Emerging COVID-19 Realities: time to rethink Urban Planning in Nigeria
Abimbola T. Alabi is a lecturer in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning
Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso
Epidemics are unpleasant realities of life and their spasmodic occurrences over time pervade human history. The COVID-19 pandemic would not be the first to bring to light the built environment-health nexus. The link between urban planning and public health has existed for a long time. History has also shown that the outbreak of epidemics often triggers the introduction or development of important planning approaches within countries. Cholera was a routing epidemic during the Industrial Revolution, ravaging densely populated cities like London until scientists and physicians made the link between hygiene, water, and disease. This led to radical initiatives like London’s Metropolitan Board of Works and had a general lasting impact on the organization of dwellings and infrastructure in the built environment.
Cities are often the worst hit during pandemics. Despite being engines of economic growth, urbanized regions because of their density, economy and diversity, foster the spread of infectious diseases. The bubonic plague, for instance, ravaged Lagos in the 1920s and the response to the outbreak, understandably, was a focus on sanitation, urban renewal and housing development among others. The footprints left from these planning interventions invigorated by the Lagos Town Planning Ordinance of 1928 can still be seen today, as local evidence of the city’s vulnerability to, and urban planning implications of epidemics.
With people forced to stay at home and social distancing advocated, the current coronavirus epidemic raises profound issues and brings to the fore the need to rethink a number of planning principles. How well will African cities fare? This is important especially since the health systems is much weaker than that of Asian and European which suffered several fatalities due to the virus. With active cases now reaching over twenty five thousand in Nigeria, it is pertinent to imagine and begin to prepare for what the post COVID-19 urban planning paradigm will be for Nigerian cities.
The pandemic should make planners reconsider the concept of urban resilience. Defined as "the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience”, urban resilience, in response to epidemics has hitherto not been pursued vigorously. Apart from Lagos which recently launched a Resilience Strategy as part of the 100 Resilient Cities network, other efforts to integrate the concept such as the establishment of Nigeria Resilient Cities Network (NRCN) are promoted by non-state actors. Given the 21st century episodes of SARs, Ebola and now the raging Coronavirus pandemic, there needs for a shift in priorities and revision of strategies needed to achieve urban resilience. Even though global focus on resilience has been skewed towards climate change, anecdotal evidence suggests that a holistic approach that integrates climate, health and other endemic challenges will be more appropriate for Nigerian cities. It is clear that during this pandemic, drivers of global warming like gaseous emissions have been reduced, a pointer to benefits that could accrue from pursuing such an integrated approach.
COVID-19 is also likely to leave enduring marks on the design facet of urban planning. Changes in the approaches to design of public spaces are bound to be propagated. Should public spaces be designed to foster liveliness or serenity? Is there a way to merge the two? Architects in Vienna like Studio Precht are already promoting the idea of organizing urban infrastructure around social distancing principle with new maze-like designs for crowd-free public parks. What innovations will be feasible in Nigerian cities, given our cultural and socio-economic appropriations of public space? Can street designs be adapted to the social distancing norm? Would there be a need to revisit sidewalks, pedestrian crossings and road design standards? With public transport taking hits, would bike lanes become more prominent features of intra-urban transport networks? Already, Milan has announced permanent changes, with the widening of sidewalks and 35km of new bike lanes. How will all these reshape the fundamentals of neigbourhood designs taught in planning schools within the country? And more importantly, will such changes produce better health and wellbeing outcomes?
During the COVID-19 lockdown, some unusual land use conversions have occurred in many cities. New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in India for instance has been converted into a quarantine , while New York’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center became a hospital and a meal distribution center. In Nigeria, Onikan Stadium in Lagos and Sani Abacha Stadium in Kano are also being used as isolation centres. These sport to medical land use conversions raises interesting potentialities for incorporating “transient/transitional” public land use designs to better accommodate emergency reuse into urban layouts. Could modalities be established for such adaptive public land uses and factored into layout designs and building approval processes? Given the ease with which these structures were repurposed in response to COVID-19, it can become a proactive planning measure worth exploring in Nigerian metropolises and an effective disaster preparedness exigency.
Finally, the pandemic has revived the density debate and will perhaps strengthen anti-density discourses. That cities are more vulnerable to disease outbreaks is indubitable and with more than two-thirds of the global population estimated to become city dwellers by 2050 (UN, 2014), an evaluation of urban planning and transportation theories especially the smart growth, cluster development or the compact city concept is imperative. The benefits of the compact city are obvious; shorter commute times, cleaner air, reduced noise, energy efficiency and easy access to neighbourhood facilities. Nonetheless, given the COVID-19 scenario, they apparently make residents more vulnerable especially since social distancing is more challenging in such environments. The debate is then about the value vis-à-vis the risks of densification. We need to devise systems and processes for making current and future compact city developments accommodate COVID-19 ramifications.
These issues appear to be the lacunae in urban planning left in the wake of the pandemic. Nigerian urban planners are compelled to revisit them if the profession will be responsive to current realities and prepared for future dimensions of pandemic preparedness.
Honey-Roses et al. (2020). The Impact of COVID-19 on Public Space: A Review of the Emerging Questions?
Oduwaye and Abdul-Rahman (2018). Planning for Urban Resilience in Nigeria
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2014). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.