Category Archives: Sustainable cities

What To Do With Abandoned Buildings in Our Cities

Lagos and Abuja are homes to many abandoned buildings and undeveloped plots of lands for the latter. These buildings are not part of the 50% of the residential estates in Abuja that are not occupied due to no buyer or rent demand. The buildings I refer to are mostly old abandoned uncompleted or completed buildings and a bit dilapidated at times. Although some are in good conditions, but haven’t been occupied for a very long time. As long as 5 years or more.

They are unused for many reasons; closure of the business/company that occupied it, inaction by the property owners either due to insufficient funds or lack of ideas of what to do next, court orders due to many reasons such as establishing rightful owner of plot (such disputes are common in real estate booming Nigeria) etc.

In Abuja, surprisingly, there are many undeveloped plots of land in the inner core of the city; Maitama, Wuse and Central Area. This is hard to come by in Lagos though.

The data is hardly available for the number of such abandoned buildings or pieces of lands in Nigeria. In Lagos, there could be as much as 200 on Victoria Island alone, Engr. Mohammed who resides in Lagos confirmed to me as we drove on the island. A Daily Trust article published November last year stated that the Lagos State Government confiscated 89 abandoned buildings in Ikoyi/Victoria Island axis alone. In a growing Abuja, city council recently did a survey and came up with about 436 abandoned buildings. For cities in the US like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit, there are 54, 000, 15, 000 and 10, 000 abandoned buildings according to an article posted on CBS News website.

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Abandoned building in Victoria Island

Why Abandoned Buildings Shouldn’t Be

Newspapers frequently reports such buildings are normally used as hideouts for criminals. Others engage in other acts like preparing hard drugs, rituals or even rape minors. Unfortunately. I recently got a forwarded message from a resident in Lagos thats says Lagos just got a new Commissioner of Police. Part of his action strategies to curb criminal activities is to comb abandoned buildings regularly. See how serious the situation is.

These two major reasons of redundancy and using it for illicit acts by criminals should propel city officials to take a regulatory stand on it, especially Abuja where crimes are on the rise. Such regulations should spur economic benefits for the owners and the citizens, especially now that jobs are hard to come by in Nigeria.

What To Do: Innovate

How can building owners leverage their unused buildings as they wait for bigger funds to do as they wish or simply an idea to do something?

Innovations like that of the Northeast Investment Cooperative (NEIC) of Minneapolis in the US is a great source of inspiration. NEIC buys abandoned buildings in their neighbourhoods and lease them out to businesses. Not gentrification by the way. In 2011, the residents, 90 of them, pooled in $1,000 each to acquire a building. They repeated same in 2014 with more than 200 members now as part of the cooperative. They later rented it out to 2 companies; a brewery and a bakery and sold one of the buildings to a bike recovery shop.

It is a common characteristic of cities to have such unused spaces and ‘abandoned’ buildings. Innovations in the form of urban agriculture have brought back life to unused plots of lands and buildings in cities like Malmo in Sweden. Urban agriculturists go into a lease agreement with land/property owners of say 5 years and thereafter move in to start growing food, either from the ground or in containers.

With such assurances, urban agriculturists can easily settle and move to plan a business with anticipation of moving after such agreement.

It is a win-win-win for city council, property owners and citizens. City owners do not have to deal with the eye sore of dilapidated or undeveloped pieces of land and also curb the probability of crime. Property owners earn some money while waiting to take a decision of what to do with the building. Citizens can start a business or grow food in the city or start any business saving them cost of traveling to rural areas.

In hustling vibrant Lagos, security officials guarding abandoned buildings provide accommodation to many people at night only and charge them a fee, without the permission of the owner. This shouldn’t be.

Unfortunately, the typical attitude of asserting authority of public servants had hindered them from providing innovative solutions like the ones mentioned above. Instead, Lagos State Government is confiscating properties. What did they do with it? To whose benefits? Why can’t there be an amicable discussion with property owners and authorities to find a win-win situation for both parties?

Property development code in Abuja says you should complete your construction in 2 years. There are opportunities of extension though. However, what is not allowed is change of use from say residential to commercial. Property owners must apply for a change in use.

An initial conversation with the department of urban planning for the city of Abuja showed that farming is not allowed in the city. But is already going on, informally. The good thing with urban agriculture is it can be done in beautiful ways even the city officials would crave to include as part of future districts designs.

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We can have these indoor plantations and it cant hurt the city

For cities like Lagos that have no land to build or farm, it is a great opportunity to advance sustainability in the city. Growing food in the city is a great part of ensuring food security and quicker access to healthier food.

A different mindset was assumed when designing our cities. With sustainability advocated in all spheres, especially cities, we should incorporate in all our design and development thinking. SDG 11 is about sustainable cities and communities.

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Deliberations of the Panel Discussion on Sustainability in Architecture in Nigeria

The built environment is responsible for the largest consumption of energy produced in the world. They have a corresponding largest global greenhouse gas emission by sector, 40% according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). How does this all affect us and the environment? Negative impacts of climate change have positioned many people in danger. It has destroyed lives and properties. Worse, it places a dark cloud for future generations. As such, there is need to reduce the impact of our built environment on the carbon footprint.

The French Institute of Nigeria and Green Habitat Initiative, on 31st of May in Abuja, brought together professionals in the built environment industry to debate the right sustainability principles and materials for Nigeria’s built environment. Four panelists drawn from different disciplines and professions that cut across sustainability in architecture were brought together to lead the discussion. After introductory speeches by the panelists, a panel discussion held between the panelists, moderated by the Director of Green Habitat Initiative Sadiq Gulma.

A summary of the viewpoints of the four panelists is highlighted below.

Nmadili Okwumabua is Nigerian and promotes modernizing African architecture in Nigeria’s cities, through her organization Community Planning and Design Initiative. Through her presentation and contributions to the discussion, she stressed the need to reclaim our heritage by not being embarrassed about using red earth for our buildings in Abuja. Through her organization, Nmadili receives entries of architectural plans modernized with African values from everyone around the globe. She has received many great entries reflecting numerous African culture and values in their design. The panelist revealed she is currently building a prototype of such sustainable houses. The model would be instrumental in advancing the movement.

Having expressed her pessimism at the beginning of her presentation, Armelle Choplin our second panelist has been following cement, what she calls ‘the grey gold’ from Nigeria through Benin, Togo to Ghana. She is concerned that Nigeria may not stop using cement in building because it is becoming cheaper and Dangote Industries is providing all the cement Nigeria needs. Through her research, she has discovered there is a social symbol and even political to the use of cement in our buildings. People who use other materials, such as red earth maybe seen as less privileged. There is a challenge of finding skilled local builders to teach foremen how to use red mud in constructing strong buildings that can go as high as 10 story building. For a paradigm shift to take place, she asserts that notable and prominent people and organizations like Dangote would play an influential role if they take the lead.

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Having understood the local issues with the building materials in question, Mr. Stephanne Pouffary was on the panel to provide the macro vision of sustainability in cities. Through his NGO, ENERGIES 2050 he has worked with up to 30 cities all over the world including those in West Africa to help them advance their energy efficiency and sustainability goals. His contribution clarified that different cities have different priorities and motivation to go green. Our ability to personalize the codes that will drive everyone to cleaner cities. For that to work, he highlighted 3 things that needs to be done; increase professionals’ capacity in sustainability, form regional coalitions to promote goals and work out the cost benefit analysis for sustainability to go mainstream. At the end, cost drives everything.

All the talk would be in vain if there are no institutionalized policies to control and regulate the built environment. The fourth panelist, Dr. Sherif Y. Razak who is from the Department of Development Control (authority in charge of approving all building plans and development in Abuja) was on the panel to describe what the government is doing and needs to do. Currently, the Department has instituted a green building committee to vet all building submissions against certain green building concepts. However, a lot needs to be done before a bigger impact can be made. He stressed the need to increase capacity amongst professionals, including government staff. A prototype of buildings with such sustainability standards would be pivotal in influencing building policy and regulations. Therefore, what Ms Nmadili is building should serve as a good reference point for policy makers to use in changing the regulations.

After debating amongst each other, the panelists engaged with the teeming audience. Many shared their views and supported the fact that capacity needs to increase, especially amongst architects who are the chief drivers of the built environment. Many others questioned the officer from the Department of Development Control and their need to enforce the principles.

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The event concluded with more discussions amongst participants during the cocktail.

Sustainable Abuja: Pedestrian Friendly or Car Friendly?

Why does it matter if a city is sustainable or not? Why does it matter if a city is walkable or not? Why it does it matter if a city is inclusive or not? It matters because when every person who lives in a city is considered in building it, it ensures their collective participation and recognition. It empowers them and increases their mental strengths which automatically can increase their contribution in making the city a better place.

I am constantly asking this question in the city I live, Abuja. I have been around far too long to witness its evolution from a small city of a million people to more than 4 million people now. I have lived long enough to see big wide dual carriage ways being built without pedestrian bridges. Long enough to witness its rapid urbanization without a corresponding provision of social and affordable housing for its youth and many of the people who work inside it. Long enough to witness failing urban transportation to carter for everyone.

But what about regulations that affect how sustainable a city is? Such as ensuring a city is walkable. A sustainable city should discourage emissions of greenhouse gases, especially from transportation that is shown to be the 4th highest emitter of GHG by economic sector. Therefore, less car usage should be a watchword. A more walking population can mean healthier and more productive workforce.

Constantly connecting districts with roads doesn’t mean it’s bad, but what’s bad is laying out a road without a corresponding provision for where pedestrians can safely walk or access public transportation.

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Recently, I have been witnessing how safe bus stops are created on different road ways in Abuja. So for the past years when the roads were existing, pedestrians have to legally run across 8 lane roads in crossing over to the other side. Legal because when the roads were built, ped. crossings were not provided, even though they were built around popular road crossings and bus stops for the public. The developers never felt the need to consider the pedestrians. Despite the sudden interventions of building ped bridges, there are many major bus stops without these.

Because the custom of running across roads (jaywalking), even when the pedestrian bridges are built, people ditch them and prefer to run across. Another reason is carelessness. There are instances where people are hit by speeding cars. Jaywalking is a crime in many countries. But Abuja is a place where zebra crossings are only for real Zebras; found only in the zoo. In some places, animals use pedestrian bridges, while humans prefer to run across (have you seen such photos). Only a minute fraction of car drivers respect the pedestrian crossings.

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If you want someone to stop for you or a loved one at zebra crossing, you should start stopping for people if you are behind the wheel

Another reason for ditching pedestrian bridges is because they are built a little faraway from where people normally run or bus stops are located. Although at times, it is the only feasible engineering and planning option.

I wonder when people will become more watchful of their safety and start obeying simple rules to prolong their lives.

But simply putting pedestrian footpaths and bridges doesn’t make a city walkable. What about other regulations to promote walking. Often times, commercial buildings in Abuja who due to their strategic locations can have two accesses to their building. One faces a collector road (busier road) and the other access road (less busier than the collector). Government Development Control Department orders such building owners to shutdown pedestrian gates overlooking busier roads. Road users who come to such places are made to travel round and a longer distance to access the other gate, thus aiding more car emissions while inconveniencing pedestrians.

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An image of the numerous order signs painted on many commercial buildings in Abuja by the Development Control Development

The most walkable cities in Nigeria are not the developed the cities. Basic social amenities are more than 5 minute walk from homes. The thinking here is, development means more space for cars and less for pedestrians. Unequitable and uninclusive development.

It will be a welcome and sustainable development if Nigerian cities are designed around the people living in it.

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