…if we are not careful, modernisation may turn out a short-term benefit won at the price of the substantive heritage, culture and history of the people of Nigeria. Nigerians deserve railway stations that are both modern and also attuned to their heritage, culture and history.
The phrase, ‘How far?’ in Nigerian lingo is used to elicit a response from another person to check on the progress of an activity. My query is addressed to the sponsors of the current spate of railway ‘modernisation’ in Nigeria. I have a serious concern about the design of the new stations being built as part of the upgrade and extension of railways across the country.
During one of my attendances at the annual meeting of the United States Transportation Research Board in Washington D.C, I participated in a session on archaeology and heritage preservation in largescale transportation projects. I was fascinated because my first degree was in History and Political Science. I remain fascinated by the contribution of history, culture and heritage to socio-economic development. All over the world, the cultural industry contributes a huge amount to the GDP and employs millions of people.
In this context, I am concerned about the current concept and design around the railway stations being built under the railway modernisation program in Nigeria. I think the emphasis on ‘modernisation’ is being taken to mean ‘sophistication’, leading to a ‘de-indigenisation’ of the cultural tenor and stature of our strategic transportation assets. I also sense that the type of design of these stations indicates a lack of community engagement and wide-ranged stakeholder consultation, suggesting also a top-down, imposition of design from the all-knowing, ivory tower. I hope I am wrong.
Railways are developing apace across Africa with a key driver being the desire for socio-economic integration under the auspices of the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA). This is a laudable commitment and it will help to transform the continent into a formidable economic zone.
Yet, economic development is not a stand-alone force that is decoupled from the substantive cultural and historical features of the people. It is my view that Nigeria’s railway planners are making a huge mistake by not embedding heritage and culture in the design of the new generation of train stations. To do so goes against the spirit of African rising, its culture and heritage, as a prime element of that renaissance.
The African Union (AU) itself says so by affirming that arts, culture and heritage are ‘levers for building the Africa we want’. Its Division of Culture ‘harmonises and coordinates activities and policies across the continent, in order to build further structure and opportunities for using culture for integration and African renaissance, cultural development, promotion of creative and cultural industries. The Division works with the RECs, Member States and development to ensure the implementation of cultural policies that create jobs, promote the continent’s enormous resources and skills, and changes lives.’
I attach a number of the current generation of railway stations built under the largely Chinese-funded railway modernisation. Each of the stations are constructed using the same exterior cladding with a variation in design. They look nice and imposing. They dominate the landscape. I confess I do not have the details of their design and I have not been inside any of the stations. I am taking the view of anyone who might be planning to travel to the stations out of curiosity. From what I have seen of these images, and through videos uploaded, it is clear that while they may be ‘modern’, they look like disembodied spirits planted by force into a cultural setting out of which they have not taken the tiniest tinge of an autochthonous coloration.
What is the standard for station design?
Having alluded to the U.K. and U.S. models, I must confess that I have not seen any Environmental Impact Report for the ongoing railway projects for me to categorically say that the considerations for cultural and heritage content has not been made by the sponsors.
Historically, railway stations have been designed as cutting-edge expositions of the age in which they are built. The legendary railways of America, with the iconic Union Station, Chicago, as an example, and the ‘railway cathedrals’ of Moscow, affirm the place of avant-garde, functional and culturally astute impacts on the railways. The example of Wroclaw Clown in Poland is stunning. Perhaps, like John Lennon’s imaginary other, I am a dreamer expecting too much.
Dreams apart, I would like to contextualise my concern with regard to other station designers and operators. Network Rail, the rail infrastructure provider and operator in the United Kingdom has vast experience in station design and building. It describes nine principles of good design that underpin the design of railway stations:
- Community focused
- Enhancing Heritage
How will the development benefit our community?
- How does the design enrich the story of railway assets..?
- How are items of special historical interest retained for generations to come?
- How does the design complement and enhance the heritage value of the local context?
- How has the existing heritage value been improved?
- How does the asset contribute towards the heritage narrative of the estate and its local context?
Most United States jurisdictions mandate that large-scale transportation projects should have a Corridor Management Plan (CMP). This is a written document that specifies the actions, procedures, controls, operational practices, and administrative strategies to maintain the scenic, cultural, historic, recreational, archaeological and natural qualities of the scenic Byway. (Federal Register, National Scenic Byways Program, 1995). Cultural Resources are described as ‘portions of the human environment that express aesthetics, traditions, values and customs. Cultural resources include crafts, music, arts, dance or drama, rituals, tribal or ethnic customs, festivals, languages, museums, foods, special events, vernacular architecture, physical or recognised legacies, non-resource based recreational activities, and customs practiced by people, either in the past or present.
Historical resources consist of ‘distinctive physical elements in the landscape, either natural or manmade, that reflect actions of humans as they relate to past events, sites, or structures. Intrinsic resources are described as ‘the cultural, historical, archaeological, recreational, natural or scenic qualities or values ‘considered significant, exceptional and distinctive by a community and are Heebsites of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
From the point of view of the station as a destination for investment, recreation and tourism, a failure to ‘humanise’ the stations with iconic heritage, culture and history elements is a big disappointment. The station fails to tell the story of its hosts and draw in the curiosity of users.
Apart from the desire to build and design the stations with heritage and culture in mind, there is also the concern that archaeological impact of digging and building have not been part of the railway modernisation.
Why the fuss?
The fuss stems from the expressed commitment by the African Union to build Africa through its heritage, culture and history. A large-scale transportation project that visibly ignores these three elements from start to finish fails to meet this commitment. There are other crucial reasons for concern. One of the key issues arising from such projects is the intrusion into communities and the allied issue of safety and security of people and assets. A failure to integrate local heritage, culture and history may be seen by some as exclusion.
Last year, Catherine Kennedy wrote on nine priorities that will guide the future design, development and procurement of local stations:
- Support existing and new communities in their local area;
- Reflect and embody local character and heritage;
- Provide consistent quality of space and service;
- Establish connections with and between the town centre and/or the high street;
- Celebrate, improve the quality of and/or provide access to green and open spaces;
- Be welcoming and facilitate inclusive travel;
- Support and better integrate cross modal transport;
- Help to address climate change;
- Ensure longevity by accommodating changes of use, capacity and trends.
From the point of view of the station as a destination for investment, recreation and tourism, a failure to ‘humanise’ the stations with iconic heritage, culture and history elements is a big disappointment. The station fails to tell the story of its hosts and draw in the curiosity of users. I am curious to see the rendition of these station designs as fully functioning facilities in the hope that they will meet some, if not all, of the priorities enunciated by Catherine Kennedy.
I hope this commentary does not sound fanciful, averring a rehash of ‘old glory’, hankering after the allure of ancient times. My submission is that, if we are not careful, modernisation may turn out a short-term benefit won at the price of the substantive heritage, culture and history of the people of Nigeria. Nigerians deserve railway stations that are both modern and also attuned to their heritage, culture and history.
Michael O. Banjo is a UK-based lawyer and transportation executive. A leadership coach and trainer, he is author of three books on diverse subjects.
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