Review: Open City Lagos

Editor(s) Ore Disu and Monika Umunna
Publisher Heinrich Boll Foundation, Nsibidi Institue, Fabulous Urban Zurich
Year 2016

Open City Lagos is a collection of essays and photographs using the city of Lagos, Nigeria, as a lens through which to consider the concept of the “open city”. The texts and images in the book speak from a range of disciplinary and methodological perspectives to the concept of the city as a distinctly “open” form.

At the outset, the premise of the collection is located within the idea that cities have a particular kind of “propensity for absorption” and complexity, but that this does not necessarily translate into practices of inclusivity or democracy. The book uses primarily Lagos, alongside some comparative global examples, as a site characterizing some of the tensions of developing and unequal urban space.

In the editorial text framing the book, Monika Umunna and Ore Disu point to the characterization of Lagos as a space of “seeming dysfunction” within a “typical narrative of the African city” — a characterization which, they argue, disavows the complexity of everyday life, urban histories, and lived realities here, as well as contemporary processes of urban transformation and governmental structures. The editors note that despite an adoption of “model city” approaches to planning and development, the city risks further entrenching spatial, social and economic inequality and exclusion. In light of this, the book’s key question is posed: What does “openness” really mean for a city?

This question is addressed via eighteen short essays, divided into four thematic sections. These sections deal respectively with questions of governance and participation; culture and aesthetics; economic opportunities; and migration.

Given the wide range of subject matter and disciplinary approaches, the value of Open City Lagos is as a set of short thematic provocations rather than as an in-depth exploration. The text offers a multifaceted overview of a range of current spatial and social issues that are illuminated by the Lagos case study, particularly useful for readers who may be less familiar with the city and its contemporary spatial politics.

This broadness, however, does come at the cost of some analytical depth and nuanced historicisation. In particular, a more detailed reflection on the concept of “openness” and its usefulness as an analytical tool would be welcome, beyond the brief outline provided in the editorial essay.

The opening sentence of the introduction makes the claim that cities “stand out as the most open format of human settlements in recorded history”, but this claim is largely taken at face value, both in the editorial and in many of the essays. The book would be strengthened by a more robust interrogation of this concept and the historical and contemporary validity of this claim. The editors make the case for the selection of Lagos as an appropriate site for this analysis based on the notion that problems and divisions of inclusivity, democracy and inequality are “nowhere…more blatant than cities of the South”. This is somewhat nuanced by the statement that Lagos’ “apparent chaos” disguises “internal mechanisms” that maintain social equilibrium, but the overall claim is not called into question or substantiated as thoroughly as it could be.

Several of the chapters in Open City Lagos deal with cities beyond Lagos, either comparatively or in their own right. These include Jakarta, Berlin, New Delhi, Cape Town, Dakar, and the “Cities of Sanctuary” project in the UK. These examples provide an interesting set of global perspectives on the concept of urbanity and openness, although the rationale for reading these particular cities rather than others against the Lagos example is not always made explicit. However, the addition of these comparative examples does gesture towards a wider global context for reading the work on Lagos.

A number of the essays provide detailed explorations and nuancing of arguments and strategies around “development” in Lagos and other cities. Temilade Sesan, for example, has three contributions in the text, drawing on individual narratives in the context of state-sponsored small business development programmes to make a strong case for rethinking the ways in which such support systems intersect with gender, spatiality and power.

Some of the contributions grapple in useful ways with the politics of representation of Lagos and other African cities. Logo Oluwmuyiwa, for example, offers a series of black and white photographs as a meditation on what it means to try to represent the intangible character of a city, in the midst of a sea of stereotypical imagery and the clichés of “colourfulness” and “vibrancy”.

Victoria Okoye, somewhat similarly, reflects on the 2015 Chale Wote street art festival in Jamestown, Accra, and other arts interventions in the neighbourhood, to call for alternative ways of viewing “poor” neighbourhoods as well as for a deeper understanding of the potential of the arts to alter the ways in which cities are seen and experienced. At the other end of the continuum, a number of essays offer somewhat unreflective lists of policy recommendations, but lack the requisite space to fully explore and substantiate these. Emeka Okoye’s contribution on the potential for “smart city” technology in Lagos, for example, does not grapple sufficiently with the highly problematic politics of the smart city concept or the extensive critical literature in the field, a problem shared by many of the more policy-orientated papers in the collection.

Overall, this text offers some interesting perspectives on a range of issues related to the city of Lagos and the theoretical framing of “openness”. The text would be strengthened by deeper contextualization, both of its broad purview and within each of the four sections. A deeper sense of historicisation, in particular, would provide vital context to the contemporary processes unpacked in each paper, beyond the short paragraph outlining histories of urban development and change in Lagos offered in the editorial. That said, the book is framed as a set of short provocations around a broad theme, and it achieves this, offering a useful overview of contemporary processes and dynamics that opens up further questions and possible avenues of exploration and comparison.


Download Open Lagos as a PDF here.

Naomi Roux is an urbanist and visual historian with an interest in the relationships between memory, public space and urban transformation. She is the current Ray Pahl postdoctoral fellow in urban studies at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. naomiroux[at]


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