Dakar petitions for ‘Central Park’ to stem concrete sprawl

Residents of Senegal's booming capital Dakar are petitioning to transform one of the city's last blank spaces into a leafy…

Residents of Senegal’s booming capital Dakar are petitioning to transform one of the city’s last blank spaces into a leafy park, hoping to beat back an ever-rising tide of concrete.

Seen from above, the coastal city is a sea of monochrome-sand colourwith almost no green spaces.

Marketing graduate Mamadou Sakho, 34, started a petition in January to rescue what potential is left.

He hopes to transform a former airport in the polluted city into its own version of Central Park — and it has struck a chord with Dakar residents. Some 20,500 of them had signed the petition by March.

But there are obstacles standing in the petition’s way. The military controls the airstrip for the moment, and there is potential interest from housing developers in the growing city.

Sakho is not put off.

“What motivates me, is to be a leader of change,” said Sakho who founded a environmentally-focused company.

Sakho got the idea for the park from debate among Dakar social-media users, although, for the moment, there is no indication as to whether the authorities will listen.

– Pollution and loss –

Dakar had a population of under a million people in 1976. Now it has some 3.5 million inhabitants, according to Senegal’s National Statistics Agency, set to grow to 4.3 million by 2025.

Sakho, who was born in France, remembers with fondness the time he spent on Dakar’s beaches during his childhood.

“I didn’t recognise Dakar anymore,” he said, describing when he returned to the city after years abroad.

“There was no more access to the sea. The city was polluted,” he added.

The feeling of loss guided his environmental activism and, most recently, the initiative to turn the airstrip into a park.

The 600-acre space has been underused since the country’s international airport shifted some 50 kilometres outside the capital in 2017.

Shaped like the letter H — because of two parallel runways linked by an access strip — the airport is now used for military flights, or the occasional foreign diplomatic delegation.

– Invoking JFK –

“The state left the airport to the army. We cannot comment on a petition of which we are unaware,” army spokesman Colonel Mactar Diop said.

But more encouraging noises have come from the local government. Dakar Mayor Soham El Wardini last month attended a film screening in support of the project, for example.

And Bamba Ngom, who is in charge of parks at Dakar city hall, is also enthusiastic.

“If we manage to get hold of this place and to make it a leisure park … it would be wonderful,” he told AFP.

Regular citizens are also keen on the scheme.

“Dakar has become so narrow that there isn’t even any space to walk anymore,” said a Ibrahima Mbengue, 27, who lives near the old airport.

“The city has no more parks and even the pavements are crowded,” he added.

The picture isn’t uniform, however. Others are nostalgic for the days when the once-busy airport sustained a local economy.

“Since being transformed into a military airfield, all the surrounding neighbourhoods have died,” said Malick Ka, who is fifty years old.

Mamadou Sakho, for his part, said he intends to “serve the community” and cited Former US President John F. Kennedy on the necessity to do what you can for your country.

“I got involved because I want to change and changes come from ourselves.”