Before I begin my thoughts on today’s subject, I want to relate an experience I had a few years ago that will provide a background as to why Lagos will continue to feature prominently on the global worst city index for many years to come. In truth, this is not just about Lagos, I don’t see how any typical Nigerian city will be ranked positively on the livable cities index. Let’s face it, it is never going to happen unless our cities are dismantled and we start urban planning from the scratch.
The truth is that we missed developing sustainable cities a long time ago. Some have said the period shortly after the British left, they had left behind an emerging urban city architecture that if it had been well-managed could have launched Lagos and by extension other Nigerian cities on the path of sustainability and livability like other cities in other parts of the world. Sadly, the urban planners and the leaders that emerged after the British left could not build on the structure left behind more than half a century ago. A trip round the country will reveal the sad relics of what might have been.
One sees it when one takes a stroll across the Marina in Lagos, in Ibadan around the Agodi Government House; in Owerri around the GRA, Shell Camp Government House and in several colonial cities across Nigeria where systematic urban planning has long given way to the urban chaos of painlessness and dysfunctionality.
A few years ago, as I embarked on my first journey to Europe, I marvelled at how a typical European city functioned and the simple indices we take for granted which make a city habitable to its residents.
Dusseldorf, a city in the North Rhine of Germany at the time I visited, was ranked on the Economist Intelligent Global Livability Index as the fourth best place to live in the world. Before I left Nigeria, the EIU had just released its survey. I was thus excited to see what made the city one of the best German cities to be ranked the fourth best city on global livability cities survey. This was especially so coming from a chaotic Lagos that Robert Kaplan in 1994 cited as an example of urban apocalypse along with many African cities which are dirty, overpopulated with overflowing debris, drainage and sprawling slum cities such as Makoko in Lagos and Kibera in Kenya.
Arriving in Dusseldorf changed my perspective about what a government needs to do to build sustainable cities. On transport, I had observed that Germany as a country had the best and most efficient transport system in the whole of Europe. The city rail system was timely and arrived at the stations promptly. The coaches were spacious and clean. I noticed that behind the effectiveness of the German transport system were the investment, maintenance and discipline of its work force.
The train stations, called Hauptbahnhoff, located in different parts of the city, were the hub of the transport network. The underground long distance fast trains connected the satellite cities to the main train stations at the city centre. The fast trains which convey passengers from the suburbs and outskirts of the city like Cologne, Essen and Bremen made sure the city is decongested. Unlike Lagos, where every resident wants to stay in the main city, people who live in the suburbs are sure of taking the speed train which goes underground until it emerges at various train stations until it reaches the main city centre.
As I observed the city transport system, my mind flashed back to Lagos and its chaotic public transport bedlam. Indeed, Lagos is several years behind. I had imagined a Lagos where fast speed trains connected its satellite cities like Epe, Ikorodu and Badagry. I had imagined a city where the transport system would be a network of sky trains and underground networks complete with a well-managed road transport. In Dusseldorf, roads are built with the physically challenged in mind.
Sidewalks, bicycle and motorcycle lanes all make living in the city of trees such a delight. The indices that make Lagos and many Nigerian cities such a chaotic place to live in were absent. The Clean Air Act was enforced. Unlike Lagos where car emissions pollute the environment, many European cities have moved beyond gas powered cars. Throughout the months I spent, the city was like one mass graveyard because the stillness was pervasive. One did not hear cars honk their horns insanely like they do in Lagos. Melbourne in Australia, for instance, has consistently been ranked as the most livable city in the world since 2001.
Apart from having the world’s biggest modern transport system, Melbourne is a city of public parks. Unlike Lagos where the city is so built-up and development has encroached on the green areas, cities like Melbourne, Dusseldorf and Vienna have public parks in every street. Sustainability, which forms the basis for livable city ranking, according to Indigo Development entails that “a sustainable community is one in which improvement in the quality of human life is achieved in harmony with improving and maintaining the health of ecological systems; and where a healthy economy’s industrial base supports the quality of both human and ecological systems.”
In many European and other African cities, there are conscious efforts by their governments and city planners to embed sustainable practices in city planning. This is unlike Lagos where development is chaotic and everybody is allowed to put up structures indiscriminately without regard for the structured urban planning that will take into cognisance all the indices of a lovable city. I returned having visited a dozen European capitals feeling that no Nigerian city will achieve such state of sustainability.
Cities such as Lagos missed the path about four decades back. But Abuja which should have been a model Nigerian city has turned out to be a disappointment.
Who could have thought Abuja satellite towns would grow into slum settlements growing disproportionately around the chaos of its affluent neighbourhoods? How the city planners not thought that such city centres could be connected by trains to the city centre? Yet, Nigeria’s elite class even selfishly carved out the green areas in the city among themselves thus distorting the Abuja Master plan. Abuja is another urban chaos that portrays the stark reality of a nation that cannot plan its cities while its elite delight in the comfort and allure of other cities. Had those cities planners not painstakingly planned their cities, where will our elite run to?
Only recently, Kigali emerged as the most beautiful African city that is going the path of sustainability. The city planners are quietly working to build a city of the future.
When the the Economic Intelligent Unit released its 2016 global cities liveability survey, I was not surprised that Lagos ranked poorly in the survey. Aside from Melbourne ranked as the best city to live in the world, the other cities that ranked highly on the survey are those where the government invests in urban infrastructure, protects the environment and enforces planning laws. The Nigerian government especially the one in Lagos should have a long term plan for building sustainable cities across the country. Violators of urban planning laws should be punished.