There used to be a park close to my parents’ house. In the evenings, as the temper of the sun subsided and people emptied into the streets to do their evening rounds of chores, visiting and socializing, I would often set off to the park. Down the hill from our house and framed by three semi-detached residential houses, the small park was a place where I, a child from a large family, could find some solitude and escape, however temporarily, from the seemingly endless tasks thrown my way. There wasn’t much in the park really: just an averagely maintained lawn, a few trees, a small garden, and some benches.
I would usually find a place to sit and watch people drifting in and out of the park, and strangers strolling along the dust-coated road in front of the park. Couples holding hands, friends in animated conversations, the occasional child carrying wares for sale. In the early evening hours, parents and their young children made up the majority of park users. Swings would have been a thrill for these children, but none being available, they and their parents made do with other forms of amusement. One group playing hide-and-seek. Another group skipping robes.
As darkness gently broke into the park, teenagers would begin to appear. Most came to flirt. To be in the park during those mildly dark evening hours was to feel a part of something social, something vestigially inappropriate, even if one was not always an active participant. This was the beauty of the park: it provided a space for solitude, for civic and social engagement, a quiet yet communal space in a relentlessly busy urban environment.
On a trip back home, I discovered that the park – which held profound sentimental memories for me and, no doubt, countless other residents of the city – had gone the way of most public spaces in Nigeria. It had been partitioned and sold off to private individuals, almost certainly cronies of the selling government, who erected residential buildings on it. The green interlude in our concrete dungeon had been despoilt. In its place, more concrete and more ugliness.
There was a time when you could still find public parks in most Nigerian cities. Not barren football fields, but actual parks, with real trees, gardens, lawns, and recreational facilities. Sadly, parks continue to disappear at a disturbing rate. As the population of our urban areas grows, we continue to destroy the few parks we have by building on them, instead of creating more open spaces to humanize the urban environment.
Should we be concerned about the shrinking of public spaces in our cities? I have heard it said that those who wish to see trees or the natural environment could go to our rural areas, where nature is in good supply. Complaints about the absence of parks is sometimes met with the response that one is becoming like the Oyibos who care more about the environment than the people who live in it. Why waste prime land on trees and gardens when we can build houses on them?
Parks play important roles in the urban environment. The creation and preservation of green spaces in cities serve as much the interests of the human beings that live in these cities as it does the few birds and plants that thrive in these parks.
Man did not evolve in a concrete environment. For centuries, we lived in an environment in which we had daily communion with nature. Trees, forests, plains, and animal life shared our residential environment. Most people would on a daily basis hear the songs of birds, the rustling of leaves in the tender breeze of the day, and the conversation of domesticated animals. Many would see daily a body of natural water. This daily interaction with nature must have continuously reminded our ancestors of the wonders of the world. Life becomes somewhat arid, and a tad artificial, when man is removed from this environment and placed in a sterilized city environment full of concrete structures and paved roads and whose atmosphere is saturated with car exhaust fumes. A certain degree of restlessness and anxiety comes from living in this kind of artificial environment. Parks – by bringing some greenery and nature into this environment – restores some natural balance into our plastic, dry-as-dust urban existence.
Like gardens, parks have an important aesthetic value. We all notice how even the most modest of homes are improved by inspired landscaping and gardens. English homes are the most photographed not necessarily because of the beauty of English architecture but often because of the exceptional and always immaculately kept gardens which surround them. The English invest a lot of time in gardening because they realize that the beauty that the splendor of a garden in bloom can lend to a house is unparalleled. Not even the most beautiful of marbles can have the same effect.
As gardens are to homes, so parks are to cities. Parks beautify cities. They bring nature into an otherwise synthetic environment. The most beautiful cities in the world are not those with the most architecturally accomplished structures; they are usually those in which man and nature have worked harmoniously to create a pleasant and splendid environment rich in natural beauty and architectural achievements. For example, San Francisco is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The architecture is great, but that alone would not distinguish the city. The city is well loved for its natural beauty, for the excellent way in which the beautiful architecture of the city blends with the natural environment, and for its generous open spaces and parks.
Few people visit San Francisco without going to the beautiful and enthralling Golden Gate Park. The park – sprawling and green, with lush woods and meandering bicycle tracks – has become an emblem of the city, as has the Golden Gate Bridge. The beauty of this park, and the scores of similarly spectacularly landscaped and well-maintained parks in the city, leaves a lasting impression both on visitors and on those who live in the city.
Parks remind us of the necessity to retain a link between our created environment and nature, between architecture and nature. A beautiful park is, of course, a mixture of natural beauty and architectural genius. The landscape architect presents in a park his or her realization of an imagined interaction between aspects of nature. Regrettably, Nigerian architects forget that houses, and cities, exist in a natural environment. The desire of their clients to build huge homes usually leads Nigerian architects to design monstrously palatial homes that are bereft of any smidgen of beauty and that are completely isolated from the natural environment in which they are located. A society that values parks and the natural environment is more likely to value architects who design buildings that emphasize our connectedness to our natural environment. A society that sees no value in parks is less likely to embrace an architectural tradition that prioritizes the relationship between man and his environment.
Parks also play the useful function of providing a space for civic interaction and engagement in an urban environment. Political and social rallies are sometimes held in parks, although in Nigeria there is a trend towards holding such functions in sterile, concrete stadiums. Cultural and arts festivals are also often held in public parks. Parks, therefore, provide a great forum for civic interaction. It is a space for citizens to meet, free of charge, as equals. In an increasingly commercialized world, and in often hectic and impersonal urban environments, parks afford citizens a space to chill in public, to be themselves, and to interact with their fellow citizens.
Families find parks a great place to picnic and to socialize in public. Visit most urban parks on weekends and you will find families and groups of friends picnicking, playing games, enjoying open-air music, or just hanging out in the greenery. In most cities, parks are the only available open spaces where these groups can socialize in public. Without public parks, their only alternative would be to socialize inside the closed walls of their homes or civic centers, none of which has the same flavor and feel as being out in the open air and spacious grounds of a park, surrounded by trees, gardens, and well-kept lawns.
A well-designed and landscaped park, with manicured lawns and enticing gardens can take one into a quiet and contemplative frame of mind in a hectic urban environment. For me, it is usually a joy to wander from crowded and riotous city streets into the quiet, well-maintained gardens of a park. I feel my blood pressure drop a notch and my anxieties melt as I stroll around the park, or sit still on its green lawns as the sweat of city life is gently cleansed away. Good parks have a way of restoring to the spirit the balance that is lost in the daily grind of urban life. This is why people find parks a good place to meditate, to read, or to just sit back and marvel at the little pleasures that nature daily offers us.
Why are parks rare in Nigerian cities? Why do we little value, and poorly maintain, the few parks we have in our urban areas? As our cities continue to sprawl into our rural areas, why are our governments and urban planners not setting aside more green public spaces?
I suspect that part of the reason is the excessive commercialism of our culture. Things are often valued in monetary terms alone. Where there is park, some people see not a welcoming space for civic interaction but a wasted opportunity for real estate development. Occasionally, we have governments that appreciate the aesthetic and social value of open spaces and that devote considerable resources toward creating and maintaining such spaces. Then a new government comes, perhaps run by a philistine with no appreciation of beauty, and the open spaces are carved up and sold to cronies of the government.
There are also those who think that parks provide a place for hooligans and anti-social elements to congregate. It is true that some of the people who frequent parks ruin them by littering and misusing them. This misuse of parks is not exclusive to Nigeria; most countries have similar problems. The solution to this problem, however, is not to dismantle public spaces but to rigorously enforce the laws that promote appropriate uses of public spaces.
We should begin to take seriously the responsibility of providing green public spaces in our urban areas. Such spaces will make our cities more livable, by providing an area of tranquility and natural beauty in our often-gritty cities. The more we delay in purchasing and dedicating lands for this purpose, the more expensive it would be to do so in the future. The price of land will continue to increase. With time, purchasing land in urban areas for park construction will strain the budgets of our state and municipal governments.
One can only hope that the creation of public spaces does not suffer the same fate as the metro rail system that was once proposed for Lagos. At a time it would have been possible for the Lagos state government to finance the project, but the will and determination was not there. With the passage of time, the potential cost of the project skyrocketed. Given the straitened budget of the state, the building of a metro rail system has become a distant dream. The same thing might happen with the creation of public spaces in our urban areas. By the time we cotton on to the value of urban parks, many of our states and municipal governments may not have the resources to purchase the land necessary for this purpose. Now is the time to finance the creation of parks that would spice up our urban areas and improve the quality of lives of those who spend a great part of their waking days in the concrete and dust that are our cities.