Africa’s growing cities: how do people adapt?

12th January 2015
With World Habitat Day on October 6, Dr. Mark Napier provides a timely insight on the urgent need to address unequal access to land and property. Specifically he reflects on how African cities grow and the way poor people can integrate themselves into urban economies – as explored in more detail in his recently released book, Trading Places: accessing land in African cities.

Debates about housing and land in African cities have tended to take place around a few key themes: rapid urbanisation, lack of urban planning, limited investment in urban infrastructure, the formation and perpetuation of slums, inappropriate building standards, insecure tenure and evictions, and poor living conditions, to mention a few. The Millennium Development Goals gave high priority to the issue by aiming to improve the lives of many people living in slums. More recently the discussion has grown to encompass the predicted effects of climate change, vulnerability to a variety of urban disasters, and what to do about this at a city-wide level. Many agencies are mulling this over when discussing how to frame the Post-2015 Agenda.

Urban Imizamo Yethu

After spending a few years considering the challenges faced by poor people trying to access urban land markets in African cities, we found that there was what amounted to a gap in thinking about the way cities grew and how people integrated themselves into urban economies. We looked more closely at the issue whilst preparing chapters for the UN Habitat’s 2010 State of African Cities Report and following positive feedback realised there was scope for a book on the subject.

The purpose of Trading Places: accessing land in African cities is to propose a practical approach to understanding and intervening in urban land markets, within the context of the broader debates.
Drawing on a range of research in southern African cities, the book addresses three dimensions:
  • how the market functions (and can be improved) in poor communities;
  • what are the daily realities of life for people accessing urban land and trying to hold on to it (tenure security); and 
  • what are the institutions that play a part in the governance of urban land, and land and housing markets.
These dynamics shape space and places in ways that last for centuries.

After early research on how municipalities and developers work together, the recent research on land markets focused on ways to intervene through partnerships between local authorities, the private sector, and resident communities. This centred around a range of value capture mechanisms which allow the added value of state investment to enhance urban renewal, and explored how this could be implemented in current legal contexts.

The approach on how practically to work towards more secure tenure in African countries was developed through research and interventions in four Southern African countries. It was described as an incremental tenure approach, placing the emphasis on moving gradually from current forms of tenure to more appropriate and secure forms of tenure, while not being fixated on private land titling in contexts where it may not work as an immediate solution.

The research on urban governance and planning in rapidly urbanising centres led to a comprehensive guide on what instruments municipalities could use to improve land management, release of state land, property taxation, settlement upgrading, and mobilising private sector investment. The overall picture of land governance in South Africa was enhanced by implementing the World Bank’s Land Governance Assessment Framework and using this to discuss strengths and weaknesses in the local context.
These and many other projects shaped the approach that is described in the book.

Trading Places recognises that the poor are highly active in the land market and that the prospects for change depend on taking their perspective into account. Trading Places also implies that there is an urgent need to address unequal access to land and property. The book offers the reader the opportunity to trade places by looking at the challenge of accessing habitable urban land from all sides, not only that of the elites.

With systemic change in mind, the formal system needs to meet local practice somewhere in the middle, and a new social contract brokered around land access in cities. The currently parallel systems of informal and formal land management have to reconcile with one another in very practical ways. It is argued that this will give rise to a new, more appropriate, system of urban land governance where a much broader set of interests are served.

Photo credit: Mark Napier
Hardcopy available to buy from an external seller