City Planning: Yorùbá City Planning

  • Ademide Adelusi-AdeluyiEmail author
  • Liora Bigon
Living reference work entry


Nineteenth Century Colonial Encounter Slum Clearance Sociopolitical Organization Spatial Urban Expansion 
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The Yorùbá are a finite set of adjacent groups – including the È̩gbá, Òndó, Àwórì, and Ìjè̩bu – who share a mutually intelligible language, myths of origin, religious beliefs, cultural practices, experiences of bondage, and Anglo-Franco colonial heritage. Historians have argued that this ethnic identity coalesced in the nineteenth century, while their historical tendency to settle in large, densely populated cities and towns has pushed them to the forefront of discourse of indigenous urbanism in Africa. In West Africa today, Yorùbá-speaking people can be found split mainly between two countries, with over one million in southern Benin Republic and close to 40 million in southwestern Nigeria. Substantial minor communities are also established in Ghana and Togo.

Established as a confederacy of city-states thriving between the twelfth and the late seventeenth century, historically Yorùbáland maintained its autonomy and power – split between the political capital of Old Ọ̀yọ́ (Ọ̀yọ́-Ilé) and Ilé-Ifẹ̀, the religious center – by virtue of competitive advantages versus its neighbors. These advantages included sociopolitical organization, military alliances, and monopolization of ritual activity and commerce, especially in the light of its geographic position between the savanna plains of the hinterland and the forests close to the Atlantic coast (Usman, 2000).

The collapse of Old Ọ̀yọ́ in 1835 and various Yorùbá kingdoms in the nineteenth century has been ascribed to both to pressures from the north by the consolidation of the Hausa-Fulani city-states and from the south by the growing involvement of the British missionaries, traders, and administrators in an era of the slave trade and its complexities. This was a time of disappearance and displacement of many classical Yorùbá cities (such as Ọ̀yọ́, which moved southward), reconfiguration of others (such as Ilorin, overtaken by the Sokoto Caliphate), and general decline. But it was also a time of reinvention and establishment of several prominent other cities such as Abẹ̀òkúta and Ìbàdàn (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

“Map of the Yorùbá country” drawn by the Yorùbá historian Samuel Johnson (published 1921)

Yorùbá cities offer a paradox to Western scholars. As Africa had been traditionally considered by them as overwhelmingly rural or semirural at best, such conceptions were tied with other philosophies as the “noble savage” imagery; research on preindustrial cities tended to focus solely on Western cities. In the rare cases where Yorùbá cities where mentioned in urban history works by the 1960s, they were designated as “semi-urban” (Coquery-Vidrovitch, 2005, pp. 12–13). Their markedly different modalities in form and function by comparison to cities in the West were saliently rooted, inter alia, in the use of temporary building materials and the lack of distinct division between urban and agricultural space. As a result, early debates among Western scholars centered on the idea of whether these settlements were cities at all (Sjoberg, 1960). These questions were settled from the 1970s and finally summarized by the basic premise laid by the urbanist Spiro Kostof, arguing that cities are places that are intimately engaged with the countryside and their separation is thoroughly injudicious (1999, p. 38). Since then, new debates about the longevity and morphology of Yorùbá cities have taken center stage.

The origins of Yorùbá cities are obscure, though local traditions, well documented by the Yorùbá-educated elite during the long nineteenth century, trace the origins of all Yorùbá to Ilé-Ifẹ̀. While this spiritual and urban focal point is estimated to date as far back as the ninth century, the circumstances of the original foundation of Ifẹ̀ itself are ambiguous (Law, 1984). The earliest recorded reference to Yorùbá settlements comes however from a Portuguese map in the sixteenth century, with Ìjè̩bu-Òde clearly indicated. Indeed, Yorùbá oral traditions of origins show some Islamic influence regarding geography and anthroponomy (Johnson, 1921; Law, 1984), an influence that is clearly reflected in the configuration and arrangement of historical urban layout (Moughtin, 1985). Surprisingly, no research exists examining the relationship between the oral and built traditions of the Hausa and Yorùbá.

Though there is little to no evidence for a centralized or top-down process of planning before the nineteenth century, many Yorùbá cities share remarkable morphological similarities. Though little evidence of individual planners or architects survives, what is clear is that these towns map a social and political reality that was fairly stable across different cities. The king (Ọba) was the political nucleus of each town, and thus, his palace or àfin was invariably the physical center. People and place were inextricably tied and tiered in the plotting of these cities. In this mapping, the classic or traditional Yorùbá city is a permanent, fortified settlement with an interior divided into distinct quarters settled by different distinct lineages, distributed along a spoke-and-wheel pattern arranged around the ruler’s palace and main market. This spatial effect also reflects the ruler’s centralized authority and the city’s overall social organization (see Fig. 2). Anthropologists, namely, William Bascom (1955, 1969) and Peter Cutt Lloyd (1973) championed this Yorùbá urbanism model, and sociologists (Krapf-Askari, 1969; Mann, 2007), geographers (Mabogunje, 1969; Ojo, 1967), and historians (Aderibigbe, 1975; Oguntomisin, 1999) soon followed suit. Most recently, urban historians rendered in-depth visual narratives regarding Yorùbá cities such as Lagos, expanding on cartographic and planning modalities (Adelusi-Adeluyi, 2015 PhD dissertation; Bigon, 2009); critiques of the idealized premise of Yorùbá urban form also exist (Watson, 2003).
Fig. 2

Town plan of Iléṣà, an ideal plan of a Yorùbá city (Amended by the authors from Ojo, 1967)

The cities (ìlú) are almost always oval in shape, with the Ọba’s palace (àfin) normally as the focal point where the main roads and paths converge. Scholars point to Iléṣà as the “perfect formal representation” of the ideal spoke-and-wheel pattern of the Yorùbá city (Peel, 2000). Ọ̀yọ́, Òṣogbo, Ilé-Ifẹ̀, and Ọ̀wọ̀ are said to have had two or three concentric walls. Walls were punctuated with gates to control access, often serving as tollgates. In 1825, Lander and Clapperton reported that Old Ọ̀yọ́’s mud wall was 20 ft high, surrounded by a moat with a circumference of 15 or so miles. The nineteenth-century towns, often the hasty product of roaming, desperate refuges, depart quite dramatically from this ideal, most notably as a consequence of the circumstances of their formation. In Ìbàdàn, for instance, this meant an absence of a palace (Mabogunje, 1968), even though the main market (Oja Iba) still constitutes the heart of the old part of the city, now a polycentric and polymorphic conurbation.

The Yorùbá employ a complex urban vocabulary to differentiate between scale, population, and political importance (Ojo, 1966). Historically, a town’s rank was based on a system of classification that privileged the existence of a crowned ruler at its nucleus. Ìlú, or city, refers not only to the town alone but to its political structure. Despite the importance of population and density, the most important factor to these urban inhabitants was its sociopolitical quality. For the Yorùbá, the ìlú or town was both town and polis. Ọ̀yọ́, Abẹ̀òkúta, and Ìjè̩bu have crowned kings whose authority is derived from Ilé-Ifẹ̀; hence, they are known as ìlú aládé. Cities lacking these rulers can be Olu-Ìlú or capital towns, such as Ìbàdàn and Ògbómò̩ṣọ́. The ìlú ọlọja are market towns (e.g., È̩pẹ́ and Ejirin) and ìlú-eréko are dependent, subordinate towns (e.g., central Lagos, which is still known as éko in local parlance, as in the mid-seventeenth century, it became a vassal to Benin city and paid tribute). Finally, there are numerous àgó (war camps), ileto (villages), and abúlé (hamlets) scattered between the major and minor towns. This generic Yorùbá terminology of settlement forms and accompanied imagery has yet to be thoroughly studied, such as other specific toponyms that can teach us much on the spatial implications of the colonial encounter and the influence of global economy. One example is Ìbàdàn’s Gbagi District, which designates the formerly white residential quarter, with gbagi meaning “to peg” in Yorùbá. This is due to a local fascination with the European preoccupation with title to land by pegging their plots, in marked contrast with communal land ownership and other indigenous conceptions regarding the central role of the land in the circle of life and death.

Among the other historic morphological characteristics, traditional public buildings such as small shrines could be identified in certain localities – to be later exchanged with more imposing mosques or churches. Within the walls, periodic markets were an important economic feature and functioned as gendered spaces as women controlled many aspects of the economy (McIntosh, 2009). Residents of the city lived in differentiated quarters made up of grouped compounds. Houses, compounds, and walls were built of locally sourced materials, such as mud, country thatch, and other vegetation (see Fig. 3). These materials were later condemned by both Anglo and Franco colonial regimes, using building regulations as a tool for imposing capitalist economy and residential segregation on a racial basis between the expatriate and autochthonous societies, and slum clearance schemes (Bigon, 2008; King, 1995; Marris, 1961; Njoh, 2007).
Fig. 3

Reconstruction of a precolonial Yorùbá compound made of perishable materials (Akinsemoyin & Vaughan-Richards, 1976, p. 8)

Yorùbá family compounds were most often built on a square plan, with numerous rooms surrounding an enclosed space in the center. The homes were bounded by a mud wall. These compounds were distinguished by size and rank, with their space increasing from half an acre for modest homes to many acres for chiefs, noblemen, and finally the largest space for the àfin (Izomoh, 1994).

During the mid-nineteenth and the twentieth century, a new vernacular domestic housing style evolved. It was initiated by ex-slaves of Yorùbá descent who returned to West Africa from Brazil. Using the masonry skills they acquired there, they developed the two-storey ilé petesy or “upstairs house” built with permanent materials and decorated in the baroque style. These Brazilian houses emerged first in Lagos (and simultaneously in other coastal towns like Porto-Novo) but gradually became naturalized all over Yorùbáland (Vlach, 1984) (see Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

Late-nineteenth-century “Brazilian” house from Lagos, later roofed with corrugated iron; below: street scene from Ìbàdàn, showing ilé petesy variations (Photos: L. Bigon)

While cement-plastered rectangular compounds also characterize Yorùbá architecture, and the corrugated-iron roofing became so popular in dictating the reddish eroded cityscape today, a variety of deviations from traditional patterns also exist (Aradeon, 2012). Many of these changes initially took place during the colonial period and include the micro (residential unit) and macro (spatial urban expansion) levels, such as the filling in of the rectangular courtyard with built units and vertical, peripheral, and polycentric growth.

The first third of the nineteenth century was a time of dramatic upheaval for Yorùbá cities, mostly due to the effect of broken alliances and internecine wars. The emergence of Ìbàdàn and Abẹ̀òkúta in the first third of the nineteenth century showed a radical change in the conception and consolidation of urban Ifẹ̀ for Yorùbá people (Mabogunje, 1968; Smith, 1988). At least three important Yorùbá cities have roots in the wars of the nineteenth century, and these cities emerged from the efforts of refugee populations. These roots account for the ways that their morphologies departed from the ways that cities had been constructed in the past. Ìbàdàn and Abẹ̀òkúta, the most recent of the important cities, were both founded circa 1830. Old Ọ̀yọ́ was also relocated around this time. Owu, one of the largest Yorùbá cities, was destroyed by an Ìjè̩bu-Ifẹ̀ alliance, and the survivors from this city encamped in a deserted village. It was on this site that a new city, Ìbàdàn (roughly “war camp”), was built. Around the same time, È̩gbá refugees fleeing south camped around Olumọ Rock, building Abẹ̀òkúta (meaning “under the rock”). Ìbàdàn was a new sort of Yorùbá town, borne of the circumstances of the fragmented internecine wars that ravaged Yorùbáland. Its population was made up of people from Ifẹ̀, Ọ̀yọ́, and Ìjè̩bu. The quarters and compounds were comprised of what John Peel (2000) termed non-kin affiliates, and there, the compounds no longer corresponded simply to grouped lineages.

Yorùbá cities differed in size and scale. Though no official census figures survive for the nineteenth century, visitors to Yorùbáland recorded several towns with over 10,000 inhabitants, with at least 22 towns numbering over 10,000 residents. Estimates for medium-sized towns like Ìjè̩bu Òde, Lagos, Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́, and Ìjàyè ranged from 20,000 to 40,000 in the 1850s. The larger cities – Abẹ̀òkúta, Ìbàdàn, Òṣogbo, and Ilorin – each numbered over 60,000. In the 1850s, Ìbàdàn’s population was estimated at between 70,000 and 100,000, and estimates of Abẹ̀òkúta’s population were most often set at 60,000, though one observer (Richard Burton) guessed that there were possibly 100,000 residents within the town’s walls in 1861 (Mabogunje, 1968). Today, Nigeria (Africa’s most populous country) accounts for about 18 % of the continent’s total population, and thriving Yorùbá cities such as Lagos are estimated as among the fastest-growing cities in the world. Metropolitan Lagos, for instance, which in the 1950 consisted of only about 290,000 inhabitants, is expected to reach, according to UN HABITAT, to close to 20 million residents by 2025 (2014, p. 103).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.History DepartmentNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.European StudiesThe Hebrew University of JerusalemJerusalemIsrael