Urban development and the well-being of the bottom millions

Lagos is on the cusp of a radical change in the way the city is organised. Not only is the first light rail being built in the city, thirty years after the idea was first mooted; the government has also recently announced that construction will soon start on the 4th Mainland Bridge, long overdue by many standards. (The three bridges that currently connect Mainland Lagos and the Island were built in the 1890s (Carter), 1960s (Eko) and 1991 (Third Mainland) respectively).

A few years ago I listened to a talk by the designers of that bridge, and was fascinated by how they envisioned it to not only work as a conventional bridge but also a direct stimulant/supporter of economic activity. The design is of a two-level bridge, the upper one for vehicular movement, the lower one for a combination of a tram line, rows of shops and goods vendors, and a pedestrian lane; that idea informed by the realization that modernizing Lagos does not have to happen at the expense of the trademark hustle-and-bustle that gives the city its peculiar character and feel; the things that make Lagos Lagos.

As urban planner Simon Gusah argued at that event, there's a place in the Lagos we dream of, for street trading – what we need to do is simply properly organize it.

So the idea of bridges that double as market-places – without compromising safety or efficiency – is a good one.

In a Lagos that has stood out in recent years for the ambition of state-led gentrification efforts in recent years (open-air markets have been major targets), it's heartwarming to hear of the market lighting project being carried out in Alimosho municipal area, by the Lagos State Electricity Board, in partnership with the UK's Department for International Development (DFID).

I recently spoke to one of the architects behind the project, and he told of how the simple fact of lighting up the area (using energy-saving bulbs) had made night markets thrive – people could stay out longer because they felt more secure.

The state government says some traders are reporting as much as a fifty percent increase in sales, on the back of the improved lighting. It's exciting to see that the government is pushing an initiative that supports open-air night markets. Whether we like it or not, we need to acknowledge that those markets are a significant component of Lagos' character, and that we need to keep at least some of them open as part of the moral imperative to support the informal economy that in turn supports the lives and livelihood of millions of city residents.

This sort of thinking – that takes the mentality of the informal layers of society into consideration when designing the parameters of the new city – then also needs to inform the design and construction of the new light rail system – the way the stations are designed, the sorts of licenses and permits that will be designed to support commercial activities, etc.

It's the sort of thinking behind the efforts to transform the Makoko slum settlement without having to displace its traditional inhabitants. It's the sort of thinking that realizes that pursuing urban development and pursuing the wellbeing of those at the bottom of the economic ladder are do not ever have to be mutually exclusive aspirations.

Photo: Running past Badia is a brand new light rail system, under construction by the Lagos State Government. Photo taken by author.

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