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Governments should give priority to planning projects, says George

By Happiness Otokhine   |   03 October 2016   |   3:59 am



With a career spanning of over four decades, MRS. CATHERINE KEHINDE GEORGE, the first female town planner in Nigeria and the entire Africa, continues to straddle the town planning profession like a colossus. Sharing her experience in urbanisation and informal settlements with HAPPINESS OTOKHINE, George said the future of planning profession is bright, as long as people live in cities, there will be a need for urban planning.

YOU became the very first female town planner in Nigeria and in Africa sometime in the sixties. How were you able to achieve this? Why do you think there was no other female in the profession at the time?
There wasn’t much awareness of the profession at that time. Even among the males. Most early town planners in Nigeria were architects who went on to study town planning as a second degree, and gradually the knowledge about urban and regional planning became more recognised. People became more aware of the profession. Females are now coming into it in bigger numbers. The trend has changed gradually. Now, there is a development in feminism that encourages females to do whatever the men could do. Whereas in the past it was impossible, but because it is not completely impossible, females started trying to step out of their comfort zones.

Nigeria remains the urbanised country in Africa with 60 per cent of its urban population living in informal areas. Most urban centres do not either have development plans to guide their development or the plans are outdated. How did we get here since we have planners?
We refer to informal settlements sometimes as slums and they occur all over the world. And what usually causes them to occur is usually migration from the rural areas to the urban areas. The rural people think that there are better opportunities for them in the urban areas so they migrate usually in their youth and settle down. When they get to the urban areas, they may find out that it is not quite as rossy as they expected and their first requirements are usually food and shelter – shelter being the number one. If they are lucky and they have relatives that are ready to accommodate them, they may stay with the relative. But if not, they will look for the cheapest accommodation, and that is usually found in the slums. And so, generally they develop around the rural areas where the land is cheap. At times they put up structures or makeshift structures for a cheap accommodation. The makeshift structures also have landlords who rent them out at a lower price. Sometimes, such settlements occur in acquired areas. That is areas acquired by the government that are not yet utilized. Sometimes squatters move in there and start to live there. So, that is how the informal settlements occur, not only in Nigeria but also in other parts of the world.

What do you see as the solution?
The only thing that can be done is to upgrade them through what is called urban renewal or urban regeneration. That means, we don’t go in there and use bulldozer to clear them off but we upgrade them. If for instance, their roads are not good and the drains are not effective, the roads are put in place and the drains are put in place. Or maybe they don’t have a place for their children to play, you can create a space for their children to play. May be they don’t have a clinic; we can build facility for a clinic. Such facilities that are very basic to human life can be provided for such communities. Thus, such places are upgraded gradually and the quality of life will improve over time.

The Lagos State Metropolitan master plan has not been followed holistically, which is causing indiscriminate location of malls and event centres, creating traffic problems. How did the planners allow this to happen?
For every development that is happening in Lagos State, there must be an approval. That development plan or building plan has to be presented to the government for approval, before that structure can be built. If any structure is built without an approved building plan that means it is an illegal structure; it is not supposed to be there. Before an approval can be given for a development, all the facilities are checked to see if they are in place – adequate parking, adequate set back, from the major road and adequate air space from the sides of the property to gate and to the other property nearby so that there is no encroachment to other property. So, that is assumed to be in place before such structures are put up.

Planners say, policy makers do not give much priority to planning and plans preparation. Can we blame them, especially the lawmakers for the ineffectiveness of the urban and regional planning laws?
I think we have to let the public know that planning is a process. It is the continuous and cyclic process. It starts from the evaluation and goes on to the preparation of the plan, to implementation, back to evaluation and the cycle starts all over again. So, for the town planners to have a very good resource from their work, the plans have to be implemented. We have many planners and we have many projects that have been planned all over the country but the process of implementation has always been the problem. And for the implementation, there has to be adequate manpower, technical manpower, adequate resources and adequate funding. No matter how good a plan is, if it is not funded it will not come to reality. And you discover that because a plan has been prepared and approved for development and it are not actually implemented, other things will happen on the land. The land will not be there for too long. Maybe squatters will take it over or other things will happen. So, we appeal to the government to give planning projects more priority. Because when we have prioritised planning projects, we have better quality of life for residents in the communities and in every area of the country.

We know that effective urban planning is key to national development. How do we remedy the situation and ensure adequate planning and good urban governance in cities?
We refer to inclusion in planning. Inclusion in planning can also be referred to as public participation in planning. Awareness is getting greater all over the world that we are planning with the people. We town planners are planning with the people. We are not planning for the people. That means we don’t stay in our offices and do our plans and imagine that we can do what we want for the residents to use. And we cannot be sure of what they actually want. That is why we now have stakeholders’ forum for every new plan where we talk to the residents in the community. And we listen to their opinion about what their needs and challenges are, because they definitely have in-depth knowledge of what is happening in their community and in their environment. All those information are taken into account by the planners working on such projects to make sure that the needs of the people are taken care of in the plans. But after completion of the plans, implementation is very, very important.

And the funding as I have said. And after funding and implementation, there has to be five yearly reviews because things are not static. For instance, when I was a student in technical college Ibadan that was between 1965 and 1967, I used to come to Lagos for my industrial training attachment with Ikeja area planning authority. Then, Ikorodu Road was just two lanes and we were driving on the left, another lane on the left coming back. And you could cross Ikorodu Road easily. Then, all the land on Ikorodu road was residential and many people had shops at the ground floor of the residential buildings. But over the years, the zoning for Ikorodu Road has changed from residential to commercial. So, that is what is happening to development over the years. There has to be a continuous review so that what is happening to the environment will be taken into account in the use of the land. The land use may have to be changed over a period of time.

You have had a long and interesting career and you have your hands in many pies, as they say. How do you cope with all the pressure?
Well, I am a prayerful person. And I think I am organized. I try to write things down in a diary and organize my mind. And pray about it. And do something about it. I make sure I put in an effort everyday into what I want to do. I don’t give up easily.

What has been the most challenging project you have handled in your entire career?
I think it is the Galadimawa project in Abuja because it was a project that was awarded to my company by the FCT Development Authority to be implemented by two firms – my firm, Metro Planners and Makintawa Development Planners. And the Director of that firm had passed on. He was my classmate and that was the first time I would be given a joint venture working with a partner who had passed on. So, it was challenging, because this was my classmate at the technical college, Ibadan and we were also together in Australia. He died in a car accident and the purpose of giving us a joint contract was to help his own family. That when I execute the project, whatever profits I made, I can share with his firm so that his family can cope better with the challenges of surviving after losing their breadwinner. So, that was very challenging for me and we had to go to Abuja, to the site very often to consult. And that was expensive. And I had to take along my key staff, we travelled by air, which was expensive and the social media system was not much in place then. So, that made it even more difficult. But at the end of the day, we successfully completed the project. We started that project in year 2001 and we successfully completed it and handed it over to the Federal Capital Development Authority in 2006. It was a very successful project. And I also learnt something: when we had the stakeholders’ forum with the residents in the area that was supposed to be developed, they would have to move. And we invited them to a stakeholders’ meeting in Galadimawa Village. We just discovered that all the people who came for the meeting were men – the elders, the middle aged and the young ones – but they were all men. We asked them where the women were and they answered that the women stay at home, while they the men attend forum meetings and make all the decisions on behalf of the women. That was my first experience in that type of setting. So, the project went well eventually, it was successfully completed.

The Lagos State government is implementing an ambitious urban renewal scheme. Do you think the methods being adopted meets the global standards of practice? What are the ingredients that make such a programme sustainable?
I worked on urban renewal programme when I was chairman of the Lagos forum for Lagos State between year 2001 and 2002. And when I was a lecturer in Yaba Tech, I taught urban renewal as a design course at the HND level. I used to tell my students to decide after they have seen what is going on ground. I took them to one of the squatter settlements. When we got there, we first talked with the Kabiyesi, or the Oba or the chief and explained our mission so that they don’t see us as intruders. And we went round the squatter settlement and the people came out and told us that they are not happy to live in slums or squatter areas and that whatever the government can do to assist them to make the place better they will appreciate it. But that they are there because they cannot afford a better accommodation. And that is a very moving statement, for some who would rather not live in a place that is not conducive to live in. So those are some of the things we have to think of: the safety, the healthy living for the whole of the residents in the upgrading of urban slums or squatter settlements. So, that is what the Lagos State has been doing. They don’t want to come in and drive people away and demolish. But by the gradual process of integration of urban regeneration, the areas are improved gradually. Then people can feel comfortable and they can have better quality of life. So, that is the mission for urban renewal or urban regeneration in Lagos State.

How do we relate what you just said to the event of the 1990s when Maroko was demolished?
The demolishing of Maroko was a disaster because the way it happened was too sudden. It is really sad because a lot of people that were affected were responsible people who had homes, children growing up and it was very sudden, drastic and very tormenting experience for them. I think it could have been done in a subtle way because we must have human feelings in whatever we do, in governance and in planning. As I said before, we should plan with the people not for the people. They could have involved them better, they could have made the process easier, less cumbersome, although it could have taken longer but the process would have been achieved but it would have been done in a more humane way. That is my opinion.

So, you think today government cannot do something like that?
Certainly not; it is not possible.

When placed on the scale of priorities, do you support the urban renewal programme of the Lagos State government?
Of course I support it because it will make life better. There are a large number of people in informal settlements as you stated at the beginning of this interview, which is a known fact. And those people need to be recognized and planned for to make their lives more comfortable. What they need basically is safe drinking water, basic amenities like electricity, drainage and refuse disposal facilities; things that are very basic to a conducive and a sustainable environment.

What would you call your biggest achievement next to being the first female town planner in Africa?
My biggest achievement is that God has blessed me with a happy family and for that I give thanks to God every day. Actually for me, my family is my number one achievement before you count my professional achievement.

For the up-coming generation of town planners, what do you see as their biggest challenge?
Yes, that is actually one area I would really love to talk about. When I studied in Australia – between 1971 and 1972 for my two-year programme, in urban and regional planning, I discovered that in Australia, town planners work in every facet of the economy. You have town planners working at the airports; you have town planners working at the army, the police force, posts and telegraphs, anywhere that there is a sequence of operations, even in industries, town planners work there. Anywhere, there is a sequence of operations, town planners can be employed. And this is because the way town planners are trained in higher institutions. They are trained to have a very wide perspective and they go through different courses, which makes them to have enlightenment in different areas of the construction industry, so they can be useful in almost every area. But when I came back in 1973, I started to work with the Lagos State Development and Property Corporation (LSDPC), which sponsored me to Australia. I noticed that the opportunities for employment were only in government and there were fewer town planners in practice. At that time, those few town planners who were in practice were mainly preparing layout plans for families who had landed property so they can develop their layout or different plans for them and seek approval from government for the layouts. Apart from that, no project was happening by way of employment for the planners. And I think that, for instance, the ministry of education has schools all over the country.

And for every federal government school, there should be a plan for the campus for the secondary school. And whatever they are constructing should be designed by an architect and the whole layout integrated by the planners and the engineers should be involved as well. So, if for every ministry of education, there are town planners for their projects, for their federal government schools, colleges and institutes, then some town planners who were not employed would be taken off the road; they will have employment. As for policemen, they have to be on their beats for surveillance. But how will policeman be on beats if he doesn’t have maps? So, for a town planner who is very conversant with maps reading, it is very easy for him to be on the surveillance and to be on the beat and to be able to be involved in crime prevention and in making sure that the environment is safe for us. So, these are the areas I think that young town planners can be looking at. When they graduate, they should not focus on going to work in government where they have approval of building plans as their only work. They should spread their tentacles. They should equally inform their employers of what other things they can be useful for. For instance also, a town planner can teach. They can teach town planning and allied courses. He can teach in institutes of estate management to prepare candidates for the institute’s examinations and they have to do town planning as one of their courses. A town planner can teach part time. Instead of just folding their hands and saying that there is no job for them because they are town planners. There is a lot that town planners can do. So, that is the advice I have for the younger ones.

They should not limit their capabilities and what they can do. They should challenge themselves. For instance, when I started writing, everyone was making fun of me. They taunted me with words like ‘you want to write book, na wa o’. But I continued what I was doing because I knew that something would come out of it. At least, it is going to be useful for other people, both students and lecturers. And God blessed the work I did. I did not have any finance from the government, no grant. I didn’t give up. So, the lesson there for the youths is that they should not give up because it is very tough now. I was young I was able to win an award to go to Australia and study. The fees were paid for, the flight ticket was paid for. So, it was not just because I was good on my work, but because the government and economy were stable and doing fine. And we benefitted from the economy that was doing fine. Now the economy is not doing fine, we have to make sure that we continue working and praying for a better future. So, that is my advice for the younger ones.

Do you think there is enough awareness of the available opportunities for town planners to be able to work in various fields because people can only act on what they know?
Well, what we have been doing – I was the past chairman of the Nigerian Institute of Town Planners, Lagos State chapter from 1998 to 2000 – is to carry out a lot of enlightenment programmes by visiting schools, having career talks and by talking to people who are in industries that town planners can be useful to them, by involving corporate organizations in the work we are doing. So, that has continued to be done and I think that more still needs to be done to make sure that the corporate world gets to know more about planning and that our students get to know that they can do better after they graduate that it is not a dead end for them. It is a lucrative course all over the world. Town planners live well abroad and they should live well in Nigeria. That is my belief. The work we do is very important for the environmental planning and development of the country.

What do you suggest the young town planner should do to broaden his scope and enhance his opportunities?
I think that vocational skill is very, very important. When I was growing up, my mother taught me how to bake, knit and crotchet, as well as how to do basic things in the house. And she was running a shop to augment the family income. So, I think that vocational skill is very important. My children, my daughters in particular, in between JSS, SSS, I make sure that they learn a trade, hairdressing or dressmaking or baking and cookery. So, they all have skills that they can use in addition to whatever they learn in the university. Right now we have to seek for people from other West African countries to assist us in construction work because our children don’t want to learn artisan work any longer. I think that the government should encourage them by having more technical institutes and vocational schools where our children can go and study and learn to make use of their hands, so that we have less delinquency and less crime on our streets.

In this article:
Catherine Kehinde George

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