What are Sustainable Cities and How Can we Build Them in Nigeria?

Chukwunomnso Okeke*

As the world continues to race against time to avert an impending climate catastrophe, various steps are being taken to reduce global CO2 emissions and protect the natural environment. This includes initiatives aimed at reducing transport emissions, reducing resource consumption, and reducing and eliminating waste among various others. However, a big obstacle to the achievement of these targets is the presence of existing systems and infrastructure that encourage the continuation and exacerbation of the current issues. For example, transport emissions are a by-product of the development of internal combustion engine vehicles to cater to our need to move from place to place as quickly as possible. Yet, this is, in turn, primarily due to the physical distances between our homes, schools, places of work, hospitals, places of worship, et cetera. If these distances were significantly less and people could access all the goods and services they need and want without having to travel for miles, vehicular emissions would inevitably reduce drastically as well.

Therefore, it can be deduced that an effective way of achieving sustainability is by changing established norms and practices that either cause or encourage activities that inflict damage upon the environment. One way this can be achieved is via the development of sustainable cities and communities.

Sustainable cities and communities, otherwise known as green or eco-cities and communities, are regions that have been designed with consideration given to all three Ps of sustainability — people, planet, and profit. This framework was termed the triple bottom line of social, environmental, and economic progress because it shifts businesses and communities away from focusing solely on profit and wealth generation by including the social and environmental dimensions of development and progress. Consequently, these communities are able to satisfy their needs in the present without depriving future generations of the ability to meet their own needs. According to the World Bank, sustainable cities and communities have the following characteristics:

  • They are environmentally sustainable in terms of cleanliness and efficiency.
  • They are resilient to social, economic, and natural shocks. They are especially designed to be resistant to natural disasters, which are increasing in frequency and intensity due to climate change.
  • They are inclusive communities that draw on all dimensions of society and all groups of people — including the marginalised and vulnerable — into their markets, their services, and their development.
  • They are competitive communities that can stay productive and generate jobs for members of the community.

The significance of sustainable cities and communities is highlighted in its inclusion as Goal 11 of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, which are milestones set by the global community to ensure a better and more sustainable future for all.

This requires urgent action because of the current patterns of human population distribution and what they are projected to be in the future. Presently, over 4.2 billion people — more than 55 percent of the global population — live in municipal areas. By 2050, the global urban population is projected to rise to 6.5 billion people. This is predominantly caused by the ever-increasing human population as well as rising rural-urban migration. Unfortunately, cities cannot effectively cater to the needs of such overwhelming populations due to the scarcity of available resources. Existing facilities, services, and infrastructure, such as water, waste management, sanitation, electricity, and transport, are overburdened and cannot be adequately distributed among all residents. Consequently, slums have become a prominent feature of cities — particularly in the developing world where the human population is spiking — with 828 million people currently living in slums, a number that continues to rise.

Cities also exact heavy tolls on the natural environment. Recent data shows that cities account for 60 to 80 percent of energy consumption and at least 70 percent of carbon emissions despite occupying only 3 percent of the earth’s land mass. It is these emissions that are responsible for the high levels of air pollution and subsequent poor air quality that have become trademarks of megacities. The significant impact that cities have on the environment have meant that they are especially vulnerable to climate change and the impact of natural disasters.

The primary materials used for construction in cities are concrete and steel, both of which have a high heat and solar radiation absorption rate but are impervious to water. As a result, the effects of heat waves and heavy rainfall are felt more acutely in these areas, making them more vulnerable to climate change. Thus, it is evident that redesigning and transforming cities is an important step towards achieving sustainable development.

Globally, there have been efforts to make cities more sustainable. Copenhagen, for example, set a target in 2012 to be the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025 — a target which it remains on course to achieve. This is being achieved by the transition to greener means of transport via the use of hydrogen-powered taxis and an emphasis on walking and cycling. In Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia, over 75 per cent of the city’s physical space is occupied by parks and green spaces, with 230km of cycling routes and free electric taxis to support its green transport initiative. Other capital cities, such as Vancouver, Canada; Zurich, Switzerland; Canberra, Australia; and Vienna, Austria have implemented green initiatives to improve energy efficiency, waste management and carbon emission reductions, and to protect the economies and populations of those cities from the dangers of natural disasters caused by climate change.

On the African continent, some countries have begun the journey towards “greening” their cities to make them more sustainable. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, investments have been made into reducing the carbon footprint of the transport sector through the construction of a light rail network to improve transport efficiency. In Nairobi, Kenya, off-grid solutions to energy poverty are being driven through the invention of the “MwangaBora” — which is Swahili for “good light” — solar-powered LED lamps. These lamps improve the livelihoods of villagers by giving them access to clean, low-cost energy that replaces the harmful kerosene, thereby preserving their health.

The concept of sustainable cities and communities is not a novelty in Nigeria. The Sustainable Cities Nigeria Programme was designed to advance the state of environmental planning and management in Ibadan, Kano, Enugu, and Karu — four economically crucial towns and cities across Nigeria. However, there remains an increasingly urgent need for the development of sustainable cities and communities in Nigeria. This is due to the country’s rising population density, economic instability, insecurity, energy poverty, and infrastructural deficiencies. Furthermore, Nigeria is among the ten most vulnerable countries to climate change and is routinely affected by heavy flooding in the southern regions of the country as well as droughts in the North.

Flooding, which has been predominantly caused by human activity, severely impacts Nigeria in a myriad of ways. Throughout 2020, flooding directly affected more than 2 million people in Nigeria and resulted in 69 deaths. In 2019, there were 158 deaths with over 200,000 people affected. In 2012, the country experienced its most devastating flooding in recent history. More than 2.3 million people were displaced, 363 lost their lives, another 16 million people were impacted in various ways, and years of development gains were reversed. The Nigerian economy was dealt a crushing blow with total losses amounting to US$16.9 billion. In Lagos State alone, flooding has inflicted economic losses of up to $4 billion per year, which amounts to 4.1 per cent of the state GDP and 1 per cent of the National GDP. According to a DFID study, if no climate adaptation action is taken, between 2–11% of Nigeria’s GDP could be lost by 2030 to the effects of climate change.

Due to the precarious position of the Nigerian economy, particularly due to the global economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the volatility of global oil markets, the Federal Government must prioritise the redesigning of its cities to minimise its risk exposure to climate change and its destructive impact on the national economy. To do so, it must design and enact policies intended to create and maintain sustainable cities and communities that empower its people and protect the environment without sacrificing economic growth. This includes the prioritisation of energy and resource efficiency, upgrading public transport network infrastructure, (re)designing urban spaces to promote sustainability, reducing the environmental impact of the manufacturing sector, and implementing circularity to reduce and eradicate waste wherever possible.

Under SDG11, there are specific targets set for 2030 which the Federal Government must begin to pursue in order to facilitate the transition to, and development of, sustainable human settlements. It is necessary that the government make concerted efforts to include these targets as part of its own commitments towards reducing the environmental impact of its activities and its contributions to climate change. These present opportunities for the government to Invest in our Planet, as was the theme of Earth 2022, in order to create a sustainable future for all its citizens.

Chukwunomnso Okeke* is an Environment and Climate Action Associate at Clean Technology Hub.



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