The Megacity and the Noncity

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Comparing Megacities: Mapping Lagos

WRITTEN BY: Lindsay Sawyer


Cities are changing at unprecedented rates and in unprecedented ways, posing new challenges to urban research and demanding innovative ways to approach and understand them. Lagos is one of the cities posing this challenge. The ongoing research project Planetary Urbanisation in Comparative Perspective of the Future Cities Laboratory is an experimental comparison of nine megacities which aims to build a new, emergent understanding of contemporary urbanization and arrive at a much-needed new urban vocabulary. As part of the project, what is going on in Lagos is now contributing to our understanding of other cities as well as Lagos itself. The project uses mapping, combining the visual sensibility and language of architecture with scientific methods and concepts from geography, sociology and anthropology. Mapping is proving an invaluable way to accessing information and building an understanding from the ground and the people who know the city best. It is hoped that a better understanding of urbanization, better responses to the challenges faced by our cities can be found.

The problematic:

Cities can no longer be understood as stable and easily bounded, where urban areas are understood as static, distinct entities, black dots against the white background of the rural. It is in this way that megacities have been thought in purely quantitative terms – the black dot expanding and encroaching on the white space, getting darker from increasing population density, appearing to promote an anxious and sometimes apocalyptic narrative.

Cities are now recognized as highly heterogeneous, polymorphous concentrations which represent increasingly complex patterns of urbanisation. Urbanization is happening in diverse ways, according to diverse factors, challenging what we consider to know about cities and resulting in urban forms that our theories are struggling to recognize and our words struggling to describe. For instance ‘informal’ settlements, once considered marginal, have become acknowledged as a dominant mode of urbanization in a significant number of cities. While still useful, the concept of informality was developed for an exceptional phenomenon and is now limited to discuss the full spectrum of what is occurring. Urban theorists and researchers have thus called for new methods for looking at cities, that are capable of addressing these challenging urban forms and can cope with the complexity and diversity of contemporary urbanization in order to build new, appropriate theories and a new urban lexicon.


North American and European cities have continued to dominate urban studies. These cities are centres of knowledge production, producing theories and concepts highly influenced by their contexts. On the other hand, cities of the ‘global South’ have been mined for empirical research data, but have contributed little to urban theory-building. Cities are usually written about as a single case study, making them seem exceptional. Or when compared, cities are chosen that have fairly obvious similarities, or within certain regional boundaries and the comparisons usually take place on the basis of hierarchical rankings. This again leads to cities like London, New York and Tokyo becoming the focus of urban research and the norm of urban development. In turn, this brands a diverse array of cities as ‘developing’ - as fundamentally lacking and merely waiting to catch up to ‘normal’ cities. In this way, Lagos’s politicians and planners aim for it to be the ‘next New York’ or ‘next Dubai’. The marginalizing and exceptionalising of the cities of the ‘global South’ has reduced their contribution to urban studies to the ultimate detriment of the discipline.

Urban scholars are now recognizing these serious limitations, particularly Jennifer Robinson in her influential book ‘Ordinary Cities’. She calls for a ‘radical openness’ to all cities across the North-South divide, considering every city relevant and ordinary rather than having a pantheon of ‘normal’ cities and an underclass of exceptional cases defined only by their difference. Robinson argues that experimental comparisons that put all kinds of cities in the mix are what is needed to build new theories and stretch old ones.

Planetary Urbanization in Comparative Perspective:

The Planetary Urbanization in Comparative Perspective research project proposes a comparative approach of a broad range of cities that is systematic, comprehensive and grounded. The project places Tokyo, Hong Kong/ Pearl River Delta, Kolkata, Istanbul, Lagos, Paris, Mexico City and Los Angeles in the mix, applying the same methods to each city and building an understanding of urbanization that doesn’t rely purely on pre-given concepts.

The City not as Form but as Process:

An acknowledgment of the heterogeneity and complexity of cities creates a serious challenge of just how to do a meaningful comparison. It is not enough to abstract a city to a neatly bounded form and place it side by side with others, which can simply reproduce the limitations described above. Instead, the comparative project proposes not to compare static urban forms but dynamic urban processes. For instance, instead of comparing different forms of housing which can easily seem too different to compare, we look at the dynamic processes going on in these particular areas: densification, landlordism, population growth, and find them meaningfully similar. In this way, through comparison we can identify generalisable dynamic processes through knowledge of the specific, diverse urban conditions.

It is the work of the comparative project to identify these processes which is done through a bottom-up approach using methods from geography, sociology, anthropology and architecture. The project uses mapping, combining the visual sensibility and language of architecture with the context of scientific fieldwork and theory.

On the Ground, On the Map:

The mapping takes place primarily through interviews and workshops with experts on the city: architects, academics, planners, knowledgeable residents, activists etc. This is a way to access deep local knowledge that is essential to an emergent understanding of the city. A small group gathers around a large map of the city region with a bunch of pens, a tape recorder and some leading questions [Fig 1]. The subjects of discussion are marked on the map, creating a colourful representation of the very ‘now’ of the city. Making these discussions visual really helps people to engage, and spurs a lot of ideas, anecdotes and debate. These maps are subsequently layered with many other kinds of statistical and geographical information. What emerges is the identification of areas that are dominated by similar processes, what these processes actually are, and the overall characteristics of the urban region. It seems that this way of mapping can make the city unfamiliar, but at the same time more representational of how people know their city to be. Also, it has been crucially important to see maps of all of the cities in the project next to one another at the same scale. This simple act is constantly surprising, and a surprisingly rare thing to see.

Throughout the research project, the team comes together to share what they’ve learned and do the actual work of the comparison. As with many empirical research projects, to ‘do’ comparison therefore requires a seemingly unique convergence of factors over several well-funded years, and is far from an open practice available to all.

Mapping Lagos

When doing the mapping interviews, the large maps of Lagos that serve as a basis have often been met with surprise [Fig 2 shows the base map used for the interviews]. There are two strands to this. Firstly, it is not easy to find good, clear maps of Lagos – indeed these interview maps are a composite of several different sources as well as hand-drawn details. Secondly, which is of course related, people who know Lagos know it from on the ground. They tend to relate its spaces in this way rather than in the abstraction of the map. For instance Lagos Island-Oshodi-Mile 2 is a logical sequence of spaces and has an assumed spatial relation. However, the most direct route shown on the map: Lagos Island-Ijora-Iganmu-Mile 2 would in fact take much longer because the traffic is often impossibly bad. This is not just a consequence of the the transport infrastructure. In Lagos the grounded reality does not have a stable and predictable relation to the map's abstract reality. As such, places like Oshodi, Oworonsoki, and Mile 2 become pivotal nodes around which the whole city is oriented. In the same way, there is consistent surprise from the mapping participants that Lagos Island is so small and the city region so large. Lagos Island is so important, so full of activity, and so slow to get through, that it holds large in the mind. For some, Lagos Island is the city and the vast rest is significantly unacknowledged. The city seems to be changing faster than people’s imaginary. During the mappings, there is an interesting process whereby people orient themselves, tying down their immense urban knowledge into the space of the map.

Grounded knowledge of the city is essential to understanding Lagos. However, there are real consequences to the evident lack of maps. It impedes the productivity of the city. Lagos is crucially underquantified, making standard planning approaches a guessing game. For instance, the maps of Lagos that do exist are usually confined to the political boundary of Lagos State even though the city extends far beyond it, missing crucial portions and populations of the city. Increased statistical information about the city, in addition to a qualitative understanding of its urban processes on a city, regional and global scale would be of great benefit to the people of the city.