Nigerian cities are growing – in population and territorial coverage, but the ensuing spatial crania is characterised by inequality.
That is, distribution of (basic) benefits and burdens within the cities is skewed between the rich and poor. Inequality can be read on the face of buildings, in the form of streets and in the fabric of neighbourhoods.
Some of the recently completed state houses, juxtaposed with slums, in capital cities across the nation helps to illustrate how inequitable the present mode of urbanisation is. Some of these states ‘castles’ and ‘complexes’ cost over N24 billion. One, if not more, was even financed through an international loan facility.
These sleek structures are only a few miles away from slums – flimsy and overcrowded dwellings, under-serviced neighbourhoods and poverty-ridden environments inhabited by the electorate who voted the politicians into office. The state houses accommodate a few hundreds, at most. But you’ll find tens of thousands souls, if not more, in the nearby slums.
Apart from the states houses and slums, proposed new cities, usually driven by vision for world class city-ness, in some metropolis also provide examples on urban inequality. The upmarket glass houses are not only located miles apart from the grimy huts, their mutual existence and thriving seems impossible.
The glass-box houses wish the ghettos away from prime land or locations that demeans the fantasy of a modern city. The former excludes the latter through forced evictions or in rare situations through poorly compensated removal to economically disadvantaged locations.
These inequitable situations deserve attention. The urban housing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ must be addressed. This can be hinged on the notion of Right to the City which implies ‘all citizens have the right to participate in the ownership of the urban territory within democratic parameters, with social justice and within sustainable environmental conditions’.
A just and inclusive city will not emerge by itself. First, we need a discursive groundswell drawing attention to everyday inequalities and call for actions that remedy historical or imminent wrongs. Also, inequitable decisions on socio-spatial issues can be prevented or addressed through participatory budgetary processes as well as inclusive urban design and planning as well as project implementation.
In addition, addressing inequality in shelter means housing for the low-income category must not be left to market fundamentalism. The market-driven logic of scale economies does not generally advance the ideals of a just city. It interferes with equitable distribution of resources and leads to or at best perpetuate an uneven patchwork of privileged and deprived spaces in urban areas.
Integration of the informal urban economy is also critical to bridging inequality. This demands a de-criminalised but not necessarily a romanticised view of the sector. Harnessing the positive and benign contributions from urban informality while also trimming off the downsides is the way to go.
To conclude, I believe bridging urban equality for just and inclusive Nigerian cities is not merely a fuzzy idea susceptible to buzzword reductionism. It is also not far-fetched. It is a task that can be successful if worked at in our cities!
• Olumuyiwa Adegun is a visiting research scholar at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal