Lagos struggles to plan for ‘Informal Cities’

Makoko, a settlement with order and structure, but operating outside of local and federal government authority, and facing real challenges--including access to clean water, good jobs and education. Photo courtesy Rainer Wozny, Flickr.

Makoko, a settlement with order and structure, but operating outside of local and federal government authority, and facing real challenges–including access to clean water, good jobs and education. Photo courtesy Rainer Wozny, Flickr.

Near the heart of Lagos, capital city of Nigeria and home to an estimated 21 million people, a shantytown known as Makoko fans out over Lagos Lagoon. Residents live in makeshift homes constructed with bamboo, driftwood and sheets of corrugated steel, built on stilts above the channel’s murky waters. Transportation takes place in canoes, navigated through a complex informal network of canals. Homes are connected by wooden planks. Subsisting as fishermen and laborers, the people of Makoko struggle with access to both education and clean, safe drinking water. No official census has been conducted in the overwhelmingly poor district, but estimates suggest as many as 250,000 people live in this seaside “slum.”

Originally founded as a fishing village, Makoko has grown exponentially in recent years, owed to a lack of quality housing in established Lagos neighborhoods, according to critics. Residents in mainland Lagos fair only slightly better–as many as 50 people may share a kitchen, toilet and sink in the city’s cramped apartment blocks, according to the New York Times. Officials in Lagos have yet to find solutions to the problems facing the city’s poorest residents. In Makoko, daily life and its struggles take place largely beyond the control of local or federal government.

Children in the floating informal city of Makoko, outside of Lagos, Nigeria. Photo courtesy Rainer Wozny, Flickr.

Children in the floating informal city of Makoko, outside of Lagos, Nigeria. Photo courtesy Rainer Wozny, Flickr.

Government workers took a hard line against the “slum” of Mokoko in July 2012, initiating an anti-slum campaign. Residents who failed to heed eviction notices watched as authorities tore down dozens of homes, without plans for resettlement programs. Officials defended the controversial move, criticizing residents for establishing their homes illegally–without addressing the complex systems and failures of the current Lagos built environment, both of which lead to Makoko’s explosive growth. Backlash against the government’s actions lead to broader input on the future of this Nigerian “Venice of slums,” as Al Jazeera deigned to refer to the settlement.

Shortly after the partial demolition, Nigerian-born architect Kunle Adeyemi propositioned a different path forward. In collaboration with the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the United Nations, the group moved to formalize plans for a multi-story floating school, fitted with compositing toilets and rainwater collection systems according to the New York Times, to serve 100 elementary-school children. Built not on stilts, but buoyant plastic barrels, the pilot school project was intended to show the power of building resilient infrastructure in low-lying coastal areas, and serving the pupils of an underserved community.

“Architect Adeyemi,” writes the Böll Foundation, “says rather than evicting the people, putting up floating structures like the newly built school is the best answer to climate change in coastal communities like Makoko.”

The facility opened in March of 2013–serving as a place for play, instruction, and community gathering, (The New York Times went inside the school shortly after it opened).

The Makoko “floating school” project illuminates a number of planning considerations in approaching slum settlements. These communities, according to Vinit Mukhija, face a problem of perception. Makoko could more accurately be described as part of “The Informal City”–one of the non-sanctioned urban places springing up outside established cities the world over. As growing number of the world’s population reside in so-called “formal” cities, writes Mukhija, as many as two billion residents may call “slums” home by 2030-2035. Finding a better approach to places like Makoko may require a better understanding of the lives, needs and challenges facing its residents, rather than resorting to draconian slum clearance programs.

However this project also suggests that architecture alone can serve the needs of this community, that by simply building a floating community-focused structure, the lives of Makoko’s residents can be greatly improved. One structure, serving 100 students, will not be enough to meet the needs of residents. Currently, officials cite concerns with electrical systems criss-crossing the aquatic community–a deadly safety hazard with few quick fixes. Sewage and wastewater treatment remain a constant battle.

Perhaps most importantly, the school has not changed the opinions of some Lagos officials.  Nigerian news outlet PM News reports Prince Adesegun Oniru, Commissioner for Waterfront and Infrastructure Development, said the floating school is just one more illegal structure established in Makoko, an illegal settlement.

“It’s been illegal from day one,” Oniru told PM News. “It’s an illegal structure, it shouldn’t be there, and we are trying to get rid of structures there.”

Building the Makoko Floating School. Photo courtesy 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia, Flickr.

Building the Makoko Floating School. Photo courtesy 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia, Flickr.

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