I spoke to urban planning scholar Taibat Lawanson about most things Lagos city. We discussed housing, overpopulation, infrastructure, and the many problems that have made Lagos hard to live. She described Lagos as a ''complex city'' - and she is a sceptic of developments like Eko Atlantic city.
TL: This is Ideas Untrapped, my guest today is Dr Taibat Lawanson who is a professor of urban planning at [the] University of Lagos. You're welcome.
TL: Thank you.
TL: The first question I'll like to ask you is, Lagos is generally perceived and described as a dysfunctional city. Do you agree with that assessment?
TL: I wouldn't say Lagos is a dysfunctional city. I would just say that Lagos is a complex city. 'Dysfunctional', you know, points to a lot of negative undertones, but I will say Lagos is a complex city in which everyone, the population (20 million+) are all trying or jostling for space in the quest for livelihoods, and a better life. So, for me, “complex” will be a more suitable word.
TL: So if there is some kind of attempt at responsible urban planning in Lagos, how do you think some of the problems that the city faces can be mitigated?
TL: There is urban planning in Lagos. As it is with other space of governance, the major challenges that the governance framework is unable to cater for the extensive population, so the infrastructure in the city is such that can accommodate comfortably 8 to 10 million people and we have a population that is definitely double that. So the challenge is that the urban planning framework and the governance framework is stretched beyond its capacity because of the population. And the issue now is that population keeps growing and the capacity of government to manage that population or provide a good life for the residents, you know, the challenge continues to grow.
TL: Okay. So, would you say that there is need for some form of population control measures in Lagos in terms of control of migration or should Lagos be incorporated into some form of national plan in terms of developing order cities and urban centres that can attract the excess population inflow in Lagos?
TL: Well, I've always advocated for [a] special status for Lagos. Lagos used to be the capital of the country and by the time the capital was moved to Abuja, a lot of the growth indicators or the development indicators did not move. Lagos is a centre of excellence, by its name. It's also a centre of economic vibrancy, you know, the economic capital of the country as it were and that hasn't changed. Beyond even the country, it extends as far as the West African coast. So while migration is something that has been happening all along and there's really no way you can control it, why do we have the migration...the high influx of people into Lagos? Some of them have to do with issues in other parts of the country, like the insecurity in the North, you know? So people are moving in because of safety and all of that. And Lagos is in a Federation and in a Federation you have certain rights as a Nigerian citizen so I don't know how population control can be achieved in a Federation.
What I think is that Lagos should be given a special status because of the challenges she faces as a sponge for the entire country and the West African sub-region. - Taibat Lawanson
What I think is that Lagos should be given a special status because of the challenges she faces as a sponge for the entire country and the West African sub-region. That's one. The second one is that we really need to look at the urbanization issue from a national development context. It's not enough for the government to identify all local government headquarters as urban areas, specific intentional programs and interventions must be made for urban development across the country. We need to have some measure of redistribution of resources, redistribution of skills and we really need to take upon governance very very seriously. People are coming to Lagos in search of livelihoods, you know, and then the question is why are they leaving where they are? They're leaving where they are because the livelihoods there are not secure or they are not sufficient. Alright? So the issue of, you know, migration or population control goes down to the issue of national development and decentralization of resources and opportunities for the people.
TL: One thing that also interests me is the issue of housing in Lagos. Housing appears to be quite expensive and the available housing cannot really meet the demand. Now, would you say that it's an issue of supply in terms of the development of housing is not fast enough to meet the demand or there are other bottlenecks in terms of land titling and property rights issues?
TL: Housing is a multifaceted issue. We have issues of affordability, availability, acceptability, quality, you know. The fundamental thing in the context of Lagos is what type of housing are we building? We have a national housing deficit of about 17 million and from the data, we learned that about, maybe, 30 or 40% of that 17 million is in Lagos. So Lagosians have, you know, a serious housing deficit. But then again, when you go to the highbrow areas of Ikoyi, Victoria Island, Lekki, you see a lot of vacant housing. So the problem has to do with what bracket of the housing market is facing this deficit? And that comes the issue of affordability, what kind of housing are we building and who can afford it? That's one.
With regards to availability, the types of housing that people who are starting up their lives or people who are earning meagre incomes can afford, who is building it? Was the approach towards it? Most of that type of housing is being done by landlords and it's done on an incremental basis. And it's done in such a manner that they, you know, are building these houses to use to secure their future. A manner of a pension plan, you Know... in a manner of speaking. So for them, they have to get something reasonable out of it, particularly since they have built, out of usually their pension or their savings or they take a loan from the bank or the cooperative society.
One of the reasons why the cost of construction is high is because even within the estate people are self provisioning these neighborhood facilities - water, electricity, the roads, the drainage and all of that. And it gets to be added to the cost of the housing units. - Taibat Lawanson
So the cost of construction is quite high, and how do we mitigate that? One of the reasons why the cost of construction is high is because even within the estate people are self-provisioning these neighbourhood facilities - water, electricity, the roads, the drainage and all of that. And it gets to be added to the cost of the housing units. So we really need to, kind of, look again at what is making housing expensive. Another issue is using materials that are sourced from abroad. So all those need to be decoupled. That is why housing is expensive. And when we look at the deficit again, we then say 'what about the quality of housing?' The man who lives in the slum, lives in a house, we can then say that - is it decent housing? Is it habitable housing? Is it fit for purpose?
In the context of things, when you're looking at housing, oftentimes good houses in bad environments are not counted, so we need to look at issues of urban upgrading. We need to look at issues of solving the drainage problem. And what really causes all these things is that people go into communities to build before services are provided and those services are meant to be provided by the government using planning standards or being guided by the operating development plans. But the city is growing much faster than the government's capacity, like I said earlier, to provide these services. But people are coming in and people have homeownership aspiration, so they continue to build and they continue to grow. And then the fundamental question of who are we building for?
Remember, I said earlier that most of the housing that is going on now is being done by landlords. The ones that are being done by developers are out of the reach of most people for the reasons I stated earlier. So the housing question needs to be fundamentally looked at. What are the imperatives for mass housing? And how can we get it done right at the cost that people can afford?
The mortgage market, which should be the natural recourse to supplying funding for mass housing, the mortgage market is quite stifled. And that needs to be rejigged, you know, we need to look at it and the only way we can make housing affordable and accessible to more people is to expand the opportunities to get housing finance. And that is through the mortgage system working hand in hand with the developers. The environment is changing. The new FHA chairman seems to be working towards that aspiration, but it's early days yet. But the fundamental thing is that we need to move from this one man building 3 flats and all of that to actually producing mass housing in an affordable manner.
TL: I know you've been...even though I haven't really seen any of your arguments in detail, but I know you are somewhat of a critic of projects like Eko Atlantic. What do you think such initiatives are missing in terms of delivering mass housing on a scale that matters?
TL: Okay, yes I am a critic of those grandiose projects and I call them aspirational projects. They are not at a response to the housing problem they are a response to the governance, security problem and our aspiration to fall into this world-class city, whatever that means. Eko Atlantic City is built or is designed with the diaspora and high net worth Nigerians, and we know that there are only so many of those people. So committing such amount of funds to, you know, meeting that needs or an assumed need of so *many* [few] people, I think, is fundamentally flawed. Alright. If there are 20 million people in this city and over 60% of them live below the poverty line, then providing housing should be looking at the fundamentals - how is the man on the street going to get a place to sleep at night? And committing the amount of resources and government support to these aspirational luxury-type, resort-type, housing estates, I think, is a problem.
And one of the consequences of this is that we're going to continue to live in a segregated city. Where the rich are behind their gated communities and they cannot come out because the angry poor are out at the gate, you understand? So we really need to open up the space...we need to open up the space and make sure that opportunities are available for all citizens of the city, whether rich or poor, at their own level. So it's not a problem for those who want to live in Eko Atlantic or who believe Eko Atlantic is an ideal, it's not a problem at all. But hand in hand with the development of Eko Atlantic we should see 1000 mass housing 2 bedroom, 3 bedroom for government workers, for policemen, for people who are earning within 100 to 200,000 naira month you understand?
TL: So it's alright to do the luxury housing, but it is also important to simultaneously provide for the majority of the people who live in precarious housing.
TL: As you know, we are still dealing with the fallout from the pandemic and Lagos, like most other cities that are economic centres, was hit very hard. So, what are the patterns you observed from your research in terms of adaptability and how Lagosians generally dealt with that crisis?
TL: Okay, um, I think Lagos was prepared. They started well and I guess that was because of the experience we had with Ebola in 2014. So we had the framework for dealing with such an issue...we have the basic framework and then, you know, the commissioner for health was intentional and the governor gave him every support. So we started off well, there was information dissemination, there was contact tracing and all of that. It started off well, and fortunately for us, somewhat, it started from international travellers, people who are generally at middle-income levels, so it was easier to trace them.
And then, at the beginning, there was a lot of distrust and there are lots of people who still deny the pandemic. It started to get a bit out of hand after the lockdown was announced. And why was that the case? The fact that many people live on daily wages and so they have to go out to feed. If they don't go out, then their families will starve. And when the palliatives started to be distributed, they were not targeting the people who are most at need. And that was because there was not sufficient data to capture them. The government did not know where those people are. They responded with the palliative distribution based on the data at their own disposal, and also because the way government operates, they do not actually recognize many of those who live in informal communities, and those are the people who were particularly impacted by the economic and social consequences of the lockdown.
If a city is going to have a 24 hour economy, then there must be infrastructure to support that economy. - Taibat Lawanson
The disease itself did not affect so many people. We're fortunate maybe because of the weather? Maybe because of the system that was put in place, maybe because of the natural resilience, but we've been quite fortunate with the spread of the disease, but the social and the economic consequences have been more dire, alright? And with regard to food security, with regards to rising prices of food, with regards to job losses and things like that. And that is primarily because the government simply doesn't have data for people in those places, in many of those places. And which brings me to the need for more partnerships between government and civil society actors.
During the lockdown, we realize that civil society, NGOs and faith-based organisations were more effective in supporting people who were at the lowest rung of the ladder. Because they know them, they've been working with them, they've been supporting them before the pandemic. So it's important that government, you know, does what it ought to do, but it's also important that government partners with those who are working in between the cracks and that's where the civil society actors curate data. Because to the best of my knowledge Lagos State operated using the data at their disposal. The only challenge was that the data was somewhat flawed and not fit for this particular purpose and that was why they were lags in the distribution of the palliatives. But Lagosians are resilient people, have bounced back and are trying to make you know the best of the situation as the economy starts to reopen.
TL: One other problem that Lagos faces, which is quite a significant challenge, is traffic congestion. And you already talked about how the infrastructure is stretched and there might be governance and fiscal challenges to delivering the infrastructure that will cater to the ever-growing population of Lagos. So I want to ask you, do you think policies that have been tried in other admittedly more developed cities like congestion pricing, do you think they work in Lagos or there will be challenges with their implementation?
TL: Okay, so take congestion charges, for example, it's been implemented in the UK, in London. You can't go into central London with your car, you get to pay higher. But what happens is that there are alternatives. You don't go into central London with your car, but there is a train that comes past your bus stop every 7 minutes. There's a bus that comes every 12 minutes. You can choose to go by bicycle, you know, so there are other opportunities. There are other alternatives to taking your car. The issue we have in Lagos now is that the public transportation takes fewer people than it ought to. So issues of congestion charges may be reasonable in high traffic areas like Lagos Island and all of that, but are only feasible after alternatives have been opened up.
So what are these alternatives? We have the light rail that is coming into the city centre. If that is implemented, if that starts to run, yes, the issue of congestion charges may come in. We have the largely untapped waterways. The waters of Lagos are empty. It should be full of boats and ferries moving people from one area to the other. There is nowhere in Lagos that you cannot get to by water within 30 to 40 minutes. And that's something that we're not doing enough of, so that also needs to open up. There need to be these alternatives before you can, you know, even make these stringent things. And now with the pandemic, people are afraid to go out in groups, the issue of physical distancing comes in. Somebody who has been using the BRT for example now doesn't want to be cooped up with 30 other people and chooses to take his car out for his personal safety.
You can't blame that kind of person because he's doing it for personal safety. So until these alternatives are put into place (and adequate communication and the reasons behind certain decisions are out in the public domain), then those kinds of interventions or those kinds of approaches would just be seen as not being inclusive. It's important to achieve development, but it's also important to achieve development in a manner that is respectful of the rights of the citizens and is inclusive, recognizes that people belong to different social-economic categories and also recognizes that people have different life experiences and ensure that at every point in time the rights and privileges of citizens are taken into consideration.
So take, for example, disability rights. Apart from the BRT, even within the BRT not many bus stops that are being constructed are wheelchair compliant. Not many road signs have the Braille component. So these citizens who have rights as much as the next person, they're not even being thought about or catered for in the development of the city. So all these things go hand in hand. The first thing is to recognize that you want to make things work. The second thing is to make sure that you are making things work for everybody, and so the scale may not be as high or as large as one intends to, but things must be done in a manner that is inclusive and is respectful of the rights of all citizens.
TL: Lagos is, among other things, the entertainment capital of Nigeria, the cultural capital of Nigeria. And it can definitely hold its own on the global stage. From what we've heard from our parents and through history, it used to have a very vibrant nightlife that seems to be... I don't want to see it dying, but petering out a bit. What do you think is responsible for that? Is it insecurity or gentrification in terms of housing? Or...what do you think is responsible for that?
TL: Okay, Lagos has a very vibrant entertainment scene, but the only thing is that the entertainment is kind of skewed towards a particular sector of the society and that's where the problem comes. We also have a lot of privatization of resources. So take for example the Bar Beach. The Bar Beach used to be a weekly Mecca of sort for most Lagos families. So after church on Sunday, you go with your cooler with your family to spend the afternoon on the beach. You can't do that anymore. Number one, the beach doesn't exist. It is now Eko Atlantic City. But there are other beaches in the city. But all these other beaches you need to have some money before you can even approach because you have to pay to enter, pay for your parking, pay for your coolers and all of that.
So the Commonwealth of the city has been privatized and so even the natural recreation facilities, one is not able to access them. The unprecedented urban growth also was a challenge where a lot of the parks and green areas were taking over for residential purposes. Over the last 10 years since Fashola's regime, Lagos has been deliberate about capturing some of those parks and gardens back, but there is also the challenge of access. Some of them are free, some of them you have to pay to use the services, and many of them are time-bound so after a certain period of the day you cannot access those services, and that's a problem. The other thing is with regards to sporting facilities. A lot of the sporting facilities are also, you know...they have financial implications and people are poor.
It's difficult for you to divert the money that you want to use to eat to pay a gate fee to access the beach or the stadium or things like that. And so where do people do their entertainment? They're watching DSTV or they're doing the pools' betting which has serious social implications and economic implications. Or they have to indulge in things that are not wholesome, so that's the problem you know. And then we have also the security situation where people feel unsafe when they go out after some time. One, because there is no infrastructure to support nightlife. How many of our street lights are working? How many of our policemen are going out in the evenings, you know, to see that people are safe and all of that? And many of these nightclubs that even currently exist, where are they located? Many of them are located in the business areas - like on Victoria Island, on Awolowo Road. So these are places that are not easily accessible except you have a vehicle.
So it takes you back to the infrastructure issues. If a city is going to have a 24-hour economy, then there must be infrastructure to support that economy. In Lagos, everything that is government-related, you know that is public, institutional related, shuts down at 5. So how do you expect life to go on when there is no enabling environment for life to go on in the night? So that's where that challenge is. But with regards to the music, to the dramatic arts and all of that, there is a resurgence of that coming up, but the infrastructure to support it in a way that triggers economic growth and is beneficial to more residents is where some more work needs to be done. I think the former governor did something called Community Theatres. And they constructed small theatres and cinema kind of places in five different local governments, but I don't know whether they have started operation and what the nature of their activities look like.
TL: So my final question to you, which is a bit of a tradition on the show is what's one big idea...and this could be about anything, urban planning or any other thing that you're researching or interested in. What's the one big idea you like to see spread everywhere and you'll like to see people adopt or carry in their head or implement?
TL: So for me now, something that really bothers me...and this is not even from an academic perspective, this just from somebody who's living in the city has to do with the waste, particularly the plastic waste. Our waste management structure is not robust enough to cover everything that needs to be done, but people are not helping matters. Lagosians are dirty. You know, there are throwing things out of the window, they are not putting their rubbish in the bin and things like that. They're not sorting their waste and the plastic waste is particularly stressful.
The circular economy has come in with regards to the plastic bottles and so companies like WeCyclers and other recycling companies are turning this plastic into something that has economic value. So that's working. But those foam plates are everywhere, they're blocking the drains, they're making a mess of everywhere and I think we need to take personal responsibility first. You know, how are you working with your waste? What kind of waste are you generating? How are you sorting it out? How are you getting it into the bin and how are you getting it into the LAWMA trucks and all of that? That's the first thing. And then for the LAWMA people, how are they sorting it and making economic value out of it?
But for me right now, we need to do waste sorting at home and we need to take personal responsibility for keeping our environment clean. I think a lot of the drainage problem in Lagos, apart from the really structural engineering ones, can be mitigated if people were more intentional about their waste management practices.
TL: Do you think there needs to be [a] strong regulatory or punitive response from the government in terms of this problem?
TL: Um, I think the first thing has to be massive orientation, reorientation towards living a cleaner life. Many people don't even know that it is wrong, many people don't know the consequences of some of their messy habits, so the government has to come out and, you know, educate. Public reorientation. Let people understand that throwing that bottle of Coke or something out of the window of the Danfo has implications for the quality of fish that we're going to eat if that bottle gets into the water, the kinds of chemicals that will be produced, and getting into the fish, the quality of the fish that we eat, the quality of the food that we get, and things like that. They need to understand that those seemingly careless waste practices have a direct link to the incidence of flooding in their neighbourhood.
The other day there was a picture of Akobi Crescent in Surulere and it was full of those packs. And probably the government needs to enforce, you know...where are these products coming from? What are the alternatives? I know in the UK now when you go to eat at these restaurants, if you don't ask for cutlery, you don't get. And they're using recyclable materials, like easily biodegradable materials like bamboo, like wood, they're asking you to come in with your straws and things like that. Some of them are charging you for plastic bags in the supermarket. In Germany, for example, you get a trade-off for every plastic bottle you bring into the shops. You understand, as long as you bring empty bottle[s] you get some credits.
In the UK your recyclables are weighed and you get a debit...you get a discount on your monthly bill for those recyclables. So we need a lot of those kinds of incentives in the waste management sector, then we need a lot of public reorientation before the issue of infractions, contraventions and punitive enforcement can come into play.
TL: It's it's been great talking to you. Thank you very much, Dr Taibat.
TL: Thank you, Tobi.