Open City Lagos, Launch Event Series

When the city of Lagos comes up in conversation, what is the first thing that springs to mind? Is it the ubiquitous black and yellow minibus taxis, or the throaty calls of their passenger-seeking conductors? Is it the teeming markets that melt into each other in dense commercial zones such as Lagos Island, where street hawkers, wheelbarrow salesmen and shopkeepers all vie for customer attention? Perhaps the quintessential image evoked is of more intimate settings: the boys’ quarters, the unending hum of generators, the seemingly easy familiarity between strangers who exchange quip remarks and gestures – some less friendly than others. Quite possibly, the city’s most dominant image may be driven by more recent expansive ‘mega-city’ developments such as the Lekki-Epe axis, Eko Atlantic City, the new Ikoyi-Lekki link bridge and other markers of modern cityness.

Lagos is a city for the big and small, but the experiences and perceptions of those who live and work in it are highly segregated. With this in view, the Open City Lagos project began in 2015 as an investigation into various interpretations of ‘openness’ evident in Lagos, in parallel to those evident in other leading cities across the globe. A year-long collation of ideas, and discussions on the subject resulted in the Open City Lagos Publication which was launched on the 4th and 5th of March, 2016. To mark the occasion, Nsibidi Institute along with Heinrich Boll Stiftung and Fabulous Urban, put together an event series to grant a closer look at some of the themes explored in the publication and open up the discussion to an even wider audience. The packed two-day event brought together local and international scholars, practitioners, stakeholders and policy makers who shared their reflections and opinions in a series of discussions. These conversations were intended to initiate the discourse on the development of cities where the coexistence of different social groups and the richness of cultural diversity come together to foster growth that is diverse, equitable, creative, sustainable and inclusive.

Keynote speaker, Hasfat Abiola-Costello (former special advisor on Millennium Development Goals to the Ogun State governor and president of the China-Africa Forum and KIND Foundation), kicked off the program with a deeply moving speech, sharing her personal experience of growing up in Lagos, and emphasising the importance of building liveable communities where inter-personal interactions guide inhabitants’ interface with the city. Fabienne Hoelzel of Fabulous Urban also shared her attempts to translate openness into her urban-practice, emphasising planning policy for informal settlements and women. Their real-life stories and examples helped crystallise what openness looks like, what hinders it, and what actions could be taken to allow openness flourish in cities.

In a series of panel discussions with seasoned contributors, the concept of openness and what it means in real terms, specific to the city of Lagos, was given an in-depth look. Described as a ‘Lego-city’ due to the mismatch in development over the years, Lagos, for the most part, lacks inclusivity in its design, so that even where there are ‘open spaces’ there is a limitation on the accessibility of these space. Real instruments, technologies and processed need to be put in place in order to achieve the desired openness and inclusion specific to Lagos. In discussing avenues for technology to stimulate openness within the city, James Oyewole (BuzzRoute), urged that the pursuit of asymptotic solutions, which may not necessarily be perfect but are contextually relevant and inclusive, will drive us closer to the holistic development sought.

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Others present in discussions on the day insisted that the human scale of spatial and community interactions ought not to be lost in this age of burgeoning city populations. Interventions do not have to come as grandiose, one-fell-swoop solutions to the city’s challenges, addressing city-wide issues can be as simple as solving the challenge for one person – they can come as solutions on small household scales, and then be replicated or up-scaled, allowing community involvement and ensuring openness.

The OCL also featured two workshops, designed to put to practice concepts of inclusion deliberated over during discussions at the launch. “Common Ground” led by Dr. Jenny Mbaye and Tosin Oshinowo, explored the role of design in situating openness with a particular focus on public space. This was complemented by the second workshop “Micro-Interventions”, a design workshop led by Fabienne Hoelzel drawing lessons from her own experiences of setting up the Makoko Neighbourhood Hotspot and considered the effectiveness of community-driven initiatives that target vulnerable groups in the city. She described the need for planners and communities to think outside the traditional top-down development methods and explore new approaches to dealing with urban and social ills.

The parallel workshops involved urban and creative professionals and undergraduate students from the University of Lagos’ Department of Architecture in highly interactive sessions of interdisciplinary engagement. Participants were encouraged to resist dichotomist thinking in exchange for new lenses that enable a more conscious reading of the city, taking special note of interactions in city-spaces and how different players disrupt or contribute to commonality in the city. These workshops, put together in an attempt to generate new ways of thinking which could be applied to pertinent questions that are arising in contemporary African cities, saw participants presenting innovative ideas to help create or improve the openness of specific sites in Lagos, using one or a combination of tools learned from the workshop. Ideas ranged from large-scale schemes, like a reimagined Marina coastal line populated with interactive ‘green’ activities, and proposing the use of video, photography and social gatherings to enhance the sharing of experiences in order to deepen social connections in Tejuosho and Balogun markets, to small-scale, low-technology, scalable solutions in response to specific needs in Makoko. Guest jurors, Megan Chapman and Lookman Oshodi, gave insightful feedback on the feasibility of each scheme.


In an attempt to implement the openness tenets highlighted in the discourse: namely, accessibility, mixity, and spatial diversity, the event ended with a rooftop gathering featuring acrobatic performances from Makoko-based cyclists and a screening of short films from Geothe Institut’s African Metropolis (2013). This pseudo-guerrilla effort showed what is possible by adapting vacant spaces in the city for eclectic, social use.


The launch event might be over but the dialogue on openness in our cities is not. Keep an eye out for future activities and events.  If you would like to keep tabs on what’s happening with Open City Lagos, like the Facebook page, and follow the Heinrich Boll Foundation and Nsibidi Institute.

See highlights of the event in our Storify post:

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