About this Video
Robert Neuwirth spoke at Postopolis!, an event organised by BLDDBLOG, City of
Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia and the Storefront for Art and Architecture. A list of available videos from the event can
be found here.
Although Lagos officially lost its title as capital city of Nigeria in 1991, it remains the West African country’s epicenter for economic activity. Lagos is one of Nigeria’s wealthiest cities, though it’s the sort of wealth that is all too prevalent in modern societies: the underclass doesn’t see a glimpse of it. While 60% of the people live below the poverty line, only 5.8% are unemployed (compared to the United States’ 4.8%). The extreme poverty that plagues Nigerians seems preventable in light of their country’s oil-generated wealth. Nigeria is the world’s 6th top exporter of oil, with estimated oil export revenue valued at over $50 billion.
Lagos is a “megacity”, a term used to describe urban sites with populations exceeding 10 million people, but population is not the only shared characteristic among them. Many of the inhabitants face a daily struggle to survive, and communities are severely poverty-stricken, with many residents living in slums. Unlike some other similarly structured cities, however, Lagos seems to work. Both demographic anthropologists and surveyors of cities alike are intrigued by the city’s chaotic functionality. The city has recently become a popular object of scholarly study and journalistic inquiry, more recently in George Packer’s New Yorker profile The Megacity.
Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World has the author conducting the ever-interesting social experiment of immersion. Neuwirth writes about his experience having lived for two years in some of the world’s poorest slums in cities like Istanbul, Mumbai, and Rio. (The book’s title comes in part from Neuwirth’s dismissal of the term “slums”. He prefers “squatter communities”.)
He calls the people of Lagos “great adaptors”. They’ve had to be. The people, eternally disappointed in the government, have learned to provide for themselves. Without government mandated or regulated electricity, the people make do with what they can, using diesel generators whenever they lose electricity, which is most of the time.
Still, Lagos is the city people from rural areas flock to with hopes of making it. Sixty percent of the Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product is based on its informal economy, and Lagos plays an enormous part in that economy.
Neuwirth’s presentation at Postopolis! uses Lagos as a platform to discuss the importance of informal economies.
“I don’t want to put them in some sort of box, and either say that they’re heroes or that they’re representative of the degradation of labor and horrible labor practices and self-exploitation,” he says.
“I just want them to talk about their own visions for themselves and where they see themselves being and how they look at their own lives.”
Karla Cornejo interned for ScribeMedia.Org throughout the summer before putting on her fancy pants and heading to Harvard for the school year.