Cities need to focus on the humanity and the agency of the people living there regardless of socioeconomic status, says writer and activist OluTimehin Adegbeye. She poses some important questions we should ask about cities: “How are they run?”, “How do they grow?” and most importantly, “How do they decide who belongs and who doesn’t?”
“The only cities worth building—indeed the only futures worth dreaming of—are those that include all of us, no matter who we are or how we make homes for ourselves,” she says.
Adegbeye draws from her experiences in Lagos, Nigeria to illustrate some of the relatable and contradictory elements of city life. She points out that what gives a city its charm are often the people society deems as the problem. Unsanctioned housing, commerce, and transportation are imperfect yet organic solutions to the societal needs that as a collective, we have failed to provide.
Through a humanistic lens, we can see the informal systems created by people excluded from power in society as a display of resilience. From this perspective, slums are a response to housing deficiencies, a community-led reform program that hires local troublemakers as security gives employment opportunities to people that others wouldn’t give a second chance to, and accident-prone privately-owned buses are an answer to poorly-run public transportation.
A failure to see the humanity in people is what leads a government to believe that eradicating poverty means eliminating the poor. It’s the justification for unconstitutionally and often violently displacing people, as happened in Lagos with the demolition of waterfront settlements to make room for beachfront luxury property.
“[Forced evictions] happen so often in so many of our cities, because the first thing we are taught to forget about poor people is that they are people,” she says. “We believe that a home is a thing a person absolutely has a right to, unless the person is poor and the home is built a certain way in a certain neighborhood.”
It is also the realization that despite all the possibilities that exist in a city, those possibilities are most often determined by who you are and what connections you may have. In Adegbeye’s words, “Belonging in Lagos is a fluid concept determined by ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender, but most visibly and often most violently, class.”
Adegbeye urges us to hold our governments—and ourselves—accountable for keeping our cities safe and liveable for every resident, regardless of the power and wealth they hold.