The Planlessness of our cities

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The planlessness of our major cities will make development as expected in a 21st-century world nearly impossible, especially if we hope to become part of the emerging nations of the world as was envisaged by our founding fathers. From what I have noticed, Nigeria will not become part of that League of Nations or take a lead role in making an African bloc that will compete with other blocs like Europe, the Americas or the Asian-Pacific blocs without a proper development plan. I joined the building and civil engineering profession in the early 1960s as the British were departing from Nigeria. All the major cities in the nation were planned, some with a 10-year or 20-year development projection. Cities like Kano, Kaduna and Jos in the North, and Ibadan, Port Harcourt (then known as the Garden City but now a city without gardens), Enugu, Benin and Lagos in the South, all had what was then known as the Government Reserved Areas (GRAs) and planned for expansion in line with population development. Surulere was known as the New Lagos because it was designed to accommodate the increasing number of settlers in Lagos.

In the case of Lagos where I lived, which was also the nation’s capital at the time, the development plan and projections that were in line with population growth, including the dredging of the marshlands to the sea to form what is now known as Victoria Island and in the process, the building of the five Cowrie Creek bridges. Victoria Island had a green park around Kuramo waters and before the Cowry Creek bridge, there was a love garden. There was also the development of Legislative Quarters (LEGCO), a housing estate meant to accommodate the newly elected federal officers. The quarters are now occupied by the Air Force. In Ikoyi, there was a big recreational park that was later converted into a residential area now known as Park View Estate.

The colonial masters built the 25-storey Independence Building along Race Course to house the federal secretariat, which was to be moved from a six-storey building along Broad Street. This was eventually taken over by the Army. In all the cities’ development plan, they (the Europeans) provided green parks and open spaces for recreation and clean air, which a growing body of research shows improve the physical and psychological health of people as well as reduce air and water pollution, keep cities cooler, and are a more effective and less expensive way to manage stormwater runoff than building systems of concrete sewers and drainage ditches. Still, the colonial masters also provided drainages and canals: both primary and secondary canals that served to ensure the easy passage of water across the city.

Lagos was a beautiful city and Nigeria, a beautiful country. Fast-forward a few decades later, one of the most notable features of many Nigerian cities is their very disorderly nature. This is largely due to a phenomenal growth of urbanisation resulting in cities growing and expanding in an unplanned manner. Despite the existence of ministries of physical planning and development at the state and federal levels, with the aim of development, control of urban land use, many buildings spring up without approved layouts on drainages, canals and open spaces meant for greenery and recreation. A case in point is the Ikoyi Park in Ikoyi, Lagos, where the then military administrator subdivided the open space and recreational area into residential plots and allocated the plots to top military officers and ministers.

I have come to the realisation that the military incursion is our big problem, if only we had been allowed to continue with our civil servants! The military regime dealt a serious blow to the progress and implementation of planning programmes by flagrant abuses and imposition of orders. Planning became fully government-controlled and development control was public-oriented, whereas, under the effective rule of law and good governance, physical planning is meant to take adequate control of future development. This is why good governance and effective leadership control is an asset for city development.

Putting aside what the British left for us, let us take a look at our own efforts at development, like the building of Abuja to decongest Lagos, which was created and executed by us. The movement from Lagos to Abuja was to take about 25 years as was the case in other cities that did so before us: cities like Syndey to Canberra in Australia, and Rio to Brazilia in Brazil. Unfortunately, in our own case, we moved in 10 years thereby disrupting the flow of development as laid out in the master plan. Over the years, we can see the effect of this disruption and if care is not taken by adhering to the original master plan, the city of Abuja will be a slum in the next 10 years. This is not a particularly difficult prediction as the city’s development is already being skewed. For instance, where is the sewage plan for the whole city? Where are the underground facilities that were to hold the infrastructures above? Where are the green parks and mass transportation policy in line with the master plan?

One thing I find strange is that most of us now in our 80s and 90s that were professionals and party to these developments that were handed over to us by the British have not been able to speak up, while watching the outright disregard of what was meant to be, many of whom attended the best schools in the world and built things in these countries, only to come home to be subjected to mediocrity. The question I often find myself asking then is, how we went wrong with all the planning and population projections. How did we divert from the need for effective development control so as to prevent abuse and misuse of the land, and to ensure adherence to comprehensive development plans, to the chaos that we have now?

I feel so bad and guilty for not speaking up earlier and I also apologise on behalf of all those that were there before me for their silence. We had to take orders from the military as ‘bloody civilians.’

I am concluding by saying that with the population explosion happening everywhere, we must begin now to rebuild the cities with satellite towns so that the plans can be developed with the hope of correcting the serious injury that has been inflicted on our cities over decades. You do not ignore the past because you have money for new development; we must build on the past. If not, there will be a heavier price to pay in the future, if we continue to build without a plan for the future.

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