordan, western China, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. The support of Esri and ERDAS Corporations, mentioned earlier, is crucial to this program. Special thanks are due to Samuel Aboah, the owner of Sambus, Inc., of Accra, Ghana, the company that is the Esri distributor for West Africa. Sambus provided computers and an instructor, Albert Attoh. Mr. Attoh taught a basic GIS course to a group from the Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust (GHCT) and the US/ICOMOS team stationed in Ghana in Cape Coast. This first course was taught in November of 1998, during a field inspection I made prior to beginning the GIS analysis. During the balance of the project it is the intent of US/ICOMOS and the Cultural Site Analysis Initiative to increase the proficenincy of personnel based in Ghana so that they can eventually maintain, expand, and employ the GIS data base in the management of the Cape Coast historic district. Much of the existing GIS was constructed in the United States with data provided by filed personnel and residents in Ghana, as described above. I was assisted in constructing the GIS by two graduate students in the Historic Preservation program at the University of Maryland, College Park. These graduate students were Sarah Dangelas and Paula Miller. If sufficient funding can be obtained, these graduate students will be detailed to Ghana for a period to increase their familiarity with the site and to better coordinate their work with personnel residing in Ghana.

Summary of Cultural Parameters

In summary, cultural parameters in the GIS will include not only data relevant to historic structures and archaeological sites and features, but also features on the landscape of social and economic significance to the members of present day cultures. Data collection for some of the following has been largely completed, for other has begun, and for still others will be accomplished in the future:

Differences in standards for existing facilities will be identified (e.g., paved, unpaved, gravel surfaced roads; unsurfaced trails and boardwalks; visitor centers, administration buildings, restrooms).

Summary of Natural Parameters

The relationship of the natural environment to cultural site preservation is intimate. One can not understand why structures and other remnants of past human activities are located as they are without reference to naturally occurring features such as sources of water and habitats that support animal and plant species useful to humans. Cultural sites can not be preserved unless one understands how natural processes either threaten or are compatible with site locations.

Information about the environment pertinent to site management concerns is being extracted from maps that contain, along with locations of structures and roads, hypsographical data. These maps were recently produced photogrammetrically, using stereoscopic aerial photographs, by a private firm under contract with the Ghana Survey Department. Elevation models, hydrology models, and viewshed models, and other models have been derived from the hypsographical data. These models will be used to help determine optimal siting for improvements, and to identify environmental and cultural processes (erosion, development) that are threatening archaeological and other cultural resources

Summary of Analyses

The various themes, or layers of information, described above will make possible a variety of analyses that will guide planning and development in the Central Region of Ghana in ways that are sustainable. Among those of particular applicability to the Central Region of Ghana are the following:


Long Term Use of the GIS Produced for the Current Analysis

The GIS will serve as an "intelligent" database. It will provide a compact space where all sorts of data relevant to Historic Cape Coast can be stored in digital format, including images, maps, documents, photographs, and even audio recordings. More importantly, data will be arranged so that it can be incorporated into displays like maps, charts, and tables, and can be queried in the service of sophisticated analytical procedures. Future analyses can be the basis for future planning, design, and site management decisions.

Douglas C. Comer, Ph.D., Principal, Cultural Site Research and Management (CSRM) and Director, US/ICOMOS Cultural Site Analysis Initiative


960 Fell St. #103

Baltimore, MD 21231

Phone:202 329-4448, Fax 410 732-8925,