Urban land and conflict in the global South

by Melanie Lombard, Global Urban Research Centre, School of Environment and Development

In an urbanising world, land is a critical issue. In cities of the global South, where most urbanisation is taking place, where and how people access land is one of the most pressing concerns for citizens and states alike. However, land as a resource is subject to scarcity, whether actual or market driven, and is often associated with urban conflict. The insecure tenure deriving from informal transactions is seen as a source of wider insecurity; the interests of informal settlers and private commercial interests frequently conflict; contestation of urban spaces between non-state actors and state actors is common; and the latter often perceive informal land development as unruly and conflictual because it is not regulated by state law. Meanwhile, widespread attempts to implement legalisation programmes are themselves contentious, as land tenure processes are often ‘complicated, political and violent’ (Durand-Lasserve and Royston 2002, 241). However, relatively little is known about the precise causes and consequences of land conflict in rapidly urbanising cities.

These were some of the considerations that informed the agenda for a workshop on ‘Urban land and conflict in the global South’, hosted by the Global Urban Research Centre at the University of Manchester on 14 March 2013. Funded by cities@manchester and the Institute for Development Policy and Management, the event brought together a diverse group of (mainly) early career researchers, presenting work on these themes from a variety of fields including urban planning, urban studies, development studies, and conflict management, carried out in diverse contexts including South Africa, Namibia, Mexico, Cambodia, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey. We were accompanied by colleagues from the University of Manchester who introduced and chaired sessions, as well as Professor Carole Rakodi of Birmingham University, and Dr Leonith Hinojosa of the Open University, who as discussants offered incisive comments on the content of the papers, drawing on their own extensive research experience in these fields.

The broad aim of the day was to bring an interdisciplinary perspective to exploring the relationship between urban land and conflict in cities of the global South, including the linkages between land conflict and violence in the urban setting, and policy responses to this. The quality of the presentations and ensuing discussions resulted in a fascinating and stimulating workshop. At the end of the day, considering how to develop future research agendas in this area, several key themes which offered particular analytical challenges stood out, namely: defining conflict in diverse urban settings; interrogating categories used to understand land development and conflict and to devise policy responses; identifying relevant actors and examining the connections between them; and incorporating scale into the analysis.

Defining conflict

Urban conflict – understood as social tensions, antagonisms and the ‘many forms of low-level instability’ (Beall et al. 2011, 5) that occur frequently in the urban environment – does not necessarily result in violence and so tends to receive less research and policy attention than civil war or violent insurgency. However, ‘protracted social conflict’ (Azar et al. 1978), marked by successive violent episodes, is arguably more common and more intractable; and although less visible, latent or everyday conflict may be equally damaging for local populations. Conceptions of conflict need to be rethought in urban contexts, to take account of the diversity of urban social and political contexts, plural legal and governance systems, and the tendency for land conflict to overlap with and be exacerbated by ethnic or other identity-based tensions, blurring the boundary between ‘divided cities’ and ‘peaceful’ ones. For instance, Kamna Patel’s paper on urban upgrading in South Africa considered how the characteristics of urban settings influence land-related conflict, particularly the ways in which identity may influence claims and contestations.

Interrogating categories

Typically, processes of urban land development are characterised as either ‘formal’ or ‘informal’, and the ‘formal’ (tenure and related arrangements governed by state law, administration and policy) tends to be privileged, despite persistent critiques of this dichotomous framework (e.g. Roy 2005). A second challenge, then, is to interrogate hierarchical categories and their implications for understanding and addressing urban land conflict. A common response to urban land conflict has been attempted tenure formalisation. Colin Marx’s research from South Africa showed how this is underpinned by a categorisation of land management practices into ‘formal’ and ‘informal’. As a ‘solution’ to informal land tenure, formalisation is often preferable to displacement, an issue explored in Philippa McMahon’s paper on relocation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; but Beth Chitekwe-Biti’s work on upgrading in Namibia suggested that it may reproduce as much as ameliorate poor residents’ vulnerability to insecurity and exacerbate conflict.

Identifying actors

Essential to any analysis of the links between urban land and conflict is an understanding of the role of the state and other diverse actors. Environmental governance perspectives suggest focusing on resource coordination processes involving multiple actors (Budds and Hinojosa 2012); equally important is the power dimension underpinning the state’s fluctuating relations with other actors. Sara Fregonese’s paper on hybrid sovereignties in Beirut, Lebanon suggested the need to move beyond state/non-state dichotomies in the context of urban territorial conflict, while Sobia Kaker’s paper showed how land conflict emerges through ‘enclavisation’ in Karachi, Pakistan, when urban residents re-territorialise ordinary neighbourhood spaces in response to the state’s failure to address urban insecurity. In particular, state-market relations may determine intervention, in turn affecting state-citizen relations, as shown in Ozlem Celik’s work from Istanbul, Turkey. The third challenge is thus to identify the key actors involved in land conflict in particular urban settings, and the specific relations between them.

Incorporating scale

Finally, it is important to consider scale in analysing the development of urban land conflict. In my own work on local land conflict in two provincial Mexican cities, I explore the influence and interaction of global, national and regional factors on urban land conflict. However, multi-scalar approaches must incorporate local agency, relating to local power systems but also neighbourhood and household dynamics, where everyday conflicts frequently emerge and may be resolved, as suggested by several of the presentations.

Taken together, these four analytical challenges support the need to develop a further theoretical and empirical research agenda in this as yet under-researched field. While there has been considerable discussion of land conflict in rural contexts (Pons-Vignon and Solignac Lecomte 2004, USAID 2005, Huggins 2010, Development and Change 2013), it remains relatively underexplored in the urban setting. Some previous works have considered land tenure and urban poverty (e.g. Durand-Lasserve and Royston 2002; Payne 2002) and conflict within urban land delivery systems (e.g. IDPR 2006), and there have been some attempts to assess policy interventions (e.g. Payne et al 2009). In addition, attention to conflict in urban areas has increased in recent years (e.g. Beall et al 2011; Moser and Horn 2011; Moser and Rodgers 2012). However, the specific land-conflict nexus remains curiously under-researched in the urban environment, perhaps because it is often difficult and risky to research conflict and violence, and because interventions that explicitly seek to address poor people’s needs may challenge powerful economic and political vested interests. Nevertheless, continued rapid urbanisation; the effects of wider conflicts on urban areas and their roles in post-conflict situations; cities’ contribution to national economic development; and the evolving links between investors and property interests at global, national and local levels all make a pressing case for further exploration of these issues. The workshop provided a first step in this direction, and hopefully offered a platform for future collaboration between researchers in this field.



Azar, E., Jureidini, P. and McLaurin, R. (1978) ‘Protracted Social Conflict: Theory and Practice in the Middle East’ Journal of Palestine Studies 8(1), 41-60.

Beall, J., Goodfellow, T. and Rodgers, D. (2011) Cities, Conflict and State Fragility. Crisis States Working Paper Series No.2. London School of Economics.

Budds, J. and Hinojosa, L. (2012) ‘Restructuring and rescaling water governance in mining contexts: The co-production of waterscapes in Peru’ Water Alternatives 5(1), 119-137.

Development and Change (2013) Special issue: Governing the global land grab: The role of the state in the rush for land. 44(2), 189-471.

Durand-Lasserve, A. and Royston, L. (eds.) (2002) Holding their Ground: Secure Land Tenure for the Urban Poor in Developing Countries. London: Earthscan.

Huggins, C. (2010) Land, Power and Identity, Roots of violent conflict in Eastern DRC. London: International Alert.

International Development Planning Review (2006) Special Issue on conflict and accommodation in land delivery processes in African cities. 28(2), 127-285.

Moser, C. and Horn, P. (2011) Understanding the Tipping Point of Urban Conflict: Conceptual Framework Paper, Manchester: University of Manchester, Understanding the Tipping Point of Urban Conflict WP#1.

Moser, C. and Rodgers, D. (2012) Understanding the Tipping Point of Urban Conflict: Global Policy Report, Manchester: University of Manchester Understanding the Tipping Point of Urban Conflict WP#2.

Payne, G. (ed.) (2002) Land, Rights and Innovation, Improving Tenure Security for the Urban Poor. London: ITDG Publishing.

Payne, G., Durand-Lasserve, A. and Rakodi, C. (2009) The limits of land titling and home ownership, Environment and Urbanization, 21(2), 443-62.

Pons-Vignon, N. and Solignac Lecomte, H. (2004) Land, Violent Conflict and Development. Paris: OECD.

Roy, A. (2005) ‘Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning’ Journal of the American Planning Association 71(2), 147-158.

USAID (2005) Land and Conflict, A toolkit for intervention. Washington, DC: US Agency for International Development


2 thoughts on “Urban land and conflict in the global South

  1. Pingback: Back in March I took part in the “Urban land and conflict in the global South” workshop organized by Melanie Lombard of the Global Urban Research Centre at the University of Manchester. It was a good occasion to reflect on urban conflict in th

  2. Pingback: “Urban land and conflict in the global South” workshop | everydaygeopolitics

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