Of concrete jungles and absence of playgrounds for children, By Chima Nwafo

Posted by News Express | 6 June 2019 | 1,330 times

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•Chima Nwafo

While older societies are engaged in urban transformation and beautification of their environment, Nigerian states and local governments are busy developing concrete jungles or future slums, devoid of planning, landscaping, drainages (despite the problem of flood), gardens, parks, public libraries and other features of a healthy environment.

As part of its Biodiversity Day observation, the Permanent Secretary, Lagos State Ministry of Environment, warned that “the biodiversity of Lagos State was being threatened by rapid urbanisation and connected factors, and urged stakeholders to act quickly and positively to forestall further devastation.”

 This was almost a rehash of an earlier statement on wetlands made in 2016: “Wetland and its resources in Lagos are being adversely affected by the state’s rapid urbanisation, such that wetlands are being encroached upon by the day through reclamation, leading to flooding, loss of biodiversity, as well as depletion of wildlife.”

The challenge of rapid urbanisation in Lagos is real and undisputable. But the sad reality is that not much thought is has been devoted to its solution. And given that no other Nigerian city boasts a better planning or aesthetic landscape, it could be described as a national developmental problem. For example, it was the realisation of this crowding and poor planning that contributed to the Federal Military Government’s decision in the middle 1970s to relocate the federal capital from Lagos to Abuja. So, the problem of rapid urbanisation is not a recent development. Nevertheless, it could be rightly argued that the population grew from arithmetical to geometrical progression, and understandably so.

Again, recently, human rights activist, Emmanuel Onwubiko, in an insightful article in News Express regretted the absence of playgrounds for children in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. He began by praising the FCT, describing it as one of the best-planned and most beautiful city on the West Coast. Given that Abuja is a recent development funded with billions of petroleum dollars, it’s not clear how much its planners copied from modern cities built centuries ago. Interestingly, one is yet to know a Nigerian creative Architect credited with the design of a particular great building or estate, lest a city.

However, Onwubiko observed: 
“About two decades ago when this writer arrived the Federal Capital Territory, there were a few public playgrounds within the Abuja Municipal Area Council. These playgrounds have all been sold out to commercial businesses. The only space for Abuja children to play around is within their school premises, and at some of the shopping centres that charge exorbitant fees from parents. My investigation from the Abuja agency for parks and recreation shows that the people controlling land allocations took away these playgrounds. Also, there are green areas that were sold out to beer sellers and religious centres of the two dominant religions.” 
Yet, Abuja is our architectural urban planning best in the 21st century. In a way, Abuja is just another concrete jungle like the rest Nigerian urban centres, except that it houses a more decent, more modern structures: No iconic monuments, historical towers, gardens, parks, and most importantly, play grounds for children. Above all, no public libraries.

On the value and architectural essence of structures like the centuries-old recently burnt Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic magazine noted: “A Cathedral calls us to consider time beyond the boundaries of one life, enclosing us in a grand view of what humanity can do and humans cannot.” Is it a surprise that the Notre Dame, as the national symbol in Paris, attracted over 13 million tourists in 2010? Also, in the same Paris, there is the Eiffel Towers, a non-religious landmark, an American journalist described as the most famous space in the city, “set to get a pedestrian-friendly redesign that will create the city’s largest garden by 2024.” That is not all. In September 2016, the elected assembly of Paris voted to “permanently ban cars from a 3.3-kilometre stretch of the Right Bank of the River Seine, with a view to turning it into a shaded, grassy promenade and cycle way.”

Meanwhile, Lagos State government is busy “reclaiming” land from the raging sea and approving building on swamps and blocking waterways. And same government officials that authorised such ecological aberrations are complaining of floods and destruction of biodiversity.

Nigerian governments – federal, states, and local councils – are run by officials and technocrats who have travelled to these well-planned advanced countries. They have seen their beautiful landscapes, planned cities, functional utilities, leisure parks and children’s play grounds.

The questions arise: Why is it that not one official has deemed it fit to replicate those things in Nigeria? Why the rat-race to acquire land and build up every space as if there’ll be no future generation?

 The opportunity to play is a basic right, fundamental to children’s development. It is an irony of urban development in Nigerian urban areas that children are not taken into consideration.  Although politicians can gain considerable political capital from opening playgrounds, but they don’t. As a result, only some elite private schools today have play grounds.

Today, in New York City, once described as “ecological nightmare”, there are over “2,000 playgrounds sprayed out across the five Boroughs; tens of thousands of kids play in, on around them every day,” according to The Illustrated History of New York City Play Grounds, by creative artist and visual story-teller, Arie Abeg-Riger.  But it wasn’t like that from beginning. Until then, children played in the only space available: on the streets and undeveloped lots in their neighbourhoods, as we have it today. But there, unlike in Africa, there were concerned social reformers who cared: “What kinds of vagrants would these rowdy street urchins grow up to be? Who was going to socialise them to become decent, law-abiding, democracy-loving American citizens?” From among them, a playground movement was borne. “In 1884, a Tenement House Committee was appointed to study the problem.”

Here, even nearly 200 years after, can the House of Representatives be bothered about play grounds and leisure spots? With little regard for heroes (not the Imo State Governor Rochas Okorocha’s type), some towns can’t even boast one statue of a prominent citizen.
Abia State could be worst rated on that score. In fact, in the East, the challenge of urban planning and beautification is acute. Even Port Harcourt is yet to regain its past glory of the “Garden City,” except you visit the Shell Housing Estate for its staff.  

Nothing wrong if FCT, states and local governments should borrow from the New York City example where a Parks Commissioner was appointed and he saw to the “creation of almost 700 playgrounds throughout the NYC: from 1934 – 1960 with specific design details. Children had Seesaws, Sandboxes, Jungle Gyms, Swings and Slides to play with.”
Author Abeg-Riger who writes for City Lab, observed: “Led by a ‘Belief in children’s right’, with the mission of producing spaces for young people to feel safe enough: to take emotional, physical and social risks in their play. It’s been well-documented that play grounds keep kids healthy: both mentally and physically. Free, spontaneous active play teaches kids cooperation and problem-solving skills; helps them become flexible, creative thinkers, and brings them together with their neighbours and communities.”

The dependent and parlous state of local governments resonates once again, as the subject of urban planning and development falls within their jurisdiction. But since the imperial state governors are in absolute control, the onus is now on the not-so-independent state legislators and the National Assembly to make the necessary legislations recognising the right of our children to play and relax for a healthy development, as enunciated above.

•Nwafo, Consulting Editor, News Express/Environmental Analyst, can be reached on: chi_dafo@yahoo.com; +2348029334754.

Source: News Express

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