These three essays are the final Part 3 of the Massive Urbanisation forum, collectively written by a collective of Southern urban scholars. You can view the introduction to the forum here, Part 1 here, and Part 2 here. This is the final installment of the forum and is followed by an afterword here.


n spite of the government! City (re)making practices in Lagos

Lagos is a complex and variegated assemblage of over 23 million citizens in which various economic and political interests continuously seek dominance. Alongside and often in spite of constitutional government structures, alternative channels exist to restructure and reconfigure economic, social and technological infrastructures of the city. These channels are arguably the real governance framework of Lagos. The following are several scenarios where these channels attempt to dominate city making.  

1: Ticketing and control of public space

The area boys (street gangs) and the more structured National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) are the notorious kings of Lagos’ streets. The area boys perpetually hound street traders, who have mastered the art of dissembling, furtiveness and paying bribes and buying daily ‘tickets’ in order to survive in the city. 

NURTW is the de facto regulator public transportation. Through a complex hierarchical framework, they control informal transport operations in the state, and successfully brought the gig economy of Lagos to its knees in 2019. They did this by unleashing unrestrained violence on operators of the commercial motorcycle start-ups and other logistic businesses in the city. Interestingly, these businesses began in response to the often frustrating traffic situation of Lagos. Rather than curtailing this unlawful behavior against tax paying businesses, the Lagos State Government brokered a settlement through which the start-ups were required to purchase daily tickets from the union in order to conduct their businesses without hindrance on the streets of Lagos. One therefore wonders: Who really wields power: the thug or the state? 

Figure 23: Ojuelegba bus stop with the ubiquitous yellow buses governed by NURTW (2019) (Photo from Bola Oguntade [])

2: Controllers of the land

The 1978 Land Use Act vests the ownership of all lands in Nigeria in the governors of the respective states to hold in trust for the people. However, accessing land from the government is a cumbersome, expensive process that is fraught with corruption. The Lagos state government, rather than simplifying the land acquisition procedures simply looked the other way as the traditional land holding families usurp their powers.

Citizens continue to procure from the traditional land holding families who backdate receipts to before 1978 when the Land Use Act became operational. As such there is unregulated growth resulting in slum formation at both city core and peripheral areas. The state has since instituted a process of ‘ratification’ whereby such lands are registered officially after some fees are paid. In this way, the state government effectively sanctions the informal land market and enables a further distortion of the land registration process. It is estimated that over 90 percent of land in Lagos is acquired through this pathway.

More curious is the consolidation of political influence by Lagos’ traditional land holding families, and how this is being used to perpetuate spatial displacement and gentrification of the urban poor. In spite of several restraining orders and court judgements, forced evictions have been carried out through a collusion between the state governments in Ijora Badia and Otodo-Gbame. Interestingly, members of traditional land holding families such as the Oniru, Ojora and Elegushi Royal families hold important political offices in the state, and are thus able to influence policies and programs to suit their parochial interests. Therefore, one wonders: ‘Where does political power really lie – in the ceremonial crown or the constitutional state? 

Figure 24: Otodo gbame before the evictions - Fishing village on the periphery of Lekki Peninsula (2017) (Photo from Deji Akinpelu [])

Figure 25: Otodo gbame after the evictions - sandfilling completed, now Periwinkle luxury estate (2017) (Photo from Deji Akinpelu [])

3: Everyday people push back

Everyday Lagosians also wield some form of grounded power that manifests as social media activism. Over the last few years, and in response to closing national civic and public spaces, they have taken to the virtual space (especially Twitter) to air their discontent with various government policies and decisions. For example, the persistent social media campaign consequent to the Otodo-Gbame evictions resulted in far-reaching reactions globally, and birthed the public conversation on the Right to the City

More recently, the #ENDSARS protests against police brutality and poor governance began on Twitter and led to street protests in various Nigerian cities. The peaceful protests were planned, mobilized, monitored, and funded cooperatively via various digital media platforms, highlighting the potentials of citizen-led city making and the appropriation of the virtual as a safe space for civic engagement. Interestingly, the protesters deployed tactics similar to the street traders as they remained unpredictable, dynamic, leaderless, and fluid in mobilization, especially in their engagement with the government. Even though the federal and state governments have had to revisit issues of citizen rights and police service reforms, the protests were initially met with state sanctioned violence as area boys were mobilized in state owned BRT buses to attack peaceful protesters in Lagos. 

No doubt, the size of Lagos makes it a difficult place to govern. However, the role of the state government in managing the city is perpetually called into question, as the political and economic interests of certain parties are visibly prioritized over the welfare of the public. Citizens are therefore distrustful of government and tend to navigate and (re)make the city in spite of and often in defiance of government expectations. 

Maybe the incessant reforms ushered in by successive metropolitan governments might actually do something, or maybe not. Lagosians have never held their breath as they pursue their own adjustments, not knowing for sure what might be accomplished in the long run.


apping the everyday: translating urban life into social data 

On July 6, 2020, a unified panel on COVID-19 in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas was publicly launched via the online platform Zoom by a cohort of social movements, political activists and community-based organizations ( Building on the work across different sectoral actors over the years, the reactivated panel sought to guarantee the largely informal livelihoods of thousands of families in the wake of the March 16 enforcement of social isolation measures. Most of the data presented at the online event was already available to the public in a constantly updated section of the Dicionário de Favelas Marielle Franco, a collaborative platform, which is at once an inventory and an incremental archive of the city’s favelas. The platform is hosted on the website of the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (FIOCRUZ), Latin America’s leading vaccine production and Biomedical Technology research center. Linked to the Brazilian Ministry of Health, the Foundation strives to speed up the production of COVID-19 vaccines, despite the federal government’s consistent denial of the gravity of the pandemic.

Figure 26: Unified Panel on Covid 19 in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas ( (Photo from Mariana Calvacanti)

Four months into the pandemic, the network had accumulated data on the spread of COVID-19 cases across dozens of communities, and had structured a capillary emergency response. This included receiving and distributing donations, identifying families most in need of assistance, and developing local and regional action plans. Collectives and institutions involved in the Panel network have been involved in translating social worlds into public data for years, so there was little contention over what was to be done or how to do it.

Counting and mapping the city became central features of urban politics in Rio de Janeiro in the 2010s. Most of these efforts were related to infrastructural works and mega events urban planning that required extensive mapping of long unchartered or never surveyed regions of the city. At the same time, advocacy groups kept diligent quantitative track of human rights violations and evictions in light of the 2016 Olympics. On a third front, civil society organizations partnered up with the IBGE, the National Census Bureau between 2010 and 2014 to produce a street map. This included an effort to officially name streets, a household census, and a business census of the 16 favelas that make up the neighborhood of Maré, also home to the first favela museum in the city that was established in 2000. In Maré, the Census, Map, and Museum are not the work of a colonial state, as Benedict Anderson notes, but of a particular type of appropriation of its practices, that aims to record and register the existence of people, places and processes as a means of producing new narratives about the city in order to ultimately change it. 

Deploying the ‘power of naming’ to constitute different urban futures, counting and mapping became the first step towards official recognition of the existence of spaces, people and neighborhoods not accounted for in the ‘official’ city maps until the 1990s. 

The mapping initiatives of the first half of the 2010s included training residents as ‘local agents’. This cohort of ‘agents’ was largely made up of university students who benefited from the racial quota systems in public universities and subsidies that enlarged access to private colleges during the presidential terms of Lula and Dilma Rousseff (from the PT, the Workers’ Party). Many work or engage in political activism through social media. Their personal trajectories, professional careers and future expectations are deeply connected to imagining and making urban futures. Urban change is both their political imperative and their job. One of the unplanned legacies of the ‘pre-Olympic’ moment of city making in Rio is therefore this generation of black subjects fluent in the languages of the state. 

But since 2016 ‘the state’ has transformed. Between the political turmoil before and after Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, the global decline in oil prices that brought a massive economic crisis to the state of Rio, and the election of a former bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God to the city hall, producing data on poor areas and devising public policies for reducing inequalities was crossed out of the public agenda at all levels of the government.

Figure 27: counts shootouts in the city, in real time (Photo from Mariana Calvacanti)

Yet the counting, mapping, and production of public data goes on, moving from state bureaucracies to collaborative online platforms, as the Covid 19 Panel’s continuous work makes evident. Several different groups, collectives, networks and institutions collect, analyze and provide numbers on shootouts, on urban infrastructure, on police operations and the deaths they cause. The 2020 version of the Map of Inequality in Metropolitan Rio, put together by Casa Fluminense organizes these and other mapping efforts by compiling forty layers of social indicators drawn from twenty-six different data bases from twenty-two municipalities of Rio de Janeiro.

This data-producing frenzy reveals its own blind spots, however. The maps are as good as the networks that maintain them, and the mapmakers are very much aware of unevenly distributed capacities. One of the features that distinguishes the post 2016 production of maps is that they are designed to be updated in real time, and to not function as finished products to inform state action or policy decisions. They are always unfinished, or, to be more precise, they are always provisional, maybe pointing to specific policies directions. This endurance in time itself produces a vivid archive of everyday life in the city as something requiring a continuous rethinking of how territories are looked at and engaged.

Figure 28: One (of 40) slides of Casa Fluminense’s Map of inequality in Metropolitan Rio de Janeiro (Photo from Mariana Calvacanti)

The second distinctive feature of these collaborative mapping projects is that today’s efforts find no interlocutor in the state designated to respond to the many artifacts they produce. Even before the pandemic, demographers and researchers of Brazilian state agencies had already been calling attention to the deliberate dismantling of longstanding public data producing institutions, including the national census since the beginning of the Bolsonaro regime. It is also an attempt to hijack the possibility of assessing the effects of the current administration’s catastrophic politics in the near future precisely because of the ongoing data blackout. If counting and mapping have become the language for the collective dreaming of urban futures, even in the midst of a pandemic, then maybe, just maybe the continuous production of high-quality public data will help us get over the current fascist nightmare. 


future (present) of eventualities in Nairobi’s Mega road infrastructure

There has been a rediscovery of Nairobi by global financial capital in recent years, with pundits and authorities thinking the city should be made ‘great again’. This nostalgic framing with its standard repertoire of homogenizing spatial products confronts the ordinary orderliness that has mushroomed over the years. The result are new fronts of ‘struggles’  between the city authorities who see a ‘better future’ in re-organizing the city and cityness relationships on the one hand, and those who seek to retain the grassroots experimental nature of the city and its dwellers on another hand. Whatever the outcome, the current situation attempts to both harness and reign in Nairobi’s experimental character that has long been visible in the tolerable boundary and sometimes conjunction of the legal and illegal.

From physical occupation and mobility around transport corridors, such as railway leeway and the ‘shoulders’ of highways, Nairobians in the margins are met not by violent evictions but displacements using neoliberal and developmentalist language such as involuntary relocation or environmental safety. The legitimation of this displacement is presented as the future of ‘modern and competitive’ Nairobi. Yet, the promised future of ‘modern and competitive Nairobi’ is a mirage to the residents of the city irrespective of whether they are at the margins of the city (literally at the end of the border, positional or conditional) or who appropriate the developmentalist categories suggested by the state and its globalist collaborators (such as the World Bank, European Union and Africa Development Bank) to seek ‘immediate value’ before displacement. Thus, the responses we see in the name of involuntary relocations could constitute both a tacit form of resistance and some sort of voluntary servitude.

Take for example, the Kangemi open air market, situated on the shoulders of the Waiyaki Highway.  This highway is part of a trunk road passing through the Nairobi CBD to  connect to the Port of Mombasa and the larger land locked Eastern Africa countries.  Its current upgrading and expansion is widely viewed by those working the market as an obstruction and freezing of the intense circulations of persons and social networks. The market is like a ‘shopping mall’ that displays intensity not only of exchange in commodities but more so of ideas, networks, political maneuvers, and speculations. As such, what would it mean to relocate the market elsewhere, or more importantly, what and who can actually be displaced when with the diversity of these activities, residents and market operators have a long history of turning the highway into a living interlocutor that was within their immediate control. 

Thus, the moment of upgrading is treated as an immediate possibility for a ‘visible future’ quantified and symbolized through financial compensation. But then, what  global capital labels as building modern Nairobi (through massive infrastructure such as the Waiyaki Highway) is also regarded by the residents and operators around the Kangemi open air market as some sort of return to an “old style.” What is old style is not the design of the road but rather its imposing and alienating character. The design for the upgraded Waiyaki Highway is not just the use of cement and concrete, rather it is also about a road that is alienated from the residents, cut off from the heterogeneity of ways in which they once interacted with it. The eventualities of the ‘modern and competitive Nairobi’ is in this instance much more about abstracted, technologically sophisticated road infrastructure that dismantles social networks, appropriates value for motorized citizens and re-orients what it means to be Nairobian. Still, the residents of Kangemi and business interlocutors at the Kangemi open air market have negotiated how to capture and benefit financially during road constructions, either through negotiating various forms of compensation or by  positioning themselves as some sort of residues that can be available to reorient the modern Waiyaki Highway whose value they hope to appropriate as well. 


ohannesburg: How a pandemic shed light on the injustice of space

It was dry. Johannesburg’s afternoon August sun blazed as we shuffled into the 5 square meter home in Ivory Park. There were four of us, plus our host Precious who shared the room with a friend. The windowless corrugated-iron-outhouse was stacked with Precious and her roommates’ personal belongings, everyday kitchen and bathroom items. We crammed into what little space remained on the earthen floor. It was barely a few feet wide, and the only space free for the room’s two occupants to sleep at night.

That was The Before Times, a few months shy of our Covid-19 world.

We were working on a project that explored space – the places that people live and love, find safety and solace, and sit with grief – in the city. Our hunch was that space plays a critical role in determining urban dwellers’ capabilities and developmental outcomes. Much of the discourse on cities focuses on experiences of economic, political and social injustices. Few analyses hone in on what Dikeç calls the ‘spatiality of injustice and the injustice of spatiality’, the idea that justice has a spatial element to it (see also the work of Gordon Pirie, and Ed Soja). Yet the nuance and granularity of everyday life is experienced in space. As such space is a critical lens through which to understand embodied injustice – the ways the spaces you live in, occupy or traverse affect quotidian decisions which over time determine your life course. Rather than a neutral container where quotidian life unfolds, space is a dynamic force, shaping the very nature of urban life, work, relationships and futures.

Place Matters

We did not know then, how space – having space, distancing in space, sharing space and the resources in space – would come to occupy the global imagination. Six months after our visit to Ivory Park, the World Health Organization issued COVID-19 guidelines to maintain a 1-metre distance between people, clean hands frequently, avoid crowded spaces and isolate the sick. Not long after that, the South African government instituted a mandatory lock down with some police meting violence on those who flouted curfew rules. Overnight, Precious’ life was crammed into a few square feet, and everything she did – using the shared toilet, fetching water from the communal tap, catching some air outside her door in the crowded passageway, even earning a livelihood put her at risk of contracting Covid-19, confronting the lockdown police, and breaking the law.

Precious lives in Ivory Park, North East of Johannesburg. A quality of life survey done by the Gauteng City Region Observatory in 2017/2018, shows it to be one of the poorest parts of the city. Monthly income per household is one third of the city’s average. Here, residents were more likely to be ‘less than satisfied’ with water, sanitation and public health facilities, than in other parts of the city. It is a place where majority of residents, 88%, have no medical insurance compared to the city average of 67%. And while 80% of the population have access to a flush toilet, many like Precious share a communal facility with neighbors and strangers, that is often times broken or far too far away to access. When the pandemic, and its accompanying lock-down came, Precious lost what little she made as a domestic worker and waste picker. The spaces she occupied not only put her in danger of contracting the novel corona virus, they actively undermined her ability to survive.

Figure 29: Ivory Park in context (by Counterspace & UrbanWorks, 2019)

Picture 1:

An aerial photograph of Precious’ 5sq metre backyard shack located in the shaded area at the back of the property. The main (original) house is located at the entrance close to the street. Alongside Precious’ room are other backyard shacks and a communal toilet and tap shared by three households. We see from above, the densely packed informal dwellings that provide rooms for majority people in her community.

Photo: Counterspace & UrbanWorks, 2019 

Picture 2:

The entrance to Precious’ home. She sorts her recycling on the sidewalk because she has no space in the backyard. Many times, her valuable recyclable items are stolen, as finding a safe storage space is challenging.

Source: Counterspace & UrbanWorks, 2019

Picture 3:

When the communal tap shared by 3 households runs dry, which it often does, Precious fetches water from a public tap that is thirty minutes away.

Source: Counterspace & UrbanWorks, 2019

Picture 4:

The shared toilet which often has no flushing water. There is no social distancing possible, even outside. And the possibility of illness due to the crowded conditions and lack of water is high.

Source: Counterspace & UrbanWorks, 2019

Picture 5: Living room

Inside her shared room, her possessions are stacked from floor to ceiling and her kitchen is a small table set against the corrugated iron sheet. The room is also storage for any valuable recyclable items she may have collected during the day. There is no space for her children to visit. There is no space to self-isolate.


Source: Counterspace & UrbanWorks, 2019
Source: Counterspace & UrbanWorks, 2019

These images illustrate the everyday challenges facing marginalised urban dwellers as they try to live another day in the city. Geography is intricately intertwined with class, gender, and other social identities. Its importance is heightened in a pandemic, when life is dependent on the spaces we inhabit and traverse. For Precious and many others living in Johannesburg’s marginalised spaces, the act of surviving another day requires the incredible manoeuvring of space to overcome challenging circumstances. The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the fact that space is life and death. Addressing mass urbanisation requires paying attention to the justness of urban spaces.

(Contribution and photographs for this Johannesburg story prepared with Sumayya Mohamed, Bonolo Mohulatsi and Sarah de Villiers, with support from WIEGO).