Jump to content

Africa’s growing cities: how do people adapt?

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

More on urban governance from Eldis...

Effects of urbanization on economic growth and human capital formation in Africa
Program on the Global Demography of Aging 2014
Africa’s population is expected to grow to 2.3 billion by 2050, of whom 60% will be urban. This urbanisation is an important challenge for the next few decades. According to several research papers and reports, Africa’s ur...
Incrementally securing tenure in urban and peri-­‐urban Mozambique: an exploration of the evidence base and strategy proposals
L. Royston / Urban LandMark 2013
The increase in the population of Mozambican cities is determined essentially by natural growth and by migration from the countryside into the cities; this has resulted in a proliferation of informal settlements. The current report ex...
50 years of urbanization in Africa: examining the role of climate change
J.V. Henderson; A. Storeygard; U. Deichmann / World Bank 2014
For the last 50 years, much of Africa has experienced a decline in moisture availability with the strongest decline happening in areas that were already relatively dry. This trend has affected agricultural productivity and contributed...
World Disasters Report 2010: Focus on Urban Risk
International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies 2010
This report provides suggestions on how high disaster risk within developing countries cities can be reduced. It also highlights how, in a globalised world, a deficiency on one side of the world can create problems for all. The author...
The state of African cities 2010: governance, inequality and urban land markets
D. Simon; M. Serageldin; C. Gueye / Urban LandMark 2010
In the early 2040s, African cities will collectively be home to one billion, equivalent to the continent’s total population in 2009. This book argues that since cities are the future habitat for the majority of Africans, African...
Trading places: accessing land in African cities
M. Napier; S. Berrisford; C.W. Kihato / Urban LandMark 2013
The developing world is urbanising fast, and new systems of urban land ownership, transfer and governance are emerging. This book tries to explain how these systems work and how they interface with wider markets and with existing land...
Voice of developers and municipalities: creating more inclusive cities through co-operation
M. Oranje; J.D. Toit; K. Landman / Urban LandMark 2010
A key challenge facing post-apartheid urban spatial form in South Africa is building inclusive and equitable cities that provide the poor greater access to well-located residential and commercial land. This paper provides an in-depth ...
Improving access to the city through value capture: an overview of capturing and allocating value created through the development of transport infrastructure in South Africa
R. McGaffin; L. Gavera / Urban LandMark 2012
Horticulture is an African export success story, particularly in Kenya and Zimbabwe. Can producers maintain or improve upon their positions in highly competitive markets? Will changes in international trade policy make a difference? I...
Incrementally securing tenure: promising practices in informal settlement upgrading in southern Africa
L. Royston / Urban LandMark 2013
Known as the “urbanisation of poverty”, about 62% of people today in towns and cities in sub-Saharan Africa live in informal settlements. The current paper reveals that land management in these conditions is under extreme ...
Managing urban land: a guide for municipal practitioners
A.H. Tshangana; T. Görgens / Urban LandMark 2011
In South African cities and towns, formal access to urban land is severely skewed towards a privileged minority, and local government as a sphere of government is duty-bound to reverse inequality and poverty. In this sense, the curren...
Land governance in South Africa: implementing the Land Governance Assessment Framework
F. Kitchin; W. Ovens / Urban LandMark 2013
The Land Governance Assessment Framework (LGAF) is an innovative and participatory diagnostic tool that assesses the state of land governance in a country. This booklet summarises the results of the LGAF process in South Africa. ...



Mark Napier is a Principal Researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa. He led the Urban Land Markets Southern Africa Programme from 2006 until 2013.