COVID 19 can be an opportunity for Urban Planning in Nigeria
Dr Taibat Lawanson is Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Co-Director of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development at the University of Lagos
Since Nigeria experienced her index case of Corona virus in February 2020, things have rapidly changed across the country. The global pandemic has exposed extensive vulnerabilities, especially in local public health and urban planning. The pandemic thus provides an opportunity for us to review and consider what can be done to strengthen both systems going forward.
Planning and Public Health: A Colonial Legacy
Formal town planning in Nigeria began through a series of public health legislations. The enactment of the Township Ordinance No 29 of 1917 as the first attempt at introducing spatial orderliness in Nigerian cities established guidelines for physical layout of towns which is still visible in such towns as Aba, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Jos, Minna and Kaduna today. This ordinance separated the European (planned) settlements from native (informal) settlements and established the order of socio-spatial segregation which exists in most Nigerian urban areas. The Bubonic Plague of the 1920s led to the promulgation of the Lagos Town planning Ordinance Cap 95 of 1928 and the establishment. of the Lagos Executive Development Board saddled with the responsibility of housing schemes, slum clearance and resettlement schemes.
Since then, many urban planning and development decisions have been based on public health concerns. The Kaduna state government invoked colonial public health regulations – the Quarantine Act of 1926 and the public Health Law of 1917 in response to 2020 COVID 19 pandemic. Coincidentally, the efforts of the Lagos state government to contain the spread of the coronavirus are similar to those used in the 1920s by the colonial authorities to stem the spread of the Bubonic plague, ie restrictions on movement, disinfection of public spaces and improvement in household hygiene practices.
The threat of Housing
While these recommendations are necessary and valid, a major threat to COVID 19 containment is in housing. The right to adequate shelter is universally recognised at the international level[i], and acknowledged in the Nigerian constitution[ii]. It is broadly defined as adequate privacy, adequate space, adequate security, adequate lighting and ventilation, adequate basic infrastructure and adequate location with regard to work and basic facilities – all at a reasonable cost [iii]. However, what constitutes the public housing value chain denies many Nigerians this right.
Nigeria is estimated to have a national housing deficit of 17million units, and about half of her population is living in slum-like conditions[iv]. Due to high population growth and migration rates, many Nigerian cities experience overcrowding in the city core, and intense peripheral growth as is the case in Abuja, Port Harcourt and Lagos. The extensive growth at Lagos urban margins is in fact what necessitated the total lock down of neighbouring Ogun state in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the absence of any significant affordable housing strategy by the state, citizens continue to explore different approaches to accommodate themselves. Both low- and middle-income households purchase land in informal communities and peripheral locations due to reduced land prices[v], Often times, these communities are unserved by public utilities and are developed in gross violation of extant urban planning frameworks, and are thus vulnerable to health hazards.
Urban Planning: The weak link
Even though the importance of planning is recognised through the provisions of the Nigerian Urban and Regional Planning Law (Decree 88 of 1992) which has been domesticated to about twenty states, the implementation of statutes and provisions are quite weak. Gaps in the urban planning system of Nigerian cities can be attributed to two major reasons: lack of development plans and weak planning administrative and regulatory frameworks.
Many Nigerian cities have prepared urban development plans with the most recent include the Kaduna Infrastructure Maser plan (2018 – 2050), and eight model city and master plans for Lagos. A major challenge is that these are all higher order plans, providing a broad generic overview of urban development. The lack of lower order plans for towns, districts and neigbourhoods has resulted in an emerging haphazard and fragmented urban form in many Nigerian cities. The proliferation of gated communities/ housing estates which are spatially segregated on the basis of socio-economic status[vi] is eerily similar to the spatially segregated Government Reservation Areas and native areas during the colonial era. In Lagos alone, official records list 42 public and 120 privately owned (at various stages of development planning approval, and/or construction) gated communities[vii].
Urban planning and management occurs within these gated jurisdiction, and other communities are consequently side-lined in the distribution of urban resources as well as effective urban management services. Furthermore, the undynamic approach to urban informality in which urban renewal and redevelopment programmes often results in spatial displacements and gentrification is indicative of how planning can be a threat to the population cadre at highest risk of health hazards. In Abuja alone, 800,000 homes have been destroyed since 2003 to make way for prestigious and luxurious developments, with similar scenario playing out in Port Harcourt, Owerri and Lagos[viii]. With the current threat of coronavirus, while social distancing as recommended by government is convenient for those in the gated communities, it is practically impossible in many unplanned communities where people are constrained to share insufficient public and household facilities.
Regarding planning administrative frameworks, the three-tier planning hierarchy is clearly established through the Nigerian Urban and Regional Planning Law of 1992, which provides for the local planning authority at the local government level, and planning district and commission at state and federal levels respectively. However, planning administration is highly centralized to the states, with no planning commission at the federal level and many local planning authorities yet to be established at the municipal level. Furthermore, some states are yet to domesticate the 1992 law. This weak planning administrative framework has resulted in a situation where state planning agencies are overwhelmed and unable to discharge their functions effectively. Many have to deal with bureaucratic bottlenecks including poor staffing, overlapping functions with other agencies as well as the dominance of development control over other core planning services. The resultant effect is unregulated development across various cities, proliferation of squatter settlements, extensive land use conversion in built up areas and the erosion of local community participation in planning. Unregulated urban growth also results in peri-urban communities far from health and other basic services. In responding to COVID-19, these gaps are enhanced in informal communities which are high risk areas, and government is unable to leverage municipal goodwill to disseminate health information on risk mitigation and palliative care.
COVID-19: An opportunity to rethink Urban Planning
Urban vulnerabilities amplified by the COVID-19 present an opportunity to for a fresh consideration of urban planning approaches in Nigeria.
In the immediate term, there is need to transit from generalist top-down planning to more grounded localised planning. This can be achieved through the resuscitation of the local planning authorities and empowering them to prepare lower order plans to guide the development of local communities. These plans can then propel inclusive and sustainable upgrading of informal communities, using various strategies from phased in situ upgrading requiring minor improvements (such as community taps, paved roads and street lighting) to comprehensive regeneration (involving partial clearance of existing structures to rationalise layouts, reconstruction of some houses and the provision of extensive public infrastructure and services including schools and healthcare centres.
In the medium term, the capacity of state planning agencies to deliver on their planning mandate can be enhanced. The immediate domestication of the National Urban and Regional Planning law in all states of the federation is key. The staffing and training of personnel in the various ministries and agencies is also necessary. Finally, steps should be taken to establish the National Urban Planning Commission to guide the policy thrust of urban development at the national scale.
[i] United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, art. 11(1991)
[ii] The Nigerian Constitution. 1999; Chapter 2, Section 16d
[iii] Global Shelter Strategy for the Year 2000, UN Doc A/43/8/Add 1
[iv] UNHABITAT, 2015.
[v] Mortgage banking association of Nigeria (2010). State of Housing sector in Nigeria report
[vi] Lawanson. T (2018) Gated Communities in Lagos, Nigeria: Development Solution or Emerging Risk? ‘Sub-Saharan Africa Architectural Guide”.Berlin: DOM Publishers (in press)
[vii] Lagos state government (2017) Register of layout approval submissions
[viii] Amnesty International (2017) The Human Cost of a Megacity: Forced Eviction of the Urban Poor in Lagos, Nigeria. www.amnesty.org
 United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, art. 11(1991)
 The Nigerian Constitution. 1999; Chapter 2, Section 16d
 Global Shelter Strategy for the Year 2000, UN Doc A/43/8/Add 1
 UNHABITAT, 2015.
 Mortgage banking association of Nigeria (2010). State of Housing sector in Nigeria report
 Lawanson. T (2018) Gated Communities in Lagos, Nigeria: Development Solution or Emerging Risk? ‘Sub-Saharan Africa Architectural Guide”.Berlin: DOM Publishers (in press)
 Lagos state government (2017) Register of layout approval submissions
 Amnesty International (2017) The Human Cost of a Megacity: Forced Eviction of the Urban Poor in Lagos, Nigeria. www.amnesty.org
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