Who benefits from urban renewal projects? Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), after a presentation in Lagos of the EKO Atlantic City Project, a multi-billion initiative, co-financed by public funds. Photo: UNDP.

Urban islands for the elite


What does Lagos, one of the world’s fastest-growing cities, have in common with Detroit, one of the world’s fastest-shrinking? According to urbanist Stephen Marr, both cities have a dystopic reputation that has opened the backdoor to large-scale political experiments in favour of the already privileged.

Try googling “hardest hardship place” and your first hit will be Lagos, a city whose infrastructure has been described as the worst in the world. Then try googling “urban crisis”, and your first hit will be Detroit, a city that has undergone such depopulating that a new term, urban prairie, had to be coined to describe the green landscapes that emerged as once vibrant neighbourhoods were abandoned.

“At first glance, it might seem far-fetched to seek commonalities in two such different cities, but upon closer examination, there are actually quite a few similarities – pervasive crime and everyday insecurity, dysfunctional infrastructure and a weak formal labour sector, and hence lack of salaried jobs,” says Stephen Marr, who will be a guest researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute from April to June. During that period he will undertake research for a book entitled World Cities, Wild Cities: Lagos, Detroit and the Political Uses of Apocalypse.

Global urbanism
Marr’s field of research, global urbanism, aims to identify comparable lines of development in cities across the world. Inspired by the influential urbanist Abdoulmaliq Simone’s call to seek “invented latitudes” between cities in the developing world, his research extends these latitudes by ranging across the boundaries between the developed and developing world.

“By taking theories developed in the context of urban Africa and using them as a lens through which to view cities in America and elsewhere, we open the way for a better understanding of urban development in general,” he says.

An elite tired of traffic jams
In his research on Lagos, Stephen Marr is focusing on Eko Atlantic City, a massive urban development project being built on a peninsula-shaped tract of land reclaimed from the Atlantic, lying just outside of the city of more than 21 million inhabitants. When finished, it will be home to some 250,000 inhabitants. Private interests are driving the project, with financial support from the government and local authorities.

“Eko Atlantic City will have everything that most of Lagos lacks; state-of-the-art housing, centrally planned and environmentally sustainable infrastructure, and clean streets. There’s just one catch, it will do little or nothing to solve the challenges facing the remaining 99 percent still living in ‘old’ Lagos. We are literally talking about an island home for an economic elite that has grown tired of being stuck in traffic jams,” Marr argues.

Undeniable parallels
Similar large-scale urban renewal projects, also co-financed by public and private partnerships, are happening in mid-town Detroit. Art Deco skyscrapers from the 1920’s and 1930’s have been bought up by a handful of private developers and transformed into high-end apartments, condominiums and office space. And last year a multibillion dollar investment in a new sports and events arena anchoring new retail and living space development in Midtown was initiated. Stephen Marr points to the undeniable parallels with Eko Atlantic City.

“In Detroit we are not talking about an island in the actual sense of the word. But in many ways, it is an island that we see taking shape. An insulated space for the elite in the middle of a city known to be one of the most impoverished and segregated in the US,” he says.

Misuse of apocalyptic stories
There are neighbourhoods in Detroit where 80 to 90 percent of the population is African-American, where unemployment is twice that of surrounding areas and the average income is about half.

“What helps make large-scale experiments of this variety possible, are dystopic stories. In the case of Detroit, we have the tale of the Motor City that descended into a post-industrial malaise as the car industry collapsed, of racial tensions boiling over and municipal authorities losing grip. These apocalyptic stories and images of rampant criminality and urban degradation are misused to motivate and legitimate the allocation of resources towards those already privileged,” says Stephen Marr, who recently published an essay on this subject in the journal Race & Class.

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