Crime Prevention Through Public Space Design: A Lagos Story

In 1993, the 8th Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida described Lagos as “the crime capital of the county”; a distressing way of describing a city that some people would regard as the ‘Promised Land of Nigeria’. However, this is the reality of most African cities. The brand promise that Lagos offers as a city where anyone can make it makes Lagos like sugar to ants; everyone wants a piece of it. The rapid population growth without the necessary infrastructure to sustain it has caused Lagos to experience problems such as poverty, poor sanitation, unemployment and, thus leading to high crime rates.

It is no surprise that Lagos has a reputation for lawlessness and the rate of criminal activity is high, especially compared to the other 35 states in Nigeria. “Lagos State has the highest percentage share of total cases reported with 50,975 (37.9%) cases recorded.”. This report culled from the Crime Statistics: Reported Offences by Type and State by the National Bureau of Statistics 2017 shows that Lagos has remained unrivalled as a similar report in 1987, 30 years after, records that Lagos accounted for about 20 percent of the total figure. More recently, gruesome headlines like ‘Clashes between rival gangs in Lagos’, ‘War against cultism in Lagos’, ‘Police arrest Lagos Island gang leader for slashing a man’s intestine’ are what we see in newspapers concerning the issue of crime and violence in Lagos. A repeated response from the State Government and the Police force usually is “The police have quelled the crisis” with no real or effective intervention to reduce crime rates.

For Lagos to be livable, it is very important that the city is safe for us to build strong, cohesive, vibrant and participatory communities. Safety is one of the key ingredients for peace in a community and for that community to thrive; safety impacts how people live and interact with their community.

If people did not have the opportunity or enabling environment to commit crime, would there be less participation in criminal activities?

To understand deviance, we need to not only understand the motivations of individuals to commit deviant acts but the accessibility they have to participate in them (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960). Two American sociologists, Cloward and Ohlin, suggest that deviance is more than wanting to commit the act but the presence of the enabling environment for that act to be done. The enabling environment could mean available resources, the environment to learn the crime, and it could also mean our physical environment; an enabling physical environment has attributes that enable criminal activities to thrive. Some of these spaces have minimal social interaction, are underutilized, unused or neglected spaces, and with an undefined use or spaces not functioning as the original intent. They could be regarded as dead spaces and provide accessibility for people to participate in criminal activities.

Existing in-between space, Oworonshoki, Lagos. Source: Lagos Urban Development Initiative

Although there are multiple ways to approach crime prevention like community policing and street Group Violence Intervention programs, Community-driven Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is more tied to the issue of dead spaces.

Oscar Newman’s theory of Defensible spaces, states that because they are removed from pedestrian traffic, open spaces surrounding building projects, which were typically created or planned for recreation and leisure, become the most susceptible aspect of the building project. Even in the midst of daily activities, the detachment of these wide areas turns them into a no man’s land, allowing criminal violence to take place without being noticed.

The community-driven crime prevention through environmental design approach is an effective route that communities can take in the battle against crime. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design is a multidisciplinary approach to minimizing crime and its fear. The goal of the CPTED techniques is to reduce victimization, dissuade offender decisions that lead to criminal acts, and foster a feeling of community among residents to obtain territorial control over places and reduce crime opportunities. Proper design and effective use of space can bring the perception of safety among dwellers and reduce crime incidences in that space. Examples of interventions through environmental design include using activity generators like allotment gardens, community hubs, etc., allowing for clear sightlines by providing proper lighting and keeping bushes trimmed and planting smaller trees.

Around the world, there are many examples of community-led interventions; some of them were birthed to solve a rise in crime, while some were birthed to solve other social and environmental issues.

Project Warde is an example of a dead space being brought to life; although not community-led, it generally solves the problem of dead spaces posing a great threat to cities. Project Warde is situated in Jerusalem’s Velero Square and was implemented to address the lack of pedestrian engagement in that space. The Velaro Square located at the heart of downtown Jerusalem was not fulfilling its intended vision of being a vibrant space that brought people together, it had become a neglected site, hence the need for an intervention. The intervention (Project Warde) involves the installation of red blooms, giant red flowers which open to 30 feet wide, on top of 30-foot-tall stems. At Day, the flower-like structure opens up when someone stands beneath it and closes when a person leaves, providing shade and a spot to rest for passers-by. This invites people to interact with the space and stirs up curiosity in passers-by. At night, the installation provides lighting, lighting up the space with a spotlight when it opens up and warm light when closed.

WARDE opening up at day photo, Photo by: Dor Kedmi. Source: Landscape Architect Network

In Africa, Limbo Accra repurposed and is repurposing abandoned buildings into art galleries housing all forms of contemporary arts. Limbo Africa is a spatial design and cross-disciplinary art collective based in Accra, Ghana. As a direct response to the rapid development of African cityscapes, Limbo Accra began this initiative by bringing these dead spaces back to life. Also, because of the volatile nature of what they call the skeletal remnants i.e. vacant buildings, large spaces that had become vacant and empty, abandoned construction projects due to underestimated budgets. Limbo Accra approached these spaces as valuable, modular spaces, housing exhibitions with Ghanian artists that are site-responsive, interacting directly or indirectly with each building itself.
Like other cities in Accra, abandoned buildings have attracted vices like drug dealing, gang activities, illegal dumping, harmful waste discharge, criminal encampment etc. Initiatives built to repurpose these spaces that pose a huge threat to societies will go a long way in bringing the community together, creating a safer, healthier space for the community.

Other examples of revitalized dead spaces include the South Merrill Community Garden, where community members created a small garden from rubbles from a demolished building and then taken over by students in the community to commemorate the loss of a child killed as a result of domestic violence. The garden later became a testing ground for crime prevention and received grants from The Safe and Peaceful Communities Fund, bringing peace and hope to the community. Another is the reincarnated alley in Austin, Texas, The community gardens in Barcelona, etc.

Being a city with a reputation as the crime capital of the country, Lagos State is also doing some work around reincarnating dead spaces in a bid to reduce the crime rate in the city. With a vision of becoming Africa’s model megacity and global economic hub, sustainable solutions developed by multidisciplinary teams, including civil society organizations, community groups, civil servants and young academics and practitioners, are now being considered by the Lagos government. Examples of such interventions are the Falomo Under Bridge and Allotment Garden Framework.

The Allotment Garden Framework was proposed by the Oworo Youth Forum (OYF), a community organization in the Oworonshoki suburb in Lagos state. The idea for the gardens is shared spaces where people come together to collectively grow different types of vegetation and engage in recreational activities. Such spaces are known to promote local biodiversity, provide easy access to fresh and organic food, reduce pollution, and contribute to a healthy lifestyle for the community in general.

For a community like Oworonshoki where tensions continue to rise between its inhabitants and the government over public amenities such as water, roads, health and education, electricity, youth and women development, and security and safety, this initiative by the OYF is one of many to develop the area. Although located at a pivotal point between Lagos Island and mainland, the residential community still seems to have been neglected by the government and surrounding wealthier communities, as residents struggle to survive without public water and electricity supplied by the respective distribution companies. In interviews, residents complain about the tough terrain and the area’s closeness to the lagoon as a major reason why accessing quality water is a major problem for them. The financial, health and sanitary results of this have led to the community being difficult to inhabit. Not one to suffer in silence, the community has been very outspoken through various media outlets, airing their vision to ‘make Oworonshoki a better place to live.’ With a clear community development action plan, they highlight priority actions namely; infrastructure, environment, safety and security, youth and women development and economic development.

Population growth and urban sprawl in Oworonshoki have led to limited social resources and development but, like most other urban areas, also a rise in unused or dead spaces. One of the ways the Allotment Garden project seeks to transform and develop such communities is through the use of such underused areas in the community. The pilot project would be located along the Oworonshoki expressway in a space currently used for recreational activities by young people. The idea is to extend the use of this space to include communal urban farming. By locating it along the express, it becomes a major site attraction to Oworonshoki, and neighbouring communities.

Existing site of the proposed Allotment Garden in Oworonshoki. Source: LUDI
The Allotment Garden framework involves the community partnering with a government organization. The space is managed by both parties, with the committee or government organization providing the infrastructure – e.g., water for irrigation and waste management structures, and the association or community members managing the day-to-day running of the gardens. Interested members of the community opt for a plot of 200-220 square meters, for a small annual token paid to the committee for maintenance. As a rule, at least 70 percent of the association membership should comprise the neighborhood residents. Members would be encouraged to diversify vegetation by using 35 percent of the space for planting fruits and vegetables, 30 percent towards flowers and trees, and 35 percent for recreational activities, e.g. sidewalks and play areas.

Proposed Allotment Garden by Lagos Urban Development Initiative. Source: LUDI

It is expected that the impact of the presence of an Allotment Garden on the Oworonshoki community would aid in catalysing its long-term action plan for development by improving the availability of infrastructure through the provision of irrigation and waste management systems. By encouraging ecological stewardship, urban greenery, plant conservation and biodiversity, the project will also contribute to a more sustainable environment. Another major impact would be fostering community development and education, food security and improving the state of recreational spaces. Finally, the local economy would be boosted as more people would gain access to employment opportunities and food.

The Falomo Under Bridge project is another example of the impact of public space intervention on its surrounding community. Located in the central part of Lagos, underneath the Falomo Bridge, is a popular transition spot where passers-by and the neighboring community catch a break from the Lagos sun on a typical day. Known for a number of activities such as petty trade and even crimes, in 2014, it became the symbolic site for the Bring Back Our Girls protests. This directed its regeneration in 2017 where it was important to create something to keep the memory of the abducted girls alive, as well as an artistic intervention in the public space.

In collaboration with local artists and artisans, renowned muralist artist Polly Alakija, and the MOE+ team, murals representing the girls were painted on the columns. Pockets of greenery were also designed, along with seating, semiformal areas for vendors, and spaces for performances. Lights were also installed to make the area more secure for use at night. Today, it is still used for waiting, play and vending and serves as a transition space, but it has also allowed for other public activation interventions of the community by its residents. The space is also now considered as a connection point in the community, representing openness and transparency. It continues to be used for public art exhibitions and performances, inspiring public ownership of the public space.

Night view of the Falomo Under Bridge. Source: Polly Alakija.
In an interview with Papa Omotayo, creative director at MOE+, he speaks about the success of the Falomo Underbridge project being the sense of ownership felt by all segments of the society. This is important as the perception of public space in most African cities differs based on class or social status. There are those who view it as dangerous and something to be avoided or threaded carefully, and others who are so in touch with the public space, they see all of it as central to who they are – the streets, the markets, and the spaces in between. Intentionally designing formal spaces like the Falomo Underbridge allows for these two parts of society to meet in a way that they both feel a sense of ownership of public space.

The concept of the use of public space as mainly for recreation and leisure is a Western idea. In the African context, the potential of public space goes beyond parks and plazas and has the capacity to become major assets in the political, agricultural, economic, educational and environmental evolution of our cities. Most of what is considered public space today in cities like Lagos are streets, markets, and in-between spaces, which make up a major percentage. The in-between spaces are either underutilized – such as parks and green areas that are developed and shut off to the public, or made exclusive on the premise of easier maintenance – or appropriated by people to fit their own needs. Projects like Falomo Under bridge and Allotment Gardens prove that spaces that are being appropriated are actually opportunities for spatial interventions, community-focused programming and formalizing space for public use.
By allowing for, a multitude of activities such as commerce, contemplation, connection, activism, play, farming, and artistic expression, the concept of public space can be relearned, giving rise to better use of spaces in between our cityscapes.

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