Planning has been described in an NITP sticker as “bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it.” If this is true, then we as planners in country and especially those charged with managing the development of Abuja, our Federal Capital have not heeded the advice.

This paper’s title, Symptoms of Distress, is designed to help us look at our Federal Capital as a living organism, to identify some of the areas that are not working as planned. As we interrogate these areas we will of necessity need to proffer answers as to why things are the way they are. This would therefore help shape any remediation that seeks to not only bring the plan up to date but closer to the people’s conception and vision of what their capital city should be.

Symptoms of Distress

What are some of the symptoms that all is not well with the Abuja Master Plan? There are several including (not in any particular order):

  • Developments along the Abuja Keffi Corridor
  • Development of Unregulated Settlements such as Mpape
  • Loss of Green Areas
  • Deviations in the Location of key institutional buildings
  • Sector/District Organization
  • Multiplication of Pocket layouts
  • Distortions due to land use conversions

Developments along the Abuja Keffi Corridor

Driving into FCC from the Keffi axis the visitor is confronted with a bewildering array of construction especially along any accessible road. A view from the air shows sprawl in every direction. Why is this growth taking place? To a large degree it is a reflection of the inability of the FCC to provide space at affordable rates to largely the informal sector which is the largest sector of the economy and indeed the major fuel for the development of settlement. Along this axis which is outside the jurisdiction of the FCDA, it was easier for individuals to acquire land and seek approval after. They can locate what they wish where they wish with fewer problems.

Figure 1: Sprawling Development along Abuja Keffi Road. (Source: Google Earth)

The result of this development is that approach to the city from that axis is problematic especially during rush hour.

Development of Unregulated Settlements such as Mpape

While some effort has been made to control development within FCC, the same cannot be said of FCDA. There are several developments that have become major problems such as Mpape. Mpape is not alone; developments in Kubwa, Bwari, Gwagwalada and other such settlement are not better planned or regulated. These developments defeat one of the stated aims of relocating from Lagos, which was to have more orderly development. The same laissez-faire approach to planning and development control is in force leading to a response to crises rather than prevention of crises.

Loss of Green Areas

A comparison between the IPA plan which was approved and what is on the ground today shows much distortion. In what the planners called The Monumental Core in the Central Area, there was to a National Square as the anchor of two radial streets; with a National Mall that linked to the National Assembly and other monumental symbols of government. The Presidential Palace surrounded by Presidential Gardens was to be in this area. That is not there. As a matter of fact the concept of a National Mall where the ministries and many government offices are located does not exist anymore.

At the other end of the central area was to be the National Sports Centre which thankfully exists. Beyond this was to be the Parkway from the Airport intended to be a green area that welcomes visitors and residents alike. This Parkway is now lined with buildings, estates and institutions.

The plan envisaged that the natural watercourses in the area would be preserved as green areas. In all parts of the city most of these have been encroached upon and converted to a variety of uses such as residential, commercial (usually entertainment) and so on.

Deviations in the Location of Key Institutional buildings

Many of the major institutional buildings are not located where planned. The most prominent is the Seat of Government, Aso Rock. In the original plan, the seat presidential authority was to be the Presidential Palace located on the Mall near the National Square. It was relocated in the main Park that was to surround the Legislative Arm of Government and some of the Official Residences. Space designated for the National Theatre has I believe been take over by NIIA and so on. In short the visible forms and identifying elements of our capital city are now lost in the forest of “development”. In the original plan, finding institutional building would have been relatively easy because they were mostly around the mall and the streets abutting to it. (Figure 2)

Figure 2 Planned Location and Distribution of Institutional and Administrative Buildings (Source: The Master Plan for Abuja, IPA, page 89)

Types of land use have major impacts on the types and direction of development. Therefore changes in location of major activity centres of necessity forces the rest of the city to adjust itself to this new reality. Land use groups and associations also contribute to the readability of the city and therefore the ease of movement around it. Where this is ignored; visitors especially first time or infrequent visitors experience a sense of “lostness” while trying to navigate the city.

Sector/District Organization

The success of failure of Abuja Master Plan depended on understanding and implementing the residential components. It is relatively easy to control where institutional structures go. It is more difficult to control residential areas because of the number of individual players and support services needed to support viable communities.

The original plan was simple and intuitive. In planning terms it was modelled somewhat on the Radburn model of neighbourhood development. Below the city level, there were sectors; sectors were made up of many districts each with a district centre. Each sector was to be conceived as a mini city of between 100,000 and 250,000 inhabitants. By that conception, the sector was to have employment capable of supporting the population served.

By implication non residential facilities were to be placed to obtain quick and in many cases walkable distances for residents. Sector facilities were to be at the “confluence” of several districts. Each residential district was to house between 40,000 and 60,000. A transportation corridor made up a parallel rail transit system that focuses on the central core. In addition there are a series of parkways radiating from the core or cutting across the two arms of the plan. The parkways enclose the sectors as shown in figure 3. In a sense each sector can conceivable function autonomously.

Figure 3: Basic Form of Abuja showing Sectors and Central Core
Source: the Master Plan for Abuja, IPA, p13

Each district contains housing for all classes of people as would be expected in any urban area.

In the current plan, it is difficult to identify sectors or districts. Rather than have district centres, we have linear development along all the major arterials thus replicating the problems we have in previous and existing settlements. Apart from employment in buying and selling; the hoped for like industries that would provide employment to residents of the sectors are virtually nonexistent. The situation is even more noticeable in the newer areas like Gwarinpa which were developed to cater for the population explosion of the city occasions by the hurried relocation of government offices from Lagos to Abuja. What were residential properties have been converted to commercial properties along the main arterials; parks have been converted to hotels such as at CITEC II.

The failure to provide the envisaged range of housing in each of the districts has led to a situation where whole districts have become very expensive and exclusive to the well to do such Asokoro and Maitama. Interestingly, these areas also have many empty buildings because the rents or leases are out of the reach of the average Abuja resident. On the other hand ill planned areas have arisen in places like Kubwa and the self organized community of Mpape. Others simply move out of FCC to places like Bwari, Kuje and Gwagwalada or outside the FCT to settlements in Nasarawa State and Niger State. The overall result is the anomalous situation where within Abuja there is a shortage of housing for the lower income groups and an oversupply of expensive high priced housing.

Multiplication of Pocket layouts

Many developers are now alive to the possibility of making money in developing housing in Abuja. Thus far I am not aware of a developer or group of developers that have taken a whole district to develop, usually they have a number of residential housing they want to put up, are allocated land and they develop an estate. There is a difference between developing an estate and developing a city. Estates are primarily concerned about residential housing, but the city cannot function by residences alone, it needs infrastructure, commerce, industry, security and so on. These can only be provided through a coordinated approach to development.

In the original conception, development was to be modular. This meant that each sector would be completely developed before going to the next. Since each sector was conceived of a self contained city of up to 250,000 inhabitants this would have been a possible as well and effective way to implement the plan. It would have allowed an organic growth that was not wasteful of land and resources. But this has not been followed as there has been a certain tardiness of development on the one hand and leapfrogging on the other.

Distortions due to land use conversions

Distortions are not only in districts and/or residential areas. A drive along the parkway to the airport shows many institutional buildings springing up on both sides. There are also industrial and commercial structures. Was this the original plan? What impact do they have on the image and future of the city?

How did we get here?

The form Abuja is in today is the result of the cumulative effects of decisions and actions by several administrations over the years. While planners may be blamed, the blame would be valid only if they did not point out the distortions when they were being proposed; for example, when the seat of presidential power was moved from the Mall to Aso Rock, or when the Women’s Centre was located in the area of the Mall or when only half of the streets in the Central Area were being built; what was the reaction or input of the planners in FCDA. If they did not say anything then they are also responsible for the distortions.

Having said that, it needs to be recognized that it is impossible to produce what you cannot envision. So we need to ask, whose vision has produced the present city? It could well be that what we have today is the result of an absence of a unified vision of the city. It is a product of neglect rather than intentional giving of direction. Could it be that there is really no unified vision of what Abuja is to physically be and that each set of actors comes on the stage, does their thing without reference to what is past or what is to come?

Every iconic city is a product of vision sometimes of a single powerful individual, Paris was the product of Napoleons grand plan, Berlin was also the product of similar visions. Others are the product of a national discourse such as Washington DC, Canberra, Australia; Brasilia, Brazil, Chandigarh in the State of Punjab in India. Since cities even if master planned are not developed built strictly following the blue print like machines, but are affected by subsequent actors, the vision if it is to be sustained has to be passed on and kept alive. It appears that the Abuja Vision remained an elitist project not adequately understood by subsequent players.

Could it also be that the plan for Abuja is not a plan for a Nigerian City? That is the plan does not reflect our values and aspirations. Authors like Brolin (1969) and research by Gyuse (1977, 1986) demonstrate that when the form does not fit the expectations and aspirations of users, they adapt the space to bring it closer to their expectations. Thus we see in Nigeria people trading on the streets, converting residential houses into schools or restaurants and generally using urban space in ways that may irritate planners trained in the Western model of planning. Abuja seemed to be designed in such a way that first the Nigerians have to become or think like foreigners, then begin to enjoy their city. Little wonder that the Central Core becomes a virtual graveyard while squatter areas thrive all night long.

What can we do for the future?

First, I do not think trying to force our way back to the original plan in a wholesale manner is neither possible nor sensible. With our limited resources, it seems wasteful to spend such energy on reclaiming the plan. However there are some practical issues that would necessitate reclaiming some of the lost areas. One such area would be the green areas which not only beautify, but also serve as water channels thereby preventing urban flooding in the event of extreme weather. Constructing concrete drains is an expensive solution to what could be accomplished purely through legislation and regulating of the use of low lying area. Of course some urban use must be found for these areas so that they do not become wild land to be used by miscreants and antisocial elements.

Secondly there is a need to cast a new vision for the city. This begs the question as to who the visioner should be. Planners cannot be the visioners because they do not have the political and administrative authority to ensure implementation. Ideally it needs to be the political class, not as a partisan group but as a collective, such that while personnel, parties, and even governments may change, the vision is sustained through the changes. It is only then that there can be hope of reaching a goal. Cities take generations to develop.

Thirdly we need to see what aspects of the current plan are consistent with the vision so that they can be incorporated into the plan.

Fourthly the revised plan needs to recognize that producing a city is different from building a machine. Both may have master plans but the way object of the plan is realised is different. In the case of the machine, strict engineering rules are followed.

Any deviation leads to failure, as a matter of fact, after the designs are completed, the components can be manufactures anywhere in the world. Provided the components were manufactured according to specification, the final assembly could be in any plant anywhere in the world. This is how aircrafts are manufactured.

Cities do not develop in that way. They grow slowly. They take a much longer time and changes do not have the same consequences and because there are many players and builders, the end product may not necessarily be exactly as planned. But the city should have a soul. The master plan is expected to capture the soul that is maintained irrespective of changes that may be made over time. Does Abuja have a soul?


Symptoms of Distress
by: Professor (Tpl) Timothy T. Gyuse, PhD; FNITP, RTP
Professor of Urban Design and Planning
Benue State University, Makurdi

The NITP is Nigeria’s leading planning body for spatial, sustainable, integrative and inclusive planning. This is the official website.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *