This blog is part of SIID in the Spotlight #SIIDspotlight

Melanie Lombard is a Lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. She has been working with Carole Rakodi (University of Birmingham) on a special issue of Urban Studies which presents five papers exploring specific cases of urban land conflict.

2016 is a significant year for the global urban development community. In October, the third Habitat conference is being held in Quito, Ecuador. Elaborate preparatory processes have aimed to ensure that the conference tackles the issues most crucial to the achievement of equitable, efficient and sustainable urban growth and management. During the conference, it is hoped that delegates from all the UN member countries will agree a Declaration on Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements for All, setting out a new global urban agenda.

Yet it is arguable that the deliberations and the agenda of this conference are not giving sufficient attention to one key issue: land, and particularly conflict over land, should be more central. In cities of the Global South, access to land is a pressing concern. Typically neither states nor markets provide suitable land for all users, especially low-income households. In the context of urban growth and inequality, acute competition for land and the regulatory failures of states may result in violent conflict. Conflicts over urban land undermine land management and planning systems, add to bottlenecks in the court system, and may lead to violent clashes if unresolved. Policy measures such as registration or improved land use planning are often justified, amongst other things, on the basis that they will help to reduce land conflict.

However, most accounts refer to such conflicts only in passing. The dynamics of conflict related to urban land are rarely examined in depth, perhaps because it is risky to do so. For example, while the Habitat III issue paper on urban land mentions the impact of internal displacement on urban areas, the need to protect rural landholders’ rights in peri-urban areas affected by urban expansion, and the increased competition for land following sea level rise, none of these are examined in any detail.

The draft New Urban Agenda, which has already undergone several iterations at preparatory meetings, refers briefly to the effects of land conflicts arising from informal settlement integration and wider civil conflict. In addition, several of its recommended ‘development levers’ (policies and actions) relate to land, such as planned city extension. However, the possibility that conflict over land might undermine policy implementation is not recognised. Meanwhile, the 2016 report Urbanization and Development – Emerging Futures, which identifies key implementation issues for the New Urban Agenda, refers to conflicts arising from urban inequality and redevelopment, but does not contain a specific chapter on land. Such omissions are surprising, given that equitable access to, and sound management of, land is central to transformative change.

These omissions also make the publication of this special issue of Urban Studies very timely. The publication originated from the authors’ shared frustration at the lack of thorough understanding of urban land conflict, particularly in terms of the actors involved, the relationships between them, the role of land administration systems and the efficacy of existing conflict resolution mechanisms. A key concern is that policies and practices intended to reduce conflict over land have the potential to exacerbate it instead. These points are addressed across the papers in this special issue, which are based on ground-breaking research in challenging contexts including Xalapa, Mexico; Juba, South Sudan; Nairobi, Kenya; and eThekwini (Durban) and Johannesburg, South Africa.

Our editorial introduction sketches out a framework for land conflict analysis. We suggest that such analysis must, first, consider definitional categories, including the material and affective dimensions of access to land, conflict and violence, and tenure. Second, it needs to identity and examine the interests and behaviour of the many actors involved in land conflicts. And third, it needs to analyse the interactions and relationships between those involved at different levels: from the individual/household, through the local to the citywide, national and international. It is only from such grounded and detailed research, exploring the drivers, dynamics and outcomes of urban land conflicts, that well-informed, appropriate policies and practices will arise.

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