The City that Prays: How Religious Practices Affect the City

In recent years, religion has noticeably morphed and expanded in tandem with rapid urbanisation in developing cities. The prevalence and pervasiveness of various expressions of worship culture is shaping the urban experience and informing urban habits. In direct correlation to this, religious organisations are wielding more and more political, economic, and socio-cultural influence. This increasing influence is at odds with the supposition that the relatively materialistic, hedonistic dynamics of city life are incompatible with religious practices and expressions. In actual fact, religion has seeped into the fabric of many urban existences today, almost imperceptibly woven into the production of space and performance of activities. If religion’s move was imperceptible, its outworkings, manifestations and impact on the urbansphere are disproportionately loud and conspicuous.

In actual fact, religion has seeped into the fabric of many urban existences today, almost imperceptibly woven into the production of space and performance of activities.

Taking a step back to examine contexts that predate current realities, the influence of religion on the spatiality of human existence is no surprise. From the pyramids of Giza, to the Parthenon in Athens, to the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, religion has evidentially played a role in the creation and transformation of settlement forms  and living and patterns. Physical constructs for worship have served as statements of power, citadels of authority, sites of pilgrimage holding mystical, supernatural powers, and focal points for community and social interaction. However, as human civilisation progressed from all-powerful kingdoms and empires which dominated vast geographic regions, there was a shift into different modes of governance and societal structures. More pronouncedly in the progression of Western civilisation, papal, monarchy systems evolved into scientific, democratic ones. With the Age of Enlightenment, a move towards a more empirical, reason-based human experience began. There was a pivotal push against religion defining the domains and constraints of human existence, and slowly the ramifications and implications of religion on the physical manifestations of urban realities faded from prominence. Scientific methods and information were exalted above less concrete experiential, phenomenological indices. This led to a clear separation of the church – the dominant form of religious expression in Western civilisation at the time – from governance and development instruments, limiting the effect worship had on the city. Colonisation also spread this ideals to many countries.

This period also saw the emergence of educational and professional specialisation modules as we have them now. With urban planning and city development becoming a specialised profession, religion even had less of an impact on the physical scape of the city. With modernist movements and proposals such as Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, city planning, very tightly linked with the practice of architecture at the time, took up more clinical approaches with little or no influence from the spiritual. Indeed with the rise of urbanisation and city life, it seemed that cities with generally secular processes – usually due to the mix of multiple demographics and cultures – had become unfavourable to religious activity.

Courtesy: Akintunde Akinleye

This, however, is not where the story ends. The late 20th Century, with urbanisation taking a sharp upward growth turn, ushered in an increase in the number of city dwellers turning to ‘new’ expressions of worship, especially in the Global South. The eradication of colonial governments, also thrust postcolonial cities, which happen to form a majority of the Global South, into efforts to define their characters based on their pre-colonial identities but still firmly situated within contemporary contexts.

Indeed with the rise of urbanisation and city life, it seemed that cities with generally secular processes – usually due to the mix of multiple demographics and cultures – had become unfavourable to religious activity.

Religious institutions such as the church began to deliberately and strategically target cities, and strategically penetrate the urban sphere. Churches and other religious institutions have reinstated themselves as oases in the seemingly unending hustle and hardship of city life. This new worship culture, while varied from the absolutist power wielded by the church pre-Enlightenment is no less potent and wide in its reach. This particular phenomenon has been the subject of a number of research projects, with books such as Gods of the City by Robert Orsi and Global Prayers.

This re-emergence of spirituality within the supposedly carnal context of today’s cities can be linked to present-day urban peculiarities. The boom of urban populations is heavily dependent of rural-urban migration. Religious establishments offer a very comfortable support system for new immigrants, They offer common ground for identity and serve as an entry point into the workings of a society or community. They act as hubs that usher migrants into communities, providing child care, hiring opportunities, and much more. For instance, a church might post accommodation opportunities, part-time job openings, and offer itself as a platform for interaction between like-minded people groups. In addition, researchers hint at a religious industry very much hinged on the formation of a ‘corporate’ identity and the production of goods and services. These instruments offer the poorer classes the opportunity, through spiritual or supernatural means, to move up class stratifications. So, from Rio de Janeiro to Lagos to Jakarta to Kinshasa, there seems to be a more pronounced rise of religion-infused urbanism in the Global South.

Courtesy: Akintunde Akinleye

Lagos, over the past few decades, has emerged as a unique case study for the rise of urbanisation. In the context of religion and its associated expressions, Lagos is also manifesting this phenomenon notably, as it is home to some of the largest facilities for worship in the region. The city can boast of mega churches that sit tens of thousands, churches on seemingly every street corner, and a 1 million-seater prayer camp that has expanded into a self-sustaining, micro-city ecosystem. This influence is manifested in both tangible and intangible aspects of the city. In some instances, spaces are appropriated and/or repurposed for meetings, constituting physical interventions on the urban fabric, and also giving some areas a transient staging or temporal air. There is also the impact on mobility and circulation specifically observed when large congregations gather, clogging up certain routes and causing traffic gridlocks. Both vehicular and pedestrian pathways may be affected, as traders take opportunity of these weekly gatherings, setting up temporary structures in and around worship complexes that become commercial hotspots similar to small traditional markets. By these, religion extends beyond the bounds of physicality, affecting social interaction and the production of space.

Increasingly, worship centres in Lagos State are embarking on expansive real-estate developments such as Trinity Towers (a set of three 14-storey buildings in Oniru), Ikoyi-Dolphin Community Mosque (with a development bill of N250 million),  and Faith Theatre (a 100,000-seater stadium-like complex) with integrated infrastructure provision, with deliberate intervention on community development platforms. Given this trend, some of these institutions end up taking over the responsibilities of state agencies. Government agencies have only recently tried to intervene in some of these activities. For example, the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) embarked on  ‘Noiseless Lagos’, closing down some mosques and churches which were alleged perpetrators of noise pollution. In Kaduna State, the governor is promoting a bill that would place restrictions on religious practices and activities within the state. Whilst these initiatives aim to clamp down on social disturbances and unregulated activities, there remains little consideration of the relationship between contemporary religious spatial practice and urban development beyond traditional land use zoning.  

Globally, religion is imperceptibly weaving itself deeper into the urban fabric, and does not seem to be receding any time soon. One author, referring to the fundamental emphasis of most religious institutions to reach people of all socio-cultural strata and class divisions, suggests that planners have a lot to learn from worship administration.

Religion and urbanism do not have to be at two different ends of a spectrum, in constant opposition, but can work together.

In some ways, religious institutions are modelling an openness and inclusion.that fits quite well into the inclusion rhetoric of sustainable urban design. In the Lagos context, researchers have noted a perceived order within the spatial boundaries of a number of worship that is absent in normal metropolitan conditions. In fact, it would seem that these worship centres have attained such a perfection of their systems and mechanisms evidenced in seamless traffic coordination, human resource management, and the like,  which is relatively absent from the urban contexts within which they exist.

Faith is sensitive and influential subject in Nigerian cultural social, and political spheres. There needs to be a deeper understanding and deliberate strategy to take into consideration the effects of religion within urban areas. Worship centres can serve as a medium to reach people, find out their needs, and to collaborate on solution-providing strategies. Religion and urbanism do not have to be at two different ends of a spectrum, in constant opposition, but can work together. A merger of the legislative instruments wielded by government agencies and the religious institutions could hold answers to some of the urban questions in cities all over the world.

On December 9, 2016. Nsibidi Institute and Heinrich Boll Foundation, Nigeria, held The City that Prays – an event exploring the effects of religious practices on the city under the Open City Lagos project. Bringing together urban practitioners, architects, artists, researchers, students, photographers, sociologists, and journalists, the event delved into issues that emerge at the intersections of religion and urbanism. The questions it addressed included: how contemporary worship culture and religious processes affect urbanisation, what it means to have religious institutions increasingly take on the role of developers, how does the practice of faith expand or limit spaces for openness and inclusion in the city, and how public authorities and religious leaders can work better to ensure the comforts and rights of all city users without withholding the freedom for religious expression,

The event kicked off with Heavenly Bodies in the City: Meditations & Conjurings, a presentation by Stephen Ajadi (African Collaborative Institute of Design) which traced the footprints of religion in the development of the ancient city of Ogbomosho in South-Western Nigeria, explaining how ancient signage and rituals, particularly the ceremonial masquerades, retain an active presence in the modernising city. Using video and spatial mappings, his work portrayed the various ways that public life in the contemporary city coexist and adapt to this complex ritual, from traffic flows and motorcycle tricks to policed and unregulated encounters of people and masquerade.. The presentation was followed up by a panel discussion between Akintunde Akinleye (award-winning photojournalist, Reuters), Dr. Chidi Ugwu (Sociology lecturer, University of Nigeria, Nsukka), and Idris Belo-Osagie (resident pastor, LifePointe Church), moderated by Maryam Kazeem (Managing Editor, Ventures Africa). The conversation touched in the prevalence of worship culture and institutions that govern them, the multidimensional impact of these institutions on urban development and quality, the potential of their roles as spaces for inclusion, and the opportunities of working with local authorities to build better cities.

You can find out more about OCL – watch our videos,  read more of our articles, join our mailing list, follow the project on Facebook, or see event highlights here.

City that Prays video:

Open City Lagos (OCL) a cross-cultural, multidisciplinary platform for knowledge exchange centred around the socially inclusive development of contemporary cities. OCL offers itself as a critical-thinking space for urban actors and stakeholders through  a series of workshops, panels discussions, and publications.. OCL 2017 is currently underway with a workshop and symposium on June 29, 2017. The is year the project explores resilience and kicked off with a call for contributions.

Further Reading

Ukah, Asonzeh. Faith on the move: Pentecostalism and its potential contribution to development. Available here:

Orsi, Robert A. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999

About the Author

‘Tamilore Oni is an urbanism enthusiast. With degrees in Architecture and Urban Design, it’s safe to say that cities are her thing.  Born and raised in Lagos, her fascination with the city has only grown along with her. She’s very passionate about seeing Lagos become a more efficient, inclusive, model city. She currently manages Nsibidi Institute’s Open City Lagos Project.

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