Lekwa Ezutah, the immediate past president of Nigerian Institute of Town Planners, in this chat with NKASIOBI OLUIKPE, discusses some fundamental planning issues
What were the highlights of your tenure as the national president of NITP?
I was president of the institute between 2018 and 2020. I normally summarise my activities in the institute this way: I succeeded in putting the institute on a pedestal that will enable successive administrations run where I crawled. This I did by stremlining the administration of the institute. For instance, we concluded the constitution review and reinvigorated sub-groups like Women in Planning, Educators Forum (for town planners in academics), Forum of Chapter Chairmen etc. For the first time, we had a joint retreat for elected officials and all staff of the institute. We also had a retreat for elected officials and chapter chairmen. All these things were meant to smoothen operations in the institute, and I can assure you they made impact. The current administration has repeated these retreats on a larger scale.
We also commenced official visits to chapters to encourage them and get them to key into programmes of the national body. It is not that past presidents did not visit chapters for specific purposes; these were scheduled, not because the chapter was organising an event. We organised town hall meetings in all the states visited. This provided a platform for getting the people to appreciate the purpose of town planning. Unfortunately, we could not go far due to the Coronavirus Disease outbreak. We could only visit eight chapters.
What is the job of town planners?
The purpose of town planning is to ensure we have livable human settlements by providing functional and aesthetically pleasing environment for human habitation and diverse activities.
With town planners in Nigeria, how come majority of the towns and cities seem inhabitable?
It is because, our citizens, especially the policy makers, have not yet appreciated the purpose of town planning. Most of our administrators see town planning from the perspective of revenue generation. But that is not the main purpose of town planning. The main purpose is to provide people with livable human settlements. The lack of awareness of the purpose of town planning leads to inadequate attention being paid to planning, except when there is need to beef up revenue generation.
If, like you said, the policy makers have not understood the purpose of town planning, what have you done to arrest the situation?
Initially, the institute relied on conferences, seminars and issuance of communiques, which were normally dispatched to the various levels of government. But realising that it was not making the needed impact, the institute embarked on town hall meetings, whereby each state would organise a meeting point where they invite policy makers, developers and other stakeholders, to educate them on the purpose of town planning. It is an ongoing exercise. When the institute’s president visits any state, it is organised. If we have other functions in any state, it is also organised. We also expect our state chapters to organise these town hall meetings in their senatorial zones and subsequently in other urban and rural centres, so that people will get to appreciate the purpose of town planning.
Considering that in Nigeria, development erroneously precedes planning, do you think anything can still be done to remedy the situation?
Yes, it is very possible. Planning is a continuous process. Yes, it would have been better if planning preceded development. But with our settlements already developed, we have what is known as urban renewal. It is still a form of planning. But in this case, you are talking about settlements that have already developed and possibly decayed over time. We can still renew them, via physical planning.
How would you advice government over our haphazardly planned cities?
The fundamental problem is that we have always looked at economic planning without paying any attention to physical planning. But these two forms of planning are two sides of a coin. If you sacrifice one for the other, you won’t make progress. Physical planning must be seen as a veritable tool for economic development.
We keep hearing about urban renewal, what is is all about?
In most cases, when you talk about urban renewal, governments think it’s a question of reconstructing roads. Urban renewal is more than reconstruction and widening of roads. It involves more than that. You have to revitalise the economy of the city. You have to provide social facilities like recreational centres, schools, hospitals, markets and lots more appropriate locations and number. You have to regenerate the area totally.
Are you saying that governments know about this?
Yes, they do. After all, it is till in the Nigerian Urban Development Policy document.
So, how come they are not applying it?
I still say that our people don’t see urban planning as very important. We over-emphasise economic planning and development to the detriment of physical planning. But physical planning, like I said, is the other side of economic planning. They should be pursued simultaneously if we are to achieve the required objective. When we keep emphasising economic planning to the detriment of physical planning, we won’t make the desired progress. Without physical planning, facilities are often located at the wrong places and at the wrong time too. That is why we hardly succeed. Our public facilities, for instance, are not located based on appropriate criteria, but on political considerations. For example, every community is struggling to have a general hospital. These facilities have threshold populations. If that threshold population is not met and you just go ahead to locate such facility anywhere, the population will not be able to support that facility and it will crumble. That is what is happening with most of our social infrastructure.
Our infrastructure should be organised in hierarchical order. For example, for our medical facilities, we should have clinics at the base, followed by health centres, then cottage hospitals, general hospitals etc . These should be located where the population can support their level of service. Same for the educational institutions.
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