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In the markets of the meta city

By Robert Neuwirth

Lagos is one of the fastest growing cities on the planet. Yet it is set on an infrastructure that was meant for a far, far smaller place.

The path was a mixture of earth, trash, and motor oil pounded to a fine finish by thousands of footfalls. Barefoot men, bent almost double, tugged at hand trucks and grasped at the jagged nubs of snapped motor mounts to urge car engines over the greasy hummocks. One massive motor slipped on its dolly and pincered a man’s right hand. He shouted and his colleagues halted their toil. They shifted the hunk of dirty metal and he wordlessly wrapped the tail of his sweat-stained shirt around his crushed and bloodied fingers. Then it was back to work with his one good hand helping to heave the grimy hunk of metal along its obsidian track. The journey ended in the half-light of a dusty warehouse. There, the manager of an engine resale company stepped into the thicket of blackened steel that had come to the market from countries in Asia and Europe. He licked his finger and swiped at the engine block. “See,” he said. Each motor had a mark etched into it, denoting whom in the warehouse it belonged to.

Out on the street, throngs of okada—unlicensed motorcycle taxis—maneuvered in and out of the pedestrian flow. Most of the passengers were purchasers. They made their deals and hefted their goods on their shoulders or on their heads—tailpipes swinging like bantamweight cranes, wheel wells tied together and clacking against each other like low frequency cowbells, a stack of old stereos tied up bondage-style with see-through cling wrap, balanced like a headdress on a tribal deity. The bikes whizzed past kids selling tiny bags of peanuts, women carrying buckets of soda bottles on their heads, kiosks selling tools, hawkers selling mobile phone recharge cards, roadside stalls offering fried Indomie (a brand of spiced instant noodles that is a common, cheap meal here). Trucks dropped off containers straight from the port, disgorging banged-up car bodies, piles of coiled springs, used copper bushings, and mounds of dusty hubcaps. Panel trucks delivered photocopiers, computers, TVs, gaming consoles, and troves of mobile phones freezer-packed in Styrofoam cartons. The guts of global production splayed out in a series of chaotic stalls.

Lagos: the first true mega-city in sub-Saharan Africa, home to between 9 million and 17 million people, depending on where you draw the lines and who’s doing the counting. With an estimated 3,000 more people arriving every day, Lagos is one of the fastest growing cities on the planet. Yet it is set on an infrastructure that was meant for a far, far smaller place. As a result, everything here seems supersized. The traffic jams are tighter than anywhere else, the pollution more appalling, the poverty more glaring. The buses have no route signs, the taxis have no meters (you have to negotiate strenuously if you don’t want to be cheated) and, if there’s a tie-up, people might simply pull onto the wrong side of the road—flashing their lights or honking their horns—and blast the wrong way down the highway. At the waterside, crude huts are elevated on sticks above the stagnant brown lagoon and kids frolic in the waste-filled water. On bad days, the countless piles of burning trash and the blasts of engines with no emission controls give Lagos a Victorian pall and it seems impossible—and potentially dangerous—to breathe too deeply.

But as fast as Lagos is growing, it’s actually just a part of a larger urban complex. The world is moving beyond mega-cities to meta-cities. According to the United Nations’ 2010/2011 State of the World’s Cities report, these cities of the future will not be single political entities but will sprawl across geographic, regional, and national boundaries. Consider:

  • Ibadan-Lagos-Accra: This jagged 600-kilometer (373-mile) growing agglomeration of cities snakes through four countries—Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana—and comprises the economic engine of West Africa.
  • Bangkok: The UN predicts that it will sprawl an additional 200 kilometers (124 miles) from its current center over the next ten years.
  • Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou: This region in South China is already home to 120 million people and a massive manufacturing base.
  • Mumbai-Delhi: A 1500-kilometer (932-mile) Indian industrial corridor is now developing between these two cities.

Most of the urban centers in these fast growing meta-cities have one very visible trait in common. Each is ringed by dense, ever-expanding squatter communities where large portions of the city’s population—and economy—reside. Squatter communities and shantytowns are now home to 800 million people and are projected to grow by 16,000 people every day for the foreseeable future. In the cities of the future, these jury-rigged communities will become normal urban neighborhoods. And places like Ladipo, which make up the “informal” economy, will create the jobs of the future. Already, half the workers of the world—1.8 billion people—are working off the books, in unauthorized street markets and other businesses that are not registered, not licensed, and not counted in official employment statistics. The number of people in these firms will grow to two-thirds of the global workforce by 2020, according to The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. This new urban world will be dominated by massive do-it-yourself street markets and self-built neighborhoods.

Is this a vision of a planet gone haywire, of cities grown so big that they cross over to the dark side? What will the quality of life be like in these high-density, low-infrastructure environments? How will these increasingly dense and unnatural cities allocate resources, define development, or manage the environment? How big can they grow?

To answer these questions, it’s important to understand that it’s not size, density, or material conditions that are the true issue. The future will be determined by the extent to which these massive agglomerations take the idea of democracy seriously. Squatter cities and informal markets will represent an increasing portion of the population and the economy. It will simply not be possible to ignore them as in the past. As S’bu Zikode, leader of the courageous South African squatter organizing group Abahlali baseMjondolo put it in a recent speech: “One cannot begin any meaningful discussion of the urban crisis while the poor continue to be excluded form the conversations that are meant to build the very new urban order that is for all. This discussion can only begin once the dispossessed, those who do not count, count.”1 In a DIY environment, the urban future calls for deep democracy. Only then will the slipknot issues of development, land, and the environment be confronted with diligence, justice, and equity.

Back in Ladipo, down a slick and narrow alley behind the warehouse full of engines, Emanuel Uche, a machine dealer, showed off his products: used pumps, hydraulic lifts, generators, lawnmowers, arc welders, Weedwackers, and other machines culled from all over North America, Europe, and Asia. Down another passageway, a car mechanic sat amid a sprawl of oily parts, wiping a spark plug on a dirty piece of paper to clean the points. Around the corner and at the end of another slippery road, in a crude hut with a sliding glass door (amazingly, in the midst of this scorched-earth environment, it’s air conditioned inside—powered by a diesel generator since Lagos has, at best, extremely intermittent electrical service), was the office of a travel agent and her husband, who deals in mobile phones that he imports from China.

The oily alleys of Ladipo are the last place you’d expect to find global traders. Part chop-shop, part semi-authorized auto-repair and spare-parts center, part haven for cheap high-tech, this self-built market seems to define haphazard.

Yet here, on the second floor of a seemingly vacant warehouse, you step into a space with no light except for gleaming screens. Peacemaker Temple, one of the merchants standing in the greenish glow, seized the chance to talk with one of the rare foreigners visiting the market. He shouted over the storm of 21st-century e-noise. Here in this damp warehouse, amid the cumulative reverberation of dozens of TV sets, volumes cranked to the max, he wanted it known: “This business is global,” he said. The future lies in trade with China. And he wants to be part of it.

Lagos is the world’s largest street market, and everything here—from buying something to drinking a soda on the street to simply talking with your neighbor—is an exchange. Spend enough time in the city and you come to realize that it is exactly this—the irrepressible hubbub, the hyper-entrepreneurial give-and-take, the ceaseless frenzy of talk and trade—that holds the city together. There are dozens, hundreds, thousands of these exchanges going on around you all the time. It’s bewildering, exhilarating, horrifying, but always highly human.

As Lagos shows, the meta-cities of the future are already here in embryonic form. For them to grow, and not to become cancerous and metastatic, we have to take seriously the task Zikode articulated in his speech: “Our struggle, and every real struggle, is to put the human being at the center of our society.”2

As the great French-Martinican poet Aimé Césaire wrote, “I am not one of those who believe that a city must not rise to catastrophe one more back twisting neck twisting twist of stairs it will be the snap of the promontory. I am not one of those who fight against the propagation of slums one more shit stain it will be a real swamp. Really the power of a city is not in inverse ratio to the sloppiness of its shopkeepers as for me I know very well into what basket my head will never again roll.”3

The real urban revolution is the political revolution, the constant march of the people towards greater voice, greater power, and a greater inclusive whole.

About the author(s)

Robert Neuwirth is the author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World (Routledge, November 2004) and Stealth of Nations (Pantheon Books, October 2011), which chronicles the global growth of the informal economy.

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