Trading Places: Accessing Land in African Cities

Trading Places is a welcome addition to the critical literature that examines the intersection and collision of structure and agency in the operation of urban land markets in Africa. The authors deserve to be congratulated for producing a readable multidisciplinary book that introduces a fundamental discussion about the co-construction of urban spaces through land markets that are managed and articulated through a variety of governance regimes.

A central argument in the book is that there is need for innovative urban planning and management approaches that address access to land challenges not from the traditional top-down perspective but from a multidimensional perspective that allows for a simultaneous bottom-up and top-down gaze.

The political economy of African countries is dominated by cities with a mosaic of formal and informal land markets whose operation has influenced the socio-spatial geographies of urban areas through the creation of an urban divide. This urban divide is a symptom of systemic dysfunction. The authors argue that poor land administration and registration systems conspire to undermine the proper functioning of land markets and this has given rise to corrupt land practices which disadvantage and marginalise the poor.

Trading Places is a collective effort of urban policy and planning experts whose work with the Urban LandMark Programme has influenced policy making and has contributed to academic debate. Philip Harrison, who is the South African Research Chair in Development Planning and Modelling at the University of the Witwatersrand, aptly observes in the foreword that the book provides an analytical perspective that is informed by rich empirical work and its policy suggestions are ‘pragmatically grounded in the realities of governance and everyday urban life’ (p. ix). The co-editors, Mark Napier, Stephen Berrisford, Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, Rob McGaffin and Lauren Royston, identify and problematise urban planning and governance practices that have failed to deliver pro-poor urban outcomes across the African continent.

Trading Places provides insights into the complexities around the operation of urban land markets and it challenges us to think differently about space and land policies in African cities. I found the book thought provoking, especially its interrogation of how local land practices, land governance and land markets interact in complex ways that influence the manner in which urban residents access land in order to construct their livelihoods. The book also presents a convincing analysis of how the state and markets can produce land policies and practices that are both equitable and inclusive and which recognize the opportunities and barriers experienced by the poor. The authors argue for an alternative approach which recognizes the local practices used to access and manage urban land in order to strengthen the agency of the poor.

In arguments that are spread throughout its five chapters, the book challenges the conventional wisdom regarding how the state and markets often collaborate to produce more equitable land policies and practices that are inclusive. In Chapter 1, ‘Land markets in African cities: Time for a new lens?’, Napier questions how urban residents manage to access land and shelter under conditions whereby the formal governance system and formal land markets are failing to supply land for housing. His overview of the state of the debates around urban land in Africa is useful and so is his argument that land and urban development systems in African cities should cope with complex land markets in a just and equitable manner.

In Chapter 2, ‘Defining markets: A set of transactions between actors’, McGaffin and Wanjika Kihato unpack ways to understand more clearly the complexity of urban land markets in Africa and how governments can improve market functionality by mediating access to land on an equitable basis in order to manage the various competing interests of urban residents. In Chapter 3, ‘In the meantime…Moving towards secure tenure by recognizing local practice’, Royston articulates the agency of urban residents who have no choice but to engage in land markets under challenging conditions that are attributable to unresponsive land governance systems. Royston poses the following pertinent questions: “Is it feasible to bridge the divide in urban land markets between formal/official/legal on the one hand, and informal/local/practice on the other? Is it possible to fit together pieces of this puzzle that don’t quite match, and adjust and adopt practice to produce more tenure security?’ (p.48). Unfortunately, based on the experiences of Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa cited in the book, one would be quite reluctant to answer the questions in the affirmative because while informal urban land practices that adjudicate rights enable some poor urban residents to occupy or own land, their rights to land remain insecure because informal practices remain outside of the law and this renders them technically illegal. Furthermore, the ambiguity in the processes of acquiring land opens up opportunities for corruption, which works against the poor who often end up being unprotected. In view of this, there is considerable merit in the argument made in the chapter that ‘improving tenure security is a foundation for improved access to land’ (p.50).

In chapter 4, ‘Getting land governance right in sub-Saharan cities: more than land administration,’ Berrisford succinctly exposes how urban land is governed and highlights the roots of regulatory intervention failures. Berrisford concludes on a positive note by observing that building an inclusive system of land governance is achievable ‘through initiatives that are grounded in a pragmatic understanding of how urban land markets function’ (p.90). In chapter 5, Choices and decisions: Locating the poor in urban markets, Wanjika Kihato and Napier review the debates and evidence that have been presented in the book and they provide well thought out recommendations for practice. Although large number of land transactions in urban areas take place outside the officially recognised systems and structures of land management and property ownership. Wanjika Kihato and Napier contest the notion that the poor have their own land economy where the transactions ‘do not follow a logic similar to those in formal land management systems and thus should be treated differently’ (p.102).

This book effectively highlights the hybridized ways used by the urban poor to access, hold and trade urban land, and how local practices shape the city. The well-researched arguments and the lucid style of writing make this book appealing. This book not only explains how problems around urban land markets arise but it also presents some innovative ideas on how to address them. However, if there is going to be a second edition of Trading Places it should consider providing more case studies and examples from other regions on the continent, especially West Africa where innovative approaches have been used by the poor to access urban land. Another lacuna in the book is the omission of an index, the inclusion of which would have enhanced ease of use. Finally, Trading Places is highly recommended for scholars of urban studies, urban planners, social scientists and policy makers. Professor Daniel Tevera is Head of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.


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This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat