Webcast Recap

On September 14, 2006 the Comparative Urban Studies Project hosted a seminar to examine "Access to Urban Land." The first panel discussed challenges facing squatter communities, highlighting lessons learned from community-led innovations. Jockin Arputham, president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation in Mumbai, India described how he became involved in advocacy work for the poor. Giving his personal account as a slum dweller, Arputham discussed the threat of eviction and insecure tenure, detailing the effect of India's post-independence policies from 1952-1965 to evict all slums. As he witnessed his community being destroyed, Arputham joined together with his neighbors to protest the demolition of their homes. Although these community activists managed to gain public popularity and solidarity for their cause, they did not have the tools or institutional legitimacy to follow up. They joined with the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC) to fight government action in Bombay's slums. SPARC started by working with pavement dwellers or "the poorest of the poor" to help them gain security of tenure. They adhere to the philosophy that if it's possible to help the most marginalized populations, solutions can be scaled up to work with other groups of the urban poor.

Sheela Patel, Director of SPARC, described how the crisis of land tenure is not acknowledged by the current development paradigm based on competing urban and rural interests. In almost all countries, land security or tenure entitlements are taken--not given. Tenure is a political issue involving negotiation and processes determined by government officials who view the city as "a location to make money for political parties and for self." While many countries have signed the UN resolution to grant security of tenure, most cities have not acted upon this commitment. The poor, in turn, view the rhetoric of cities with cynicism. Dialogue with the poor, said Patel, only arises when they become a serious impediment to investment and the overall development plan of a city. She supports the idea of poor people working collectively to do what they cannot do alone. This ‘federation model' produces internal capacity to sustain mobilization, produce knowledge, and build the confidence and capacity of the poor to manage extended negotiations. Patel admits that organizations like SPARC serve to manage and ‘sanitize' the mess that real community processes represent, encouraging top professionals to produce efficient development strategies. As globalization links the world together, Patel argues that it also has produced opportunities that demand community leaders to engage with global discourse, challenge it, and demand local accountability from global actors.

Robert Neuwirth, author of the book, Shadow Cities, challenged that secure tenure is the goal, yet not what the initial demand should be. To keep pace with the 200,000 migrants from rural areas who arrive in cities each day 35 million housing units would need to be built annually, stated Neuwirth. No one can be expected to do this except for the people who live in those settlements. Squatters are the largest builders of housing in the world, demonstrating a tremendous amount of resourcefulness and commerce. Over time, squatter communities around the world are making their dwellings more secure. By organizing to demand infrastructure and access to services, such as water, sewage and electricity, squatter settlements become a de facto legal part of the city, argued Neuwirth. Access to political structures from the bottom-up can lead to services for the urban poor. Once this has happened, we can talk about models of secure tenure, Neuwirth concluded.

The second panel of speakers discussed the role that international organizations should play in helping the poor gain access to urban land. Cate Ambrose, chief of Advocacy and External Relations for the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, detailed how her organization bridges the divide between the informal and formal sectors, counting on the political will and commitment of all parties involved. Ambrose argued that policy recommendations are only effective if they are implemented on a national scale. Advocates and policy makers need to understand the complexity of exclusion, identifying and replicating successful models to change systems. An enabling environment for empowerment should include property and labor rights, drawing upon the political will of global policy makers.

Robert Buckley, lead economist for the Transport and Urban Development Department of the World Bank, emphasized the importance of politics in addressing access to land. The next step is not bottom-up, said Buckley, but rather for international institutions to reach down and connect with community organizations. Increasing income is the best way to improve housing, yet the fiscal structure of cities complicates service provision. Drawing on game theory, Buckley discussed mechanisms to ensure that communities pay for the services they receive.

William Cobbett, manager of Cities Alliance, argued that weak state and local governments have failed to regularize, formalize and provide services to the urban poor who confront eviction, displacement and settlement on dangerous land. According to Cobbett, land issues are settled in the context of weak judicial systems that lack proper land titling systems and resolution mechanisms, making slums big business for landlords. Cobbett detailed three key challenges for international organizations: 1) to better understand the mechanics of land and tenure; 2) while security of tenure needs to be measured, its form must be determined at the local level; and, 3) policies and strategies must be aimed at preventing the next generation of slums. The strategy for cities of all sizes is to manage urban growth at the local level. While there is no single solution, organizations such as Cities Alliance can make a contribution by linking policies and institutions, recognizing urban growth as key to poverty alleviation. This urban agenda does not come at the expense of the rural future, Cobbett concluded.

The final panel of speakers provided the state of knowledge in urban research to reflect upon the need for integrated and articulated responses to urban land issues. Edesio Fernandes, associate lecturer at the University College of London and CUSP advisory board member, argued that it is misleading to think that informal development is a good option. Informality carries serious environmental, social, political and legal costs. Yet institutional responses to the phenomenon of informal access to urban land and housing have been fragmented, sectoral, under funded and inadequate in addressing the root causes of the problem. Programs need to be part of a broader set of public policies, Fernandes stated. The scale of interventions needs to be reconciled with technical criteria, institutional capacity for action, financial resources, and the nature of rights. The scale of the problem can't be tackled through individual ownership, said Fernandes, detailing collective legal solutions. Limited resources, he concluded, are best applied to preventing informal settlements. Solutions will not result from market forces or state action in isolation, but rather from a socio-political pact that guarantees the security necessary to encourage investment in housing and business.

Martim Smolka, senior fellow and director of the Program on Latin America and the Caribbean at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, agreed that the market is not supplying serviced urban land for the poor. Rather, informality and urban poverty are increasing. Smolka argued that tenure regularization programs must be revisited, to take a preventive rather than curative urban upgrading approach. Citing the success of the USME project in Bogotá, Colombia and the "social urbanizer" program in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Smolka proposed a third path to facilitate access to land for the poor. These cases offer an alternative to tolerance and subsidy models, which can often contribute to increased informality.