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Home » December 2010

Urban LandMark Conference Rethinking Emerging Land Markets in Rapidly Growing Southern African Cities

by Lucille Gavera

The importance of urban land markets in Africa

In November 2010, Urban LandMark hosted a regional conference in Johannesburg to debate issues around the operation of land markets in the context of urban poverty and rapid urbanisation, underpinned by the fact that Africa's growth is unlike urbanisation in other parts of the world.

To illustrate this, in just two decades, more than 50% of Africans will live in cities on the continent. In 2015, while London's population will increase by six people an hour and Berlin's not at all, Lagos will grow by 58 people every hour, Kinshasa by 39 and Nairobi by 15.

It is clear that the epicentre of what has been called 'the century of the city' is shifting from the global north to the global south. But while, in developed countries, there is a strong correlation between urbanisation, economic development and improved quality of life, for contemporary African cities, this correlation does not hold. This 'over-urbanisation', as some urbanists have called it, is characterised not by improved lifestyles but by the reproduction of poverty.

Building urban knowledge and capacity, and sharing information around African urban land markets

A platform for robust debate and knowledge-sharing, the conference succeeded in building stronger links amongst practitioners, researchers, academics, NGOs, private sector developers and key commentators on African urban land issues. Moreover, with a number of papers presented from other regions across the world, a comparative focus was brought to the conference, promoting learning between countries and regions.

Speakers focused on a range of issues, including how land tenure could be improved to promote land access, holding and trading that supports livelihoods and asset creation for poor urban dwellers in southern Africa; and how 'formal' access to land markets and 'alternative' ways of recognising land rights could be brought closer together in the African context.

Alain Durand-Lasserve, research director at the National Centre for Scientific Research in France and a specialist in urban land management and policies in developing countries, and Paul M. Syagga, Professor of Land Economics at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, delivered the conference's keynote addresses, focussing on urban land issues in eastern, central and west Africa.

Other discussions included issues ranging from urban poverty and squatter settlements in the Kathmandu Valley, through rebuilding land markets in post-conflict African countries, to country- and city-specific case studies. These dealt, for example, with the dynamics of housing land allocation in Bulawayo and its implications for low-cost housing, how unplanned urban settlements in Zambia could be upgraded in a more sustainable manner, and the dynamics of urban land markets in peri-urban areas in Maputo.

The Conference's focus on South Africa's urban land questions was centred on issues such as exploring the intrinsic value of property in low-cost housing settlements in Johannesburg, the size and structure of South Africa's affordable property market and looking at shack settlements as an entry point into the labour market.

What did we learn?

Many interesting ideas and some new debates emerged at the Conference. What particularly captivated our audience were the differences between countries and regions in terms of why and how some places consolidate in terms of more effective urban land planning, development and management processes and others not, what poorer urban dwellers expect from their governments, and the different levels of management, capacity and resources available in different countries.

Underscored was the fact that in dealing with issues of informality, both social legitimacy and formal legality are important for effective urban land management and development processes. Social legitimacy refers to processes where the land's meaning, use and value are governed through socially accepted, informal land management processes, based on historical or cultural mechanisms, while formal legality implies the application of administrative frameworks and practices as governed by state law. But the formal system should be doing more to bring this multiplicity of processes closer together. For example, at the moment, in many countries on the continent, customary land management practices are being emulated in the city in the absence of appropriate responses by the official system of administration and supply - it is simply more efficient to gain access to urban land via the non-formal route. On the other hand, informality sometimes serves the political agendas of governments across the continent, which may mean that some governments may not fully back the reduction of slum settlements.

However, the barriers to entry into the formal registered system remains a real constraint in most southern African cities, and it has become clear that the interface between formal, unregistered and customary land management processes needs to be investigated in a more focused manner so that they can be made to work better.

What was also evident from some of the discussions is that while there is a relationship between gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and urban population increases (urbanisation and economic development therefore generally go hand in hand), higher/lower GDP numbers and decreases/increases in squatter settlement growth are not always linked. The conclusion? Perhaps the prevalence of slums is not inevitable in African countries and the potential bleak future of continued increases in such settlements could be remedied.

Discussions at the conference again emphasised that war, conflict and economic meltdown contribute to the collapse of especially the finance and development segments of property markets, and place huge pressure on poorer people migrating to cities fleeing conflict, causing increasing vulnerability in terms of their ability to access, hold on to and trade on well-located land in urban centres.

An often-raised issue about urban land markets in Africa, and one again stressed at our Conference, is the fact that information remains scarce in these markets, and has a significant effect on economic development and sustainable livelihoods. On the other hand, an increasing focus on the elements of environmental sustainability sometimes means that natural habitats are being protected to the detriment of indigenous people. In other instances, poorer people or communities, are sometimes evicted in favour of sectoral economic imperatives, such as the development of industrial and services markets like tourism and mining.

This debate was again picked up at a public event entitled Perfecting the apartheid city? interrogating South Africa's urban spatial development 16 years after democracy and co-hosted by the Mail & Guardian during our Conference. Here the issue of the most effective 'economic framework' for the development of African cities was discussed and the question raised whether the idea of the 'competitive' or 'productive' city was mutually exclusive to realising the concept of poorer people's equal inclusion in city spaces and economic opportunities.

Interestingly, some of the lessons from South African research and case studies presented at the Conference focused participants' attention on the complex set of functions that shack settlements perform in terms of poorer people's entry into and continued access to urban space, which we need to understand before designing and sequencing interventions for their improvement.

Taking the debate back to the basics

But Urban LandMark also argued at the Conference that something more fundamental is needed to improve poorer people's access to and effective use and trade of urban land in Africa. Programme Director Mark Napier argued that, despite the African continent being so big, the way we understand land in Africa is changing - addressing land issues in sub-Saharan Africa is no longer the same as addressing only rural poverty and food production, although these are crucial. As cities and slums grow exponentially, and as the tipping point between more rural and less urban shifts rapidly towards being more urban and less rural, the reality is changing on the ground and within a generation.

Land security is an issue for large numbers of poor and otherwise vulnerable people in cities and towns, for three reasons - poor and dangerous location, little access to the necessary resources to survive adequately in urban areas, and a lack of recognition of their rights. In other words, land security and insecurity are products of where people live (or conduct business, or both), what resources they have at their disposal to cope in that situation or to change that situation, and which of their rights are recognised.

How these factors or dimensions of land security relate to one another is best described by using a concrete example. Many cities are located in dangerous areas prone to earthquakes, flooding, sea level rise and the like. With the right resources it is possible to survive disasters by building cities well enough to withstand them, at least most of the time. But for people without the resources, and for urban areas which have little or no planning capacity, human settlement on dangerous land leads to humanitarian disasters.

In terms of location in particular, climate change is increasingly becoming a pertinent issue in especially poorer African urban areas. Where rapidly growing cities meet the effects of climate change, the future may well be bleak, especially if cities and towns in sub-Saharan Africa continue to be characterised by poverty, inequality and weak institutions.

In terms of rights, there is a great deal of evidence to show that uneven rights to land as property and the use of land mean that poor households, women and youth are often the most vulnerable. The empowerment of people in growing cities and towns in the region depends on also developing clear land rights, land administration, registration and mapping. But the litmus test is really encapsulated in the question of how quickly and easily the current occupants of land can be dispossessed of that land when, for example, there is a more powerful urban actor who wants that land, when land values increase, when there is war or other conflict, when economies collapse, or even when corrupt officials or land mafias simply decide that they wish to take over?

It was also argued that entrenched urban poverty is as much a symptom of weak access to land and property as it is a cause. Upgrading settlements, and incremental movement towards secure tenure for families living in poverty, is a crucial part of building resilient livelihoods and communities in southern Africa.

Moreover, markets are part of the picture if we wish to address more fundamental inclusion of the poor into the urban economy, because it is about competition for valuable space and about (sustainable) participation in growing urban economies. Comprehensive urban poverty strategies need to be linked to city development strategies. If access to land, how land is held (how secure tenure is), and how land is traded are not clearly defined (whether for residential or business purposes), one of the key building blocks for sustainable poverty alleviation and economic growth is missing.

Similar to the argument for food security therefore, land security is fundamental to development in the region.

Continuing the discussion

To contribute to the body of knowledge on urban land markets on the continent, further the intellectual and policy agenda in this area of work and make available to a broader audience the major issues highlighted by both local and international experts at this event, Urban LandMark will in 2011 publish an edited volume of some of the conference papers and research presented at our regional conference. Conference presentations and information on our contributors are available on our website. Readers of our newsletter should also visit our website in the next week to access our Conference Report, which will distill the main debates and learnings of this valuable interaction between urban land market practitioners on the continent.

Finally, Urban LandMark has initiated a number of projects to further engage and strengthen regional co-operation and networks around the issues of urban land markets in southern Africa, and in 2011 we will report back to this forum on the outcomes and research findings of our initiatives.