Monday, November 13, 2006


George Packer's New Yorker article on Lagos can be summed up in one word: terrifying.

The ultimate disaster city, Lagos has upwards of 15 million people and grows at a rate around 6% annually. By 2015, it is expected to trail only Tokyo and Mumbai in population, with approximately 23 million people. The rural areas of Nigeria are depopulating because everyone is moving to Lagos. Why? It's actually a little hard to say. According to Packer, much of it has to do with the dreary boredom of rural life. But how bad could it be for Lagos to be more appealing? Lagos has no urban planning. It has no infrastructure to speak of. It has a tenuous relationship at best with the national government. It is rife with ethnic tension. It is heavily polluted. Corruption runs rampant. 0.4% of the population has an indoor toilet connected to a sewer. People work though--Packer contrasts Lagos to other African cities because everyone is always doing something. But what they do has no positive effect on their lives. There is almost no way to improve your socioeconomic condition.

Two things particularly interested me about this article. First was the sheer knowledge I gained from it. I never assumed Lagos was a nice place but I didn't know it was this bad. But more interesting ultimately was Packer dismissing urban theorists who have tried to rescue Lagos' reputation over the past several years. Writers such as Mike Davis have featured the cities in their books. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has studied the city and argues that the city is "an announcement of the future." Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand calls it "vibrant."

Packer rightfully attacks these ideas. As he says about Koolhaas, "As a picture of the urban future, Lagos is fascinating only if you're able to leave it." He rightly points out that life for these people is terrible and no intellectual theory of the city is going to fix that.

Scariest of all, Packer ends his article by simply saying that the people of Lagos are so far removed from global life that if the city was to explode in violence with massive death and destruction that it probably wouldn't matter to the rest of the world. I want to argue with that. But I don't think I can.