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In the news 2013

Solving the urban land crisis

Mark Napier and Stephen Berrisford | www.thenewage.co.za | 6 March 2013

Cities are driven by and depend upon formal and informal land markets. A city's land market is both a barometer of its success and of its problems. In South Africa, where most urban residents do not enjoy access to safe and secure land, the way in which the urban land market operates is a crucially important determinant of how, or whether, poor citizens can improve their circumstances.

For the past four years, Urban LandMark, a think tank based in Pretoria and funded by the UK government, has sought ways to strengthen the capacity of local government officials to influence market outcomes in a more pro-poor, equitable, just and sustainable way.

While municipalities and urban planners around the country would agree that urban land governance can serve as a powerful tool to reverse the legacy of apartheid, it is clear that formal access to urban land remains severely skewed towards a privileged minority.

Informal settlements and government subsidised housing continue to be situated on the outskirts of our cities where land is vacant and relatively available. The result is that the people who live there have to commute longer distances for job opportunities and other urban benefits. Despite government policies and programmes intended to address these challenges, our current urban land market frustrates attempts to open up better located living and business opportunities for poorer urban households and communities.

More expensive land, closer to city centres, is purchased for higher value uses such as retail centres, office blocks and higher density residential developments. This is partly because local governments depend financially on their property rates base, and it is clearly difficult to balance this imperative with a pro-poor outcome.

We have heard the calls for a free market and a hands-off approach to urban land deals, but a market left to its own devices becomes exclusive and unequal, whatever the country or sector within which it operates. The effects of poor management of the urban land market are clear to see.

The demolitions in Lenasia late last year are another symptom of the inability of the government to manage the land market around subsidy houses. Research done by Urban LandMark shows that the title deed system for subsidised and low-income housing is under immense pressure and is barely operating in many areas. In this situation, illegal sales and corruption inevitably flourish.

This is compounded by weak governance systems in municipalities and provinces and the fact that members of the public are not educated and experienced in negotiating their way around urban land markets, and so fall victim to scams.

The long-term effect of ineffective urban land management is the continued existence of shack housing on land where people have no clear legal rights and so cannot invest. On New Year's Day, as many as 4000 people in the sections of Khayelitsha and in Du Noon in the Western Cape were left homeless after a fire raged through shacks. Days later, 2000 people were left homeless after shack fires in Nelson Mandela Bay. Subsequent reports in the media quoted residents as blaming government policies for the disasters.

Building cities for all citizens means that municipalities also have to ensure that the most vulnerable residents are included in the advantages of urban life. It is essential that municipal officials are able and willing to use every tool at their disposal to manage urban land to achieve pro-poor outcomes wherever possible. Every day city planners, engineers and land managers make decisions around zoning, property rating, new developments and infrastructure that fundamentally affect the way that the market works.

The decision whether or not to approve a new shopping centre in an old township area, for example, is hugely complicated and difficult for any one official to take alone. Another example is the official who has to decide whether or not certain households qualify for rates exemptions, knowing full well that the cost of those households' savings have to be made up elsewhere in the city budget.

Urban LandMark has tried to support those who are working directly with urban land market issues, creating an opportunity for them to stand back and see the market as a whole. Of course, there is sometimes a gap between what we think are good ideas and what those at the coalface know will work. Our appreciation of this gap keeps us collaborating closely with municipal officials across the country.

Out of this spirit of collaboration and learning we published Managing Urban Land, a guide for municipal practitioners late in 2012. The guide brings together a rich body of work commissioned over the past four years. It addresses a number of important urban land management issues and shows that there are a variety of ways in which municipal officials can work effectively within current statutory and other obligations to achieve pro-poor outcomes. In presenting the guide to municipal officials in various cities we heard many of them express their frustration and describe their role as "reactive" when they would prefer to take a more creative approach

"We do not plan for informality," a Cape Town delegate said at a recent workshop to launch the guide. "We are overwhelmed. The city is growing much faster than any one of us could have anticipated."

"We have all these development structures and a framework that we are supposed to develop within, but the realities force us to think outside of the box," another delegate said. "We are not always equipped to do that."

We have seen that many cities are trying to strengthen their control by formalising and tightening the planning framework, but increasing red tape just means that the demand quickly outstrips the supply of housing. Developers who are not able to make money in a market recession are not being encouraged to build more affordable homes.

Many departments are constrained by the law. The legal system discourages the use and development of parastatal and government land for low-income housing. Without a real incentive to "unlock" this land for pro-poor development, we will continue to see business as usual in all of our cities.

Change is not just something we want, but something that can be achieved by emulating the best practice models that we know can work and which we have highlighted in our research and in Managing Urban Land. This guide starts to show ways of tackling the challenges, one practical step at a time. It sets out a clear approach, not as a solution to all the tensions and trade offs, but as navigational aids to officials, encouraging cooperation with colleagues in other disciplines and departments. We know that the local government faces real constraints, and some things are beyond the control of the local sphere. But at the same time, there is a lot that a local government can do within and even in the absence of legislation.

The challenges are not insurmountable. Through the work that Urban LandMark and others are doing, municipalities are being supported to be more effective using the available tools, and without the need for any radical or drastic law reform.

Mark Napier is Urban LandMark's programme director and Stephen Berrisford leads the work on land governance.

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