Beyond the Project: Embedding Sustainability

Despite growing pressure from the international development scene, effecting community-led urban regeneration remains a challenge in cities like Lagos with its competing priorities and inherent complexities. Drawing on lessons from Makoko, Dr. Ebun Akinsete reframes thinking our on ‘sustainability’ which she argues compels all actors to find common grounds towards growth and development.  


It was clear from the onset that the Makoko and Iwaya communities would have to play a central role in their development. Even in a city famed for its organic growth, it was unusual to face a community so clearly and directly involved in the design, building and management of its urban spaces – and in the politics of this. Indeed their participation in the development the Waterfront Regeneration Plan felt more like the status quo than an outlandish approach to planning. While traditional approaches to urban planning fixate on the built environment of a community (the hard infrastructure, the housing, the roads and other aspects of its physical form), we sought an approach that would go further to consider social and economic make-up of the community in order to ensure the long term sustainability of the plan.
TG_Beyond-the-Project_EA_1Lately ‘sustainability’ has become one of those buzzwords that mean different things to different people. In layman’s terms sustainability is really about resource sufficiency. It refers to the mechanism within any given system that supports the purpose and activity of that system over an extended period of time. By and large the term has been awarded a badge of morality as though ‘sustainability’ denotes an intrinsic good, like ‘well-being’ or even higher virtues such as ‘courage’ or ‘love’. Sustainability merely reflects a state of equilibrium within the system. Murder can be sustainable if there is a sufficient population to sustain it as an activity (Thompson, 2010). What makes sustainability credible is the context within which it is applied.

In the context of urban development, sustainability is about the balance between the various forces at play in any defined space – the environmental, the social and the economic. The European Economic Area Grants (EEA 2006) offers one way to explain the interaction between these forces: the environment provides a basis for sustainable development and while the economy can be regarded as a means to secure the good life for all. It is one the simplest and holistic definitions available – one that brings on board the environmental, economic and social dimensions.


These were the main lenses guiding the team’s close thinking as we considered the particular and at times complex features of the community in relation to its wider context. Few if any stones were left unturned: infrastructure, housing, transportation, the natural environment and more. The plan considered governance and services such as healthcare and education, as well as economic viability (see ‘Egan Wheel’). More than simply the sum of its parts, it considers the interactions between those various elements to ensure that each works to support the other.

TG_Beyond-the-Project_EA_2The challenges faced within the community were complex and multi-faceted, calling for integrated and equally multi-dimensional solutions. Take waste for example. Delivering waste management within a closed loop cycle meant considering local options for recycling and up-cycling solid waste for re-sale in a waste-to-wealth approach. This opened prospects to utilise organic waste for biogas production (think renewable energy for the local community) and by this virtue created exciting opportunities to cast a wider web of positive impacts on things like health, sanitation and access to clean energy.



11The challenges addressed with the Makoko/Iwaya Waterfront Regeneration Plan are not unique to this community. Challenges such as community participation, climate change adaptation and informal settlements are being faced by several other communities the world over. UN Habitat has declared that an estimated 30% of the world’s urban population live in informal settlements, with that total increasing by 10% annually. Urban centres like Mumbai are infamous for their levels of deprivation, with 54% of its residents living in slums (World Bank, 2010). Closer to home, cities like Onitsha and Abuja are witnessing increasing numbers of slum settlements and are also seeking new approaches to deliver urban renewal.

Coastal communities in parts of Indonesia are also seeking ways to live in harmony with their environment in a region that is on the receiving end of some of the most adverse effects of climate change such as rising sea levels. Importantly, the lessons learned and models developed from the work in Makoko on community engagement and developing community owned infrastructure can be translated into other community based planning interventions across the country. Already we are learning from Makoko as other community-based energy projects take off in the Niger Delta. We are witnessing a step change in the modalities adopted by professionals tackling planning and development to bring about a more sustainable outcome.




This essay is part of a series called “Beyond the Project” under the Institute’s Society, Space & the Built-Environment programme. See here for other articles published within this series.



Egan, J. (2004)The Egan Review: Skills for Sustainable Communities. London: RIBA Enterprises Ltd

European Economic Area Grants (2006) EEA Financial Mechanism. Norway: EEA Grants

Thompson , P.B. (2010) What sustainability Is (and What It Isn’t). In: Moore, S.A. (2010) Pragmatic Sustainability: Theoretical and Practical Tools. London: Routledge

World Bank (2010) World Development Report 2009. Washington: World Bank


About the Contributor

trustDr. Ebun Akinsete is a research fellow at the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Practice at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. She holds a PhD in Urban Regeneration and Sustainable Development and has a background in architectural technology. Her current work focuses on renewable energy as a point of entry into community development. She works with UK local authorities as well as other NGOs and governmental agencies in West Africa to develop strategic plans for sustainable development.

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