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Whatever you thought a Sustainable City meant, you’re wrong!

Sustainable CityLagos .innov8nigeria.com. Aug 2012

I grew up in Lagos Mainland and it’s a place where everything seems to happen really quickly and traffic congestion is now a culture that most of its inhabitants have come to terms with. It gets more interesting in areas such as parts of Lagos Island where residents literally extend their living rooms to the main road. Where I can stretch my hand and collect salt from Mama Tope to boil rice that I’d eat with Efo Riro. To the residents, it’s becoming a norm – like what’s wrong in having my couch across the road?

At Obalende, the prevailing narrative I’ve observed is night market – I mean, round the clock sturvs! Small and medium enterprises take full advantage of the 18 hour light within the vicinity to catch up on their work. Hookers, pub owners are seen to work hand in hand to ensure a mutually successful business for all parties.

It gets even more interesting as it is in the same Lagos – and Lagos Island even (Marina, Broad Street, CMS)- that you’d find high rise buildings, plus other infrastructure that makes up your typical city. It’s in Lagos, at Ikoyi, (where Obalende is) that you’d find quiet and lush estates with carefully trimmed soft scapes, beautiful modern homes with very high fences –  another typical characteristic of an urban area.

So here we have it: Two seemingly opposite forms of development with the one showcasing more culture than infrastructure, and the other showcasing the reverse.

Based on this contrasting narrative, when defining who makes a city, do we then say that it’s the city dwellers that influence the city narrative or vice versa? When looking out for what makes up a city, do we leave out Obalende and Lagos Island and concentrate on the more ‘measurable’ characteristics like good transport, drainage systems and the likes? – sturvs we’d see at Marina, Broad Street and the likes. Of course, the latter is a very valid metric for defining what a city is, but then is it enough?

Well, here comes the coup de grace: the ‘idea’ of Cities, how they function, who should be there, infrastructures that make it up ( even though these characteristics has evolved over time) is still, in my opinion, in a state of bias. Technology, ‘proper’ jobs, ‘smart’ amenities and policies, large population being present in a place is still what defines such place as a city. Leaving Culture out as part of the metrics for measuring how well a city is performing would lead to a one-sided analysis and hence an incomplete definition.

But then by Culture, I’d like you to understand that I don’t mean tribe, ethnic group or anything of that sort – that has its place, no doubt – instead, I am referring to behavioural patterns and tendencies, activities and attitudes that are common among dwellers of a particular place. They may be difficult to notice but not impossible as a careful, conscious study to understand a specific cities’ culture would reveal it.

In the wake of the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals with regarding cities, Sustainable Cities and Communities (Goal 11) comes to bare. It’s then we begin to realize that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to building more resilient cities ‘ko le werk’. It’s just not possible ( or rather shouldn’t be ). If sustainability aims to serve the needs of the future without compromising present needs, then a bespoke approach to planning cities is needed. A paradigm shift that goes beyond and above the present ideas of building, rebuilding or upgrading cities then expecting people to come and just inhabit and sustain them, won’t suffice.

A truly sustainable city should be one whose planning has been infused deeply in the culture of the people – either existing or expected to live there.

Lagos, Jo’burg, Accra, Nairobi, Cairo are all African Megacities but they shouldn’t be planned the same – especially for new development within them. We need to understand that the traffic is busier in Lagos than anywhere else; to also understand that open-air markets, which are common in Accra, tend towards having the city having more shade than any other African city.

Subtle elements like this in a city is what makes up its culture. And because these cultures have been created organically and usually unconsciously, it is being integrated into the very fabric or the city. It’s really what makes the city work – after 10,25,50, and even 75 years! Of course, these cultures would evolve, but because a platform has been created for it, the evolution of such city cultures is borne based on the subconscious inherent intent of the dwellers and this would be passed down across generations.

So yeah, what was missing in your definition of a sustainable city is culture: The existing and evolving parameters that make up a Smart City ingrained and influenced by the culture of the people of that particular place is what makes it a Sustainable City.

So, do me a favour and make conscious attempts to understand the culture of your city, urban area. You’d be surprised to find an interesting narrative that has been both existing and evolving over a long period of time. Your discovery would then give you more reasons as to why you should strive to sustain it.

I hope this article leads to further conversations. If you have criticisms (not mumu ones) contributions, propositions, please do not hesitate to put them in the comment section below.


E da Kun.

Ezekiel Bassey
Bassey Ezekiel is an Architect with a load of passion for Design and the Environment !