Mathias Agbo, Jr. is design researcher and built environment designer. He runs a small design-build consultancy in Abuja, Nigeria and periodically writes on design and architecture. Find him on Twitter @Mathias_AgboJr.
The idea of planned mixed-class neighbourhoods was first proposed by Ebenezer Howard in his 1898 book, To-morrow: A peaceful Path to Real Reform, which was later revised and reprinted four years later as Garden Cities of To-morrow. In the book, Howard offered practical solutions to the overcrowding and industrial pollution of growing Victorian cities. He wanted to build new, self-sufficient, egalitarian suburban-style cities of limited sizes, surrounded by agricultural lands. It was a utopian vision, a city without slums, owned and financed by the residents who would live together as equal partners.
Though the concept of mixed-class neighbourhoods was only a part of Howard’s larger urban vision, it later became the aspirational model for progressive city designers in Africa. Recently I have read brilliant arguments for and against these neighbourhoods, but my view of them is almost entirely personal. I lived in two of them, in Makurdi and in Jos (both in north-central Nigeria), for close to twenty years.
When I was growing up in Makurdi in the late eighties, we lived in a neighbourhood called High-Level, which at the time was the largest and most vibrant district in the city. The urbanism there was varied and almost bespoke for its context. Each building addressed the street in a unique way; the streets were remarkably different from each other. The houses consisted of bungalows and rows of studio apartments, with a pleasing density often described in the local parlance as “you face-me-I-face-you.” There was also a family or two on my street then who lived in thatched-roof huts.
The neighborhood accommodated households of all sizes. Landlords and tenants lived side-by-side, their children playing together on the makeshift communal playground, which for each street was its main access road that often ended as cul-de-sacs, terminating on small farmlands cultivated by residents of the last houses on each street. The demographics of High-Level were also diverse. Government bureaucrats lived side by side with artisans, petty traders and businessmen. The ethnic composition was varied as well; it had people from every part of the country, and even a few Ghanaians, too.
Although Makurdi already had a few neighbourhoods that were either exclusively low income (Wadata) or affluent (Old-G.R.A.), they were the exception at the time and not a rule. And even there, the social delineations were not as rigid as today. There were relatively low social entry requirements into those neighbourhoods. It wasn’t out of place to find the rich living amongst the poor. Neighbourhoods like High-Level were not planned this way; they grew organically over several decades. Most of the lands were inherited family patrimonies passed down from generations, so people lived there irrespective of their social status. Even when a family’s financial fortunes improved, rather than move out, they simply remodelled or even demolished their old homes and rebuilt them to reflect their new status.
In spite of the supposed “rusticism” of High-Level, it still offered far more in terms of intelligent urbanism than more sophisticated cities like Abuja do today. This organic approach promoted both community and a rich sense of place, two attributes increasingly missing in today’s modern African cities.
Socially, the neighbourhood created opportunities for human interaction, which reinforced the traditional African culture of togetherness, where neighbours instantly became kiths and Kin and everyone looked out for each other, where a problem for one became a concern for all. The unity in these neighbourhoods, irrespective of social class, was inspiring; poor kids had the opportunity to play with their more affluent compatriots eventually building lifelong friendships that endured over the years. It was not uncommon in High-Level to spot twenty dusty pairs of slippers at a neighbour’s door, a sign that the local kids had gathered to watch a movie. I still vividly recall watching Coming to America at one of those impromptu screenings.
In High-Level and similar mixed-class neighbourhoods around Makurdi, it was natural for more successful members of the community to become local champions, responsible for looking out for communal interests. If the power lines were toppled during a heavy rainfall (a common occurrence at the time), the onus fell on the more privileged within the community to use their influence to call the electricity authorities and fix it as quickly as possible. That’s how these issue were often resolved; yet these neighbourhood champions were considered first amongst equals.
Today, in most African countries, there is a vast and troubling disconnect between the visions of the ruling elite and the expectations of the led. This social development has huge implications for the built environment.
Today, in most African countries, there is a vast and troubling disconnect between the visions of the ruling elite and the expectations of the led. This social development has huge implications for the built environment and is clearly reflected in the planning and design of contemporary cities. Our political leaders, bureaucrats and business elites now live as far away from the people as possible. We have sorted ourselves into three distinct (and distinctly unhealthy) types of communities: squalid, crowded slums; multi-kilometre stretches of soulless, homogenous middle class housing; and secluded gated communities, where the rich and ruling political class have barricaded themselves behind fortified concrete barriers. This is not a socially sustainable model.
But we do have models from the past, like High-Level, that we know work. The reintroduction of mixed-class neighbourhoods would be a way to remedy the current socio-political disconnect between the ruling elite and the people. And these developments possess a kind of humble logic: the most responsible government official is likely to be a neighbour who experiences life in these communities first hand.
And even the elites, whose planning decisions today are often guided by fear and physical isolation, might be surprised by the levels of joy and cohesion possible when economic diversity is a priority. Sometimes, the supposed “chaos” of these mixed-class neighbourhoods is precisely what makes life in them so rewarding for its residents. In the end, rigid physical order and class separation will not produce the ingredients—human interaction, urbanism, a rich sense of place—for thriving communities and tight social cohesion. Perhaps Jane Jacobs said it best: “The least we can do is to respect—in the deepest sense—strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.”
This article was originally published in Common Edge as Why Mixed-Income Communities Are Essential for the Future of African Cities
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