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Cure for broken metropolises: the insta-city

Teeming with problems, cities in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East try a new approach – building private cities from scratch.

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An artist's rendering shows one of the entrances to Eko Atlantic, a private city being built south of Lagos, Nigeria, at a cost of $6 billion.

Courtesy: Eko Atlantic

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From above, it seems Africa’s largest city is sprouting a tail. 

It began appearing in 2008, and grew slowly at first – the narrow stretch of beach creeping southward from the bottom of Lagos’s upscale Victoria Island, forming a jagged appendage of sand where once there was only ocean. But by 2013, nearly 2 square miles had been reclaimed from the sea, and the island had quietly ballooned to nearly twice its original size.

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But this tail dangling from the edge of Lagos is not simply a bold land reclamation effort. It is also the site of perhaps the continent’s most ambitious construction project, a futuristic private metropolis called Eko Atlantic. When it is complete, developers promise a city filled with high-rise glass condos and tree-lined marinas, where a quarter-million Nigerians will live in quiet, untroubled luxury.

Eko Atlantic is, in many ways, designed to be the anti-Lagos. Beside a city choked with cars, the private metropolis boasts Nigeria’s widest road – an eight-lane brick boulevard – and hidden underground parking garages. Where Lagos is a cat’s cradle of twisted wires strung precariously between aging telephone poles, all of Eko Atlantic’s wires will be below ground. And as the lights in the rest of the city surge and dim seemingly at random, Eko Atlantic will generate its own steady source of power.

“New cities are good, new cities are smart, new cities help to improve our thinking and our lives,” said then-Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan at an event for Eko Atlantic in February 2013.

Welcome to the era of the private insta-city. Around the world, developers are increasingly grafting new cities onto the edge of existing ones in an attempt to solve one of the planet’s most vexing problems: megalopolises that don’t work. From Asia to Africa to the Middle East, they are building whole communities that promise to free hundreds of thousands of residents from the litany of urban ills. Indeed, in cities that often struggle to give residents the most basic of services – water, electricity, paved roads – many see such private developments as the only functional way forward.

The idea behind them is simple. There’s too much to fix in many cities today; it makes more sense to just start over. 

Nowhere is the do-over trend being pursued more aggressively than in Africa, where many cities are inhabited by people who were never meant to be there. On the eve of Nigerian independence from Britain in 1960, for instance, Lagos had a population of about 600,000. A half century later, more than 20 million live here. Its growth is a story repeated across the continent, as post-colonial demographic booms and the lures of urban life – jobs, money, social mobility – have brought millions of Africans flocking to cities originally designed to be the playgrounds of a small colonial elite.

Today, sub-Saharan Africa’s cities are growing at an annual rate of 3.9 percent – twice the global average. At the same time, however, some 200 million Africans, or 70 percent of the continent’s city-dwellers, live in haphazard, informal settlements, most without access to basic sanitation.

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Into this teeming void come projects such as Eko Atlantic offering a compelling pitch: Live here, and you’ll never have to rely on the city again. “The concept of private participation in the development of large facilities is a growing trend worldwide and is proving to be very successful at many levels,” says David Frame, managing director of Eko Atlantic.

Yet the trend brings dangers as well. Critics argue that glamorous developments such as Eko Atlantic are deflecting attention away from rampant growth and the underlying problem facing dysfunctional cities – too many people, not enough services. 

“There’s been a huge urban explosion in Lagos that hasn’t been matched with infrastructure to meet the population’s needs – I’m talking a housing deficit of 5 million units and a third of the population, maybe
8 million people, living in so-called slums,” says Anietie Ewang, a staff attorney at the Lagos-based Social and Economic Rights Action Center. 

So which is it? Do insta-cities represent an innovative solution to the world’s urban dystopias, or are they the equivalent of city planners putting their heads, in this case anyway, in the Victoria Island sand?

•     •     •

Just outside Eko Atlantic’s sales office on a recent afternoon, cars sit motionless in thick Lagos congestion, wheezing clouds of gray exhaust into the sea air. But in the frigid air-conditioned sales rooms inside, prospective buyers leaf through glossy brochures promising something radically different: They boast of Eko Atlantic’s international school, ample yacht docking space, ocean-view penthouses, and its fully stocked modern hospital. Zoom in, and this city could be anywhere in the world – which is exactly the point.

Over the past two decades, insta-cities, largely privately developed, have begun to rise around the world, offering lavish oases of luxury in some of the world’s most chaotic or inhospitable corners. There’s India’s Lavasa, a quaint private town southeast of Mumbai being modeled on an Italian fishing village, and the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar City, which bills itself as the world’s first “zero carbon” city.

In South Korea, the government poured 500 million tons of sand over a stretch of Yellow Sea tidal flats near Seoul to create the “smart city” of Songdo, which, among other high-tech features, has its garbage collected invisibly via underground pipes. In Africa, ads for Tatu City, near Nairobi, Kenya, promise manicured parks and angular apartments, while hundreds of plots have already sold in South Africa’s Steyn City, a gated suburban town near Johannesburg twice the size of Monaco and nearly as opulent.

Just a few miles away, meanwhile, a Chinese developer is planning his own futuristic metropolis of sleek glass skyscrapers that he dubs the “New York of Africa.” And in Nigeria, developers are planning Centenary City near Abuja, which promises as its crown jewel Africa’s tallest skyscraper. 

But unlike its African counterparts, which began as tracts of open land at the edge of existing cities, the $6 billion Eko Atlantic is being built literally from scratch – dug up from the ocean floor. 

That process began in 2005, when Lagos’s city government commissioned a private firm to build a sea wall along the southern edge of Victoria Island – a spine of interlocking concrete and stone blocks designed to stop the erosion slowly nibbling into the city’s most valuable real estate. By the following year, the island had 1.2 miles of sea wall, and the project had morphed into something far more ambitious: a new city.

The company in charge, a Lebanese-Nigerian firm called South Energyx Nigeria Ltd., went straight to work dredging millions of tons of sand from the seafloor and building land outward from the city’s iconic Bar Beach. When the reclamation is complete, it will have carved out 3.5 square miles of new land – an area 1-1/2 times as large as the adjoining Victoria Island. Then the real work begins – bringing the new city to life. 

•     •     •

In Lagos, it’s not difficult to see why starting from scratch may seem to be the only viable way to deal with urban chaos. A city of explosive, unscripted expansion, Nigeria’s commercial capital grew 6 percent per year in the second half of the 20th century. Today, it absorbs more than 1,600 new migrants every single day.

The city’s feeble plumbing, pipes, and roadways are no match for the dizzying growth. Nothing is. Hastily built buildings buckle regularly. Unpaved roads turn to muddy lakes after rainstorms. Most of the city’s residents live on the mainland, but every day nearly two-thirds of them cross just three bridges to Lagos’s southern islands, where most of the city’s formal commerce takes place. 

The resulting traffic approaches the apocalyptic – it is not uncommon for a commuter here to spend four hours a day in near-standing-still “go-slows,” or traffic jams. Hawkers have become savvy about their massive captive audience, weaving between cars like mobile supermarkets, carrying everything from fruits to flyswatters to soda bottles of gas on trays balanced on their heads. And their customers aren’t going away anytime soon. Nearly a quarter-million new cars are registered here every year, but a new bridge to the islands hasn’t been constructed in 25 years.

Lagos’s staggering electricity shortage, meanwhile, has created a city that must shout to be heard over the whine of generators that cling to its affluent apartment blocks and storefronts like unsightly growths. For those without generators – or for whom incessant fuel shortages render their machines mute – lights come and go on the whims of a massively underpowered state grid. On a good day, Nigeria’s national grid produces about 10 percent of what the city needs.

Starved of light and open road, Lagosians are also jostling for smaller and smaller pieces of the same cityscape. As new residents cram in, they sleep in tents and beside landfills, in shacks wedged in the alleyways between old colonial buildings, and in cockroach-
infested dormitories. In Makoko, a centuries-old fishing village now in the middle of the city, houses sit perched above water so tar-black its surface seems almost solid – or would if not for the scraps of garbage bobbing across it – which commuters traverse in hand-carved wooden boats. 

“The first problem is land; we don’t have enough,” says Prosper Aivoji, a community organizer in Makoko. “But there are many other issues as well. You ask for modern toilets and the city says OK, but then they never come. We never know if the government will keep its word.”

There is at least one man, however, who has been on an aggressive mission to change that perception and reform Lagos’s global reputation for unruliness. From 2007 until his final term ended in May of this year, Mayor Babatunde Fashola devoted himself to carrying out a deceptively simple campaign slogan: Eko Oni Baje (Lagos must not spoil).

He built parks and stepped up policing, set in motion plans to rehabilitate a major regional freeway, and build a light-rail network. After a Liberian businessman died from the Ebola virus in a Lagos hospital in July 2014, Mr. Fashola’s administration did what many thought would be impossible in the teeming city – prevented the disease from spreading beyond a handful of cases.

But Eko Atlantic remains the most visible transformation to take place in Lagos under Fashola’s watch. And it may well be the most important. “We are already in a situation where more than half of humanity lives in cities, and we’re rapidly moving towards a moment where that figure is 80 or 90 percent,” says Alex Tabarrok, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who writes about private cities. “For Africa in particular, this is a pivot point – cities built today will cast a long shadow over how people live for hundreds of years into the future.”

Particularly in countries where governance is weak, he says, private cities may be the vanguard of this urbanization revolution, because they have a commercial incentive to function well.

“The main advantage of private cities is that their developers have to build a city that people actually want to live in,” he says.

Many backers also think these newfangled cities are the only way to provide the kind of reliable services that a modern populace demands. “Clearly the development of utility services at a municipal level are yet to achieve the standards demanded for 24/7 supply...,” says Mr. Frame, Eko Atlantic’s managing director. “Planning for Eko Atlantic as an ‘off grid’ development is the only way forward for the foreseeable future.” 

Yet critics worry that these developments will just contribute to the hollowing out of cities: Instead of demanding that changes be made, the wealthy and upper middle class will flee to private enclaves with their Jaguars and whirring wine cellars. But even here, boosters see advantages. The Lagoses of the world can’t be fixed overnight, if at all, and the private cities at least offer a higher standard of living for a certain segment of the population – and offer a vision of what could be.

“Let’s be realistic. Short of pumping money through a welfare state that we don’t even have, we can’t solve extreme poverty in a short time,” says Gbenga Oduntan, a senior lecturer in international commercial law at the University of Kent in England, who has written about Eko Atlantic. “But what we can do is leapfrog progress. That’s what cities like Eko Atlantic give us the chance to do – magic wand first-world conditions into the third world.”

•     •     •

Eko Atlantic isn’t much to look at yet. For now, it is little more than a ghostly stretch of beach hugging the Ahmadu Bello Way, a coastal highway in the shadow of Victoria Island’s banks and luxury hotels. But the ribs of the city’s first skyscrapers are beginning to jab their way into the sky, while construction workers dig holes into the fluffy yellow sand to stash away the new city’s vital organs – pipes and wires. 

For decades before Eko Atlantic came along, Bar Beach occupied a haunted place in the history of Lagos. During the military dictatorships that spanned much of the period from the mid-1960s through the 1990s, it was the site of dozens of executions of coup plotters, drug lords, and robbers. All the while, it remained a popular spot for – somewhat incongruously – rock concerts, weekend partyers, and Christian pilgrims.

Until 2008, Florence Johnson sold beer and crisp fried plantains to beachgoers and slept in a small shack behind her stall, one of dozens along the length of the beach. Then one Friday evening after the last of the revelers had gone home, the tide surged dramatically, dragging many of the makeshift houses out to sea. The next morning, she says, police arrived with gasoline, matches, and a proclamation that the remaining structures were unfit for habitation. Within hours, all of the stalls that hadn’t buckled in the previous evening’s flood were ash.

“They said it was for our safety, but we know they wanted to build,” she says, shouting to be heard over the rattle of rain popping against the plastic tent she now shares with her family on another beach a few miles away. For months after the eviction, she says, she slept outside on the sand beside her ruined shack, unable to afford even the wood to build another somewhere else.

“We had nowhere to go,” she says. “Maybe [Eko Atlantic] is a good thing for Nigeria, but it’s not a place for us. There is nothing for the masses.”

It is a story repeated again and again in Lagos, says Ms. Ewang, the attorney working on socioeconomic rights claims. “What we find is that more and more in Lagos, forced eviction is being used as a tool for urban development, planning, and beautification,” she says.

Ms. Johnson’s tent is only a few miles from the site of perhaps the city’s most infamous mass eviction. In July 1990, bulldozers and soldiers burst into the Victoria Island informal settlement of Maroko and razed it to the ground in the name of slum clearance, leaving little behind but the people who had lived there. In a half a day, 300,000 people lost their homes, many of which had been there for decades. None, Ewang says, ever received compensation, and today, all traces of the community have been quickly papered over by an estate of boxy middle-class apartment buildings.

•     •     •

In a city as ferociously unsentimental as Lagos, where 70 percent of residents live on what the city claims is illegally occupied land, there is often very little activists like Ewang and her colleagues can do to stop the repeated dislocation of the poor. In fact, their best strategy is often shame – if they can embarrass Nigeria on a global stage, she says, then sometimes the city listens.

But in the case of Eko Atlantic, the Lagos government’s confidence seems unfettered, and with good reason. The city is backed by the country’s largest banks and some of the world’s most famous philanthropists. In February 2013, Bill Clinton thanked Gilbert and Ronald Chagoury – the Lebanese-Nigerian brothers behind the project – “for keeping their commitment to build this city.... [I]t will help diversify the economy of Nigeria to brand Lagos all over the world and to create an enormous number of opportunities.”

Even Nigeria’s Nobel laureate, poet and activist Wole Soyinka, marveled that the city was “rising like Aphrodite from the foam of the Atlantic.” Lagos, he said, “is mastering the art of rejuvenation.”

But it is a rejuvenation that few Lagosians will ever feel. On a recent afternoon, rain clouds hung low and furious over the beach where the traders evicted from Bar Beach now live. Beside their tents, waves crashed over the rusted carcass of a beached oil tanker, leaving gobs of trash as they rushed back out to sea.

“When the water wants these tents, it will take them,” says Okwudili Benjamin, a former sailor who was visiting his sister in the settlement. “Sooner or later, the ocean will drive us all away.”

As he spoke, the rain started up again, casting a gauzy mist over the ocean. In the distance, the outlines of Eko Atlantic’s first buildings flickered on the horizon, then, suddenly, disappeared altogether.