Nigeria's Shining City Upon an Ocean

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A concept illustration shows what Eko Atlantic's marina district is envisioned to look like. The urban project is being touted as a 'Africa's answer to Dubai.'. Eko Atlantic

Lagos is a booming city. Nigeria's economic and cultural capital is now Africa's largest metropolis with a population of more than 21 million, but its streets are chaotic and its slums expansive. Lagos sees itself as the next African metropolis, but can it do so sustainably? The answer, some say, lies along the coast.

One planned city, which will be home to a quarter-of-a-million residents and a number of multinational corporations, is being built on land that didn't exist a few years ago.

An illustration depicts what Atlantic Eko's skyline will look like at night
An illustration depicts what Atlantic Eko's skyline will look like at night. Eko Atlantic

Eko Atlantic, a new development that Lagos is betting will become the financial center of the country, is being constructed on reclaimed land on the oceanfront. At four square miles, the area is large enough to be considered its own city. Illustrations of the planned layout show a place prickling with skyscrapers and crisscrossed by wide avenues. This is more than a pipe dream; the first residential spaces are slated to open as early as 2016.

The city will be the modern face of Nigeria, a symbol of the country's promise to be Africa's economic powerhouse. Some people refer to the Eko project as "Africa's answer to Dubai" or "Africa's version of Hong Kong."

A city for everyone?

There are doubters who say the project will not turn out as well as planners hope, but there's no denying this is an ambitious undertaking. As it nears its construction phase, there has been a crescendo of both criticism and support. Some question whether creating a multibillion-dollar city filled with expensive condos and corporate offices is the right move when millions are living in serious poverty only a short distance away. Others say that once Nigeria fulfills its economic potential (thanks to projects like Eko), jobs will start trickling down and the middle class will grow.

In fact, one purpose of Eko's location is to stop erosion and flooding caused by rising ocean levels. Much of Lagos is built on swampy coastal lowlands. Higher sea levels have washed thousands of homes out into the Atlantic and plowed over others with storm surges. The new city will create a buffer between these vulnerable areas and the Atlantic's tides.

Eko will have other sustainability benefits. The city will be energy independent. All the buildings will be powered by outside sources not connected with the current power grid. The city will be pedestrian-friendly, reducing the need to drive.

An aerial view of the construction of Eko Atlantic in Nigeria
Eko's location is intended to help stop erosion and flooding caused by rising ocean levels, but some question whether it will just divert flooding waters to poorer areas. Eko Atlantic/Wikimedia Commons

But is it helping or making it worse?

Not all local residents are happy with the idea. Some claim that the dredging techniques used to reclaim the land have made storm surges worse. Complaints are especially loud in Makoko, a large slum only a mile or so from Eko. Some of the houses there are built on stilts in the water, and residents are suspicious that the new project will simply divert waves and flooding to their area.

The Guardian has gone so far as to call the Eko project an example of "climate apartheid," saying that investors and elites, including some of the world's largest oil companies, will run Nigeria's economy from Eko Atlantic while rising ocean levels will continue to affect poorer areas of the city.

It will take decades before the real impact of the Eko project is known. It could serve as a model for other oceanside cities — or a warning. As sea levels continue to rise, it has become clear that Lagos has to do something. Building Eko Atlantic was their solution.