Lagos is a city full of paradoxes. It is a city buzzing with activity and promise, but it is also a city where things can suddenly come to a standstill, and very often do.
With over one million daily trips during peak periods, the average Lagosian will spend nearly a third of her life commuting. There is no commute more popular than the trek across the 3rd Mainland Bridge, as, every morning, thousands of cars converge on the bridge as early as 5 am. The evening experiences are similar, with Lagosians trooping home to meet with their loved ones.
In Lagos, all roads lead to the Island.
The Island Drive
The Lagos Island, particularly spanning Marina, Ikoyi, and Victoria Island, is home to most of the multinationals, banks and large indigenous corporations. The area accounts for a large portion of the state’s commerce and income, thereby attracting many to its doorsteps.
It was not always so.
In the 1990s, the Lagos Mainland was home to a healthy number of manufacturing companies and trade clusters. In Ikeja, Lagos’ capital, the Oba Akran was a hive of industrial activity, hosting companies such as Michelin, Dunlop, and Nigerian Textile Mills Plc.
A lot of these companies have faded into memory, sometimes turning into churches and event centres—a perverse mark of Lagos’ new economy. The Oregun Industrial estate suffered a similar fate as large employers like Eleganza and Onward Paper Mills closed shop while others relocated to other areas of the state, or even outside Lagos.
The story is similar across the mainland; in Matori, Aswani, and Iganmu, previously known for trade.
But, why have these companies and clusters shut down? The reasons are many, from inadequate electricity supply to dreadful roads, and many revolve around a breakdown in the operating environment partly due to state neglect.
A structural shift in Lagos’ economy
An underexplored cause of the Mainland-Island shift is the evolution of the Lagos’ economy from manufacturing to services. In the 21st Century, sectors such as telecoms and finance have grown from nothing to become drivers of the national economy, and have dragged the economic axis of the state—and country—closer to the marina.
In a sense, the less congested island offered a more glamorous location for these industries, and also for the more affluent residents of the state. Areas like Victoria Island and Marina loosely aspired to the lustre of Wall Street and Canary Wharf; the prestige of an Island office became a must-have.
Yet, the island is not all glamour and glitter; trade and artisanship remain an essential source of informal sector employment. Markets like Idumota, Balogun, and Jankara constitute a significant source of trade in the state and account for many of the Lagosians that make the daily Island trek.
Major Mainland markets seemed to have suffered in contrast. In 2019 alone, Ojodu, Katangowa, and Iponri markets have experienced major fire outbreaks. Tejuosho and Oyingbo were once burgeoning markets which attracted lots of Lagosians and even foreigners. However, these markets are now failing due to shifts in location, rising rent prices, and the introduction of high-rise structures in these markets.
Thus, the Island remains the target for many, even as alternative locations for trade and commerce deteriorate. At the same time, this poses a challenge for Lagos, a city already dealing with population issues. As citizens flock to the new centre, city planning and management become more important.
And so does the need to spread out Lagos.
When Silverbird Cinemas first opened its doors in 2004, thousands of Lagosian trooped to Victoria Island to enjoy the unique cinema experience. Fifteen years later, Lagos has nearly twenty cinemas spread across the state.
The cinema example provides a template for Lagos to move towards a more polycentric type of economic development where most Lagosians do not have to cross the 3rd Mainland Bridge to earn a respectable income.
Achieving this type of development would require deliberate planning and investment, but we can take cues from other cities.
In the 1970s, Seoul, a city with over ten million residents, had a clustering crisis. In response, the city enacted an urban plan to disperse its economic activity. Seoul developed its 2030 strategy, spreading the city into five regions, with three main centres—a cultural centre, business centre, and financial centre, seven regional centres, and 12 local centres. The plan was an incredible success. Today, Gangnam-gu is the city’s business centre—home to Seoul’s world trade centre—and is also known as the nation’s education capital.
Other cities have similar dispersed features, with boroughs or districts having distinct characteristics. This is true in New York City (five boroughs), Curitiba in Brazil (nine districts), and London (five business districts). A common theme in all these cities is inter-connectivity which makes it easy to commute across different areas.
Lagos has made some strides in decentralising its activities. In January 2019, Akinwunmi Ambode, Governor at the time, launched the Alaro Satellite City in Epe, a 2000 hectare area comprising of offices, homes, warehouses, etc. The new area is strategically aligned towards the ongoing development within the Ibeju-Epe axis. This axis is home to many new infrastructural developments, such as the Lekki free zone, Dangote refinery, the Lekki deep seaport, and the proposed Lekki international airport.
The development of the Ibeju-Lekki region is commendable. However, Lagos State needs to create sustainable development models in other parts of the state. And Eko Atlantic will not cut it.
Imagine Lagos in 2030, with a tourist hotspot in Badagry, a technology hub in Ikorodu, and Nollywood making its home in Epe. That home would consist of theatres and studios—everything required in the cultural capital of Africa’s most vibrant city.
The thought may be fanciful, but with Lagos’ current challenges with migration, security, and slums, such dreams may need to become a reality soon.
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