I’m Colin Marx from the Bartlett Development Planning Unit. This brief overview makes two points about urban land, in order to challenge the view that there’s only one way of thinking about urban land that matters. First, that there are many forms of urban land in African cities. And second, that thinking about many forms of urban land is fundamental for creating alternative approaches to urban land that are more supportive of poor women’s and men’s livelihoods. I begin by demonstrating the ways in which urban land can be differentiated. An important starting point is to think of a particular parcel of land as having many coexisting meanings, functions, and values.
It’s commonly accepted that land can be a resource, an asset, a source of identity, a territory, and so on. What is less commonly accepted, but perhaps more important, is that a single parcel of land can simultaneously have all these meanings, functions, and values. We can say that these meanings, functions, and values coexist.
In order to make this differentiation possible and visible, we need to assume that many different people can simultaneously have a valid and valuable interest, or connection, to a specific parcel. For example, a father living in an informal settlement close to the centre of town, can value the piece of land for the educational amenities it offers his children, at the same time as a developer may be valuing it as part of a commercial development. At the same time, the father could think of the value of land differently as a self-employed artisan in the informal economy, and the developer could be thinking about the cultural constraints that are associated with a customary history of the land.
Thus, part of the diversity in interests and values comes from a recognition that we all have multiple social identities that emerge in relation to others. We value land differently when cast as a sister, investor, owner, father, worker, or planner, and in relation to people adopting other social identities. Of course, social identities are not the only factor in determining the meaning, function, or value, of land. The different histories of land and how these are changing are also crucial, often giving meaning to social identities themselves. So that, customary land has a different history to church land, and owners of customary land are seen differently to owners of historically defined church land.
This leads on to the second point that this diversity is fundamental for creating alternative approaches. Then almost unimaginable diversity of ways in which urban land has a meaning, function, or value, makes it possible for people to find their way into the city to access, acquire, hold, or exchange land, and this diversity is important for a city to flourish, because people can create value, offer services, and make things happen. The diversity on which this depends cannot be accounted for in current urban planning approaches.
While this diversity makes it possible for people to find their way into the city to develop themselves and grow the city, the ability to adopt certain social identities are not distributed equally. For example, in many African cities, women can be sisters, mothers, workers, business owners, and so on, but rarely be landowners. Or, foreign nationals can be shopkeepers or artisans, but rarely landowners. Thus, the diversity of social identities, and histories, of land and cities are cut across by particular fault lines that make it difficult for all to access land equally.
In amongst this diversity, with its particular fault lines then, we come to the key point - that it is all the more remarkable that only one way of understanding the meaning, function, and value of land is privileged as being important. That is, the view that the most important way of thinking about urban land is that it conforms to statutory planning standards, and is held with formal title. And consequent upon this view that, when they are acknowledged, any other way of thinking about land is somehow substandard to this view.
In sum, in order to create the basis for securing more supportive approaches to poor women’s and men’s livelihoods, there is a need to challenge singular descriptions of urban land and recognise that the diversity of ways in which land has meanings, functions, and values, is important, but also already contains inequalities that need to be addressed.