Land Governance: Catalyst for Sustainable Urban Development

By Danilo Antonio

Without land reforms, sustainable urbanisation is set to fail, argues Danilo Antonio from UN-Habitat. In his article, he outlines the conflicting interests around land governance issues and points out ways to secure land access and property rights for all urban dwellers.

Urbanisation is unstoppable. Alongside this development trend is the tremendous challenge of the so-called “mushrooming” of informal settlements inside and around the city proper at a relatively rapid rate. It is transforming city landscapes and setting the tone to another emerging phenomenon – the urbanisation of poverty. By 2030, 60 per cent or about 5 billion of the world’s population will live in urban areas; 78 per cent will be dwelling in less developed regions, and the urban slum population is expected to increase to 1.4 billion by 2020. While there are renewed commitments by governments and urban champions around the world to address these issues through the adoption and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) and New Urban Agenda, these issues will most likely remain ‘pending’ for a long time if we are not able to address the pressing land governance challenges.

Sustainable urban development is impossible to achieve without responsible land governance. Land governance cuts across most of the key requirements for inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities and human settlements. Without land tenure security, there is no point of investing in adequate shelter for hundreds of millions of people and in basic infrastructure and services. Without reliable land information, there is no point in planning cities and human settlements, road networks, urban services, city extensions, and ecological improvements. Without land as an economic asset, there will be little progress in financially sustaining cities’ growth and expansion. Indeed, land (governance) is key for success and sustainability.

The Land Governance Challenge

Formally defined, land governance is about the decisions that are made about access to land and its use, the manner in which these decisions are implemented and enforced, and the way that competing interests in land are managed1. However, it is important to keep in mind that land governance is inherently connected to power and the political economy of land. In most urban areas, the more powerful (and richer) you are, the stronger forms of tenure you are able to secure, while most of the poor and vulnerable groups normally have weaker, more insecure forms of tenure.

70 per cent of the world’s population is outside the formal registration system regarding the land they dwell on, which means that their right to land has no legal documentation and recognition. Hence, they are landless, land poor or have tenure insecurity. In many countries, this means they are not counted as citizens and have no right to government services. A significant percentage of this population lives in slums and informal settlements. This is, in my view, the greatest land governance challenge in the context of a rapidly urbanising world.

While we envision ‘a world with no one left behind’, as the Sustainable Development Goal agenda outlines, more than one billion people are still living in slums and informal settlements. While they are trying to make ends meet, they also have to deal with the fear of being evicted or resettled elsewhere on a daily basis. We urgently need a people-centred land governance approach as a central component of sustainable urban development.

Land Governance Opportunities

Paragraph 35 of the New Urban Agenda gives us the ‘green’ light towards responsible land governance approaches. It says, ‘We commit ourselves to promoting, at the appropriate level of government, including subnational and local government, increased security of tenure for all, recognizing the plurality of tenure types, and to developing fit-for-purpose and age-, gender- and environment-responsive solutions within the continuum of land and property rights, with particular attention to security of land tenure for women as key to their empowerment, including through effective administrative systems’.

Goal 11 of the SDGs sets the parameters for us to improve cities and human settlements. Under Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere, Indicator 1.4.2 states, ‘Proportion of total adult population with secure tenure rights to land, with legally recognized documentation and who perceive their rights to land as secure’. There are other international frameworks that have endorsed land (governance) as a vehicle for human rights recognition, peacekeeping and sustainable development. These international commitments are great opportunities for us to move sustainable urban development to the next level through responsible land governance approaches.

Demystifying Land Governance

Addressing land governance issues is often perceived as difficult, expensive, politically contentious and time-consuming. Decision makers including politicians will normally shy away from untangling the land mess and will simply point to bureaucrats and technical experts to address them. Addressing land governance issues would mean dealing with corruption and malpractices, questioning the current system where the powerful elites and politicians normally own huge tracts of land, and going against people in the public and private sector who have vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

However, if we follow this perception, then sustainable development in general is simply not attainable at all. Therefore, not only is it a must for us to address land governance challenges, it is also the right thing to do, and has to be done in a most effective and efficient manner. Land governance is about power and economic interests. Therefore, the solution lies with the people in power and in politics. They can institute the much needed legal and institutional land governance reforms through the development of sound policies, the enforcement of laws and regulations, and the implementation of fit-for-purpose and people-centred solutions.

With genuine consultations and in partnership with the majority of urban dwellers, a viable solution can be achieved. It is indeed complex, chaotic and cumbersome for many, but the potential impacts are far greater than the perceived difficulties. Land governance solutions will require good intentions and genuine partnerships, responsive policies and legislations, practical tools and solutions and shared resources and responsibilities. If not addressed soon, inequalities will continue, and other sustainable development goals will be delayed or not be achieved at all.

Securing Land and Property Rights for All

Where do we start? Let us start by bringing poor people into the conversation as equal partners, by recognising they exist, that they have a right to the city just like everyone else and that they play an integral part in sustainable urban development. Securing land rights of the urban poor is a single and most significant step towards achieving a better urban future. When people have stronger tenure security, they will have more confidence investing in housing and settlement improvements. They will have stronger voices in addressing social, economic, political, and ecological issues, and they will be in a better position to contribute to sustainable urban development. When more people are in the official government records system, land information will be more complete and reliable, planning and decision making processes will be more evidence-based and urban governance will be more transparent, accountable, and effective overall.

How to make it work? In recent years, many good policies, practices, and programmes have emerged and continue to emerge in the pursuit of securing land rights for the urban poor. Some of these are worth mentioning here:

  • More inclusive, participatory, and bottom-up approaches and partnerships are needed. Urban dwellers should be equal partners of the interventions and they can provide alternative, better, and lasting solutions. For example, in many developing countries, city administrators are now consulting and working with poor urban communities in addressing their land and housing issues.
  • There are many ways to improve tenure security; land titling is just one option. Many organisations are now adopting a continuum of land rights approach or diverse tenure types or tenure options towards improving tenure security. For example, land sharing, land swapping, long-term leasing, issue of land use and occupation permits, temporary licensing, issue of community land titles/certificates, etc. can be adopted as an alternative option to the issue of individual freehold land titles.
  • If we are to scale up land tenure security interventions, we cannot rely on conventional cadaster and land administration approaches anymore. Fit-for-purpose solutions provide opportunities for land administration systems to deliver benefits, including secure tenure rights for all, to a wide range of stakeholders within a relatively short time and for relatively affordable costs in a flexible manner.
  • Information is power, but shared information is more powerful. In most cases, government authorities have the land information they need, but this information is not necessarily shared with urban communities, other government agencies, and civil society organisations. The result is duplication of work, waste of time and resources, and conflicting information. Without reliable land information, policies, plans, and projects will be difficult to implement or will simply fail.
    Technology can help out with this problem. It is now more accessible to even more people including organised grassroots communities. Indeed, the use of IT and communication systems, satellite imagery, hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS), open and free software packages and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to record existing tenure rights and to create reliable and up-to-date land information is no longer the exclusive privilege of the educated elites.
  • Pro-poor and gender responsive land tools and solutions exist and are available for free. In many instances, these tools have been tested and implemented on the ground and produce impacts. There is no need to re-invent the wheel. For example, the Global Land Tool Network (GLTN), composed of international organisations working on land tenure issues has been developing and disseminating land governance tools for many years. These tools can be freely downloaded from their website.

Responsible land governance is key to bringing sustainable urban development efforts to the next level. The SDGs and the New Urban Agenda include strong land governance components and provide great opportunities for us to address land governance challenges. Securing land and property rights for all, and particularly for the urban poor, women, and vulnerable groups is the most significant single step for a better urban future.

Danilo Antonio

Danilo Antonio

Danilo R. Antonio is the lead and coordinator of country operations and tools development of the Global Land Tool Network (GLTN) Program. For 10 years, he has worked with UN-Habitat on various global, regional and country interventions. His works has included supervising projects, land tools development (e.g. STDM, participatory enumerations, land use planning, etc.), network coordination, capacity development, knowledge and awareness building. Danilo R. Antonio is a land surveyor by training and holds a Master's degree in Land Tenure and Land Management from the Technical University of Munich, Germany. Prior to joining UN-Habitat, he held senior government positions in large-scale land governance programs in the Philippines.
Danilo Antonio

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