City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Postopolis!: Robert Neuwirth

Written in


Robert Neuwirth

Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here

Author of the influential ‘Shadow Cities’, Robert Neuwirth was a perfect if entirely coincidental choice to follow Lebbeus Woods, picking up the baton in terms of turning our attention to slum cities. His book has been incredibly successful in terms of shifting the dialogue around cities forward, both from romantic views of long-lost Western cities and in terms of re-imagining the cities of the Global South with a little more respect and inhabited by “the true builders of our global urban future”, in the words of Mike Davis.

Neuwirth is a charismatic, laconic speaker, though he starts by receding into the shadows himself, showing a film he’d just made in Lagos, Nigeria. It’s utterly spellbinding. Here are the notes, fragments of words, I scribbled during the movie:

incredible noise, dissonance horns, calls, traffic horns, buses, cars, people, chaos, fabric, meats, everything, people crowding on and off bus, bursting with life, every corner full, or signs, products, people, markets stalls, noise becomes quiet on water, black water, huge rubbish tips, dust, smoke, quiet, giant ‘Be Unlimited’ advert, dugout canoes on water, interspersed with quick interviews, characters, new houses going up somewhere, odd constructions …

That just about captures what I saw, as best I could. The overriding images were those of the incredibly dense market, every inch inhabited. Then that slow camera moving, on a boat, through a water-borne shanty habitation. Finally, signs of development; ‘western-style’ homes, each on a discrete patch of land, looking oddly out of place as a result.

Neuwirth then proceeds to talk through what he experience when living there. He says Lagos is a very misunderstood place, “it’s tremendously cacophonous … and seems tremendously crazy”. But a lot of patterns there are created by people themselves, which is fascinating. These are “people-generated patterns of economy … Lagos is to me the largest open air market in the world.”

Neuwirth tells the story of one of the interviewees we’ve just seen – a young man called an ‘agberro’, who extorts money from the buses. Every bus that goes past has to pay the guy, and so these guys are making big money, like $85 a day. Yet he’s also a member of the National Union of Road Transport Workers, who maintained the mass transportation system when the government got out of that business. So this whole practice is effectively self-regulated in a complex web of relationships.

Peering through the dust clouds of the garbage dump scene, Neuwirth picks out a character, a teenage scavenger who is now selling soap (Neuwirth passes around two examples of the soap, which smells heavily carbolic). Elsewhere, ‘Monserrat’ works as what they call a ‘pure water’ sales person, carrying trays or buckets of water around on their head (it’s not necessarily pure water as we’d understand it, says Neuwirth). Neuwirth had clearly done a fair amount of investigation here, and was able to list what everybody made financially.

Soaps from Lagos

Robert Neuwirth

Calculating the size of this informal sector is complex, but it makes a vast amount of money. Probably 85-90% of people in Nigeria work in the informal sector, Neuwirth reckons. So these individuals are more important, in an aggregate way, than Shell Oil is to Nigeria. It makes more money, in aggregate. Not only that, but the informal economy is regulating the redevelopment of the city of Lagos, hence the “giant market” allusion.

He says, interestingly, that it’s “so overwhelming you didn’t know how to look at it.” A train actually comes through the middle of market regularly. People simply pick up their kiosks and move them out the way. After the train passes, they put the kiosks back. These are, in Neuwirth’s words, “self-created nodes of market activity … these are the engine of Lagos”, a city that’s growing by a million people a year. Neuwirth’s main thesis seems to be this: if we can figure out a way to look at it, to see the opportunities, and to figure out how to act with informal sector, that would be the way forward for these kinds of places. (There are some echoes here of Lebbeus Woods talking earlier about working within favelas, rather than imposing from the outside. Some echoes, but not all.)

So Neuwirth is now going to places where he can investigate the informal economy. In fact, he says, the smarter multinational businesses are beginning to make their money through the informal economy. For example, when mobile phone companies first came into Lagos and tried to approach it as in the West (via branded stores, packages etc), it just didn’t work. So they reconsidered their approach, and make 99% of their money by selling phones, not the airtime. It’s all GSM, so you can just put in whatever SIM card you use. (This reminds me of the work of CK Prahalad, Nirmal Sethia and other ‘bottom of the pyramid’ economic/business theorists.)

Bryan asks as to whether Neuwirth has any thoughts about the informal economy in ‘developed world’? He replies that 8.3% of the GDP of USA is considered to be the informal economy. This is small relatively, but largest in the world due to size of US economy. However, this is a quite different condition to Lagos, and the communal, problem-solving when a great proportion of the economy is informal. To illustrate this, Neuwirth recalled that on one day, he counted that electricity came on for 2 seconds. That’s came *on* for 2 seconds. So people buy diesel generators, share electricity by splicing cables together. So this communal aspect to the informal economy is different, and useful – it provides feedback mechanisms within the huge system of the city.

I remarked that his description of Lagos reminded me of Manchester; that is the Manchester of 1750-1850. Manchester was the original ‘shock city’, the first modern city. It grew so rapidly, and in entirely new directions, such that people didn’t know how to describe it. Wealthy travellers on the Grand Tour would stop off there, after seeing Venice, Athens and Rome, staring agog at the chaotic, dirty, out-of-control city. Alexis de Tocqueville struggled to describe it in words, though when he did, notice the similarity with descriptions of today’s slum cities “It is from the midst of this putrid sewer [Manchester] that the greatest river of human industry springs up and carries fertility to the whole world. From this foul drain pure gold flows forth. Here it is that humanity achieves for itself both perfection and brutalisation, that civilisation produces its wonders, and that civilised man becomes again almost a savage”. Painters didn’t know how to paint it. For its time, Manchester of the time shared many characteristics with Neuwirth’s depiction of Lagos. So I asked about representation and measurement. How can you measure Lagos? Even financially? I suggested it’s not going to be a question of totting up tax returns. In terms of representation, I was struck that he showed a 5 minute film, for example.

Robert Neuwirth

He replies that representation is complex, and the only way he knows round that is to go and talk with people and let themselves describe it. Hence the video. (I suspect a few of my former urban sociology colleagues might shudder at the methodology here.) He wants to avoid clichéd representation of ‘poverty of Africa’ – he doesn’t want to put them in some sort of pigeonhole – and thinks that outsiders will often impose other viewpoints on it; whereas the citizens of Lagos he talks to are just doing what they do. He also likes photos, which can also be talked through in some way. (Again, issues of ethnography and representation, but he’s hardly passing it off as academic research, and I personally prefer the impressionistic approach to conjuring a city.)

Geoff Someone in the audience asked whether the informal economy is moderated by the threat of violence. Is it a last resort, or more visible than that? Neuwirth says you have to separate criminality from outright criminality. He mentions Friedrich Schneider at University of Austria, who has made it his life’s work to measure these informal economies, apparently. Schneider reckons that outright criminality accounts for only about 25% of money in this informal economy. So it is more to do with the threat of violence, rather than actual violence – in Lagos, the equivalent of the policemen for are called ‘area boys’, who can be intimidating, but Neuwirth tells a story of how you can negotiate with them.

Overall, Neuwirth is extremely convincing, and along with the work of Davis, Koolhaas and others, is helping change perceptions of these ‘squatter cities’ or ‘slum cities’, and indicating that there’s gold in places that don’t glitter, too. Personally, however, I’m still not totally convinced by his work. There are issues of representation for sure, and also you wonder whether Neuwirth, Koolhaas et al will ever be able to be objective about cities in which they are essentially visitors, as de Tocqueville was in Manchester. The ability to just get up and leave is what separates the visitor from the slum inhabitant.

The violence seems far worse than Neuwirth mentioned; warring gangs fuelled by religious hatred often ensure disagreements can flare into week-long battles. In a city where only 0.4% of the citizens have a toilet connected to a sewer system, you wonder whether citizen is the right word at all.

And yet the point of these new theories is that citizen, as we understand it, isn’t the right word at all; or at least, not the right way to frame this new kind of urban environment. Rem Koolhaas said of Lagos:

“What particularly amazes me is how the kinds of infrastructure of modernity in the city trigger off all sorts of unpredictable improvised conditions, so that there is a kind of mutual dependency that I’ve never seen anywhere else. With its massive traffic jams creating instant markets on roads and highways, Lagos is not “a kind of backward situation (but rather) an announcement of the future.”

The sixth-largest city in the world and as the fastest growing of all, it will soon by the third largest behind Tokyo and Mumbai. So we have to deal with these megacities if we are to talk about cities at all in 2007, and huge thanks to Neuwirth (and others) for bringing it to Postopolis!. Yet Lagos feels different to the other mega-cities in that the slum just seems omnipotent. George Packer’s article for the ‘New Yorker’ last year took issue with Neuwirth et al, and these ideas of a new urban form, based a new kind of hybridised, co-dependent, self-organising, real-time evolution. Packer wrote: “But the megacity doesn’t encourage social responsibility and collective action to improve public life. The very scale of it is atomizing.” Having read both, and not been myself, I’m now left equidistant from Packer and Neuwirth. Yet it still feels we need new ways of understanding this city.

So where are we? Will the real Lagos stand up? Will it ever be able to stand up?


3 responses to “Postopolis!: Robert Neuwirth”

  1. Geoff Avatar

    The question about violence wasn’t from me, actually – I was standing in back and heard it, too. Wasn’t sure who asked it, though. One of the Archinect crew?
    Great summary, otherwise!


  2. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks Geoff, fixed!


  3. Christopher Williams Avatar

    Hi, Dan. Your assessment seems spot on to me. I was also in attendance during this session and was disappointed to feel a similar unease with Neuwirth’s conclusions, or rather lack thereof, in his presentation. I was very impressed by the resourcefulness and desire for self-improvement that he described in the people he had met, and on a conceptual level his explanation of emergent forms of economic organization was interesting. At the same time, though, I sorely missed hearing any indication of how his framework for thinking about the city might be used to address the pressing needs of the people of Lagos with respect to mundane things like providing them with good health, clean air, and a safe environment.
    At one point Neuwirth explained that a solution to the failure of public utilities to provide electricity to the people of Lagos was a black market in diesel generators. That’s fine, but what about the environmental costs of this atomized “system?” Such an arrangement might function for individuals in the near term, but it is not sustainable in the sense of the Millennium Development Goals, and is polluting the city’s air, contributing to an explosion in the release of carbon into the atmosphere in the developing world, and has ramifications for people’s health. Similarly, the recycling business that he described is built on people earning pennies to spend their days digging through unsafe trash dumps because this is their only hope for survival.
    There is undoubtedly heroism and genius in the way the citizens of Lagos live, and I tip my hat to Neuwirth and his partner for taking the effort to let them speak for themselves. Still, I was left feeling that at some point the sociological and critical insights Neuwirth brings to the table need to engage with efforts to improve the empirical well-being of the people he studies. At some point he said of a scrap dealer he had met, “Andrew is a really interesting story.” It struck me as uncomfortably telling of limitations of the approach he uses, at least as explained in this brief talk. I hope that as his project progresses he will consider how his perspective might inform policy in practical ways. Otherwise, as fascinating as Neuwirth’s stories were, Packer’s critique seems devastating.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: