PhD Defence Reshma Shrestha

understanding urban land governance through "action space": implications for access to land for low-income housing in managing informal settlements

Reshma Shrestha is a PhD student in the department of Urban and Regional Planning and Geo-Information Management. Her supervisor is J.A. Zevenbergen from the Faculty of Geo-information Science and Earth Observation.

Informal settlement is a worldwide issue that has existed for several decades depicting a struggle of informal settlers for the legal recognition of the occupied space. To tackle this issue, two types of approaches are being widely adopted;

i) The reactive approach, for example, in-situ upgrading and relocating in other places, and

ii) The proactive approach, for example, providing low-income housing thus, preventing illegal occupation of land for shelter purposes.

Nonetheless, various studies have shown that such settlements continue to be prevalent, particularly in the Global South; as a result of weak governance in general and urban land governance in particular.

Governance is a theoretical concept expressed in terms of “shifting patterns of responsibility” between government and non-government sectors leading to a blurring of boundaries between them. It is further articulated as integrated action within networks of key actors: Government, Market, and Civil Society. The network consist of patterns of relations between mutually dependent actors, consisting of a web of relationships between government, market and civil society actors, which interact in public policy formulation and implementation. The actors in the network are dependent on one another, as they are required to exchange resources to achieve goals. In addition, the actors in the network are autonomous actors and each have their own logic guiding their action, which are often competing. Therefore, the major challenges in governance are about bringing the competing logic of three key actors together.

The concept of governance such as water governance, environmental governance, urban governance and land governance, are brought into practice by various leading international organizations like the United Nations (UN), World Bank, FAO, UN-Habitat, GLTN and many more in various sectors. Moreover, it is realized that cross-sectoral governance is necessary for achieving global agenda like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Urban land governance, referred in this study, is a crossing-cutting of urban governance and land governance, that aims to tackle the urban governance issues of managing informal settlements by providing low-income housing, for which access to land for low-income housing is a land governance issue.

The literature on various initiatives taken by international organizations and, academic institutions regarding urban governance and land governance converges to the two types of gaps in urban land governance. These are, the Conceptual Gap; which should bring together the government, market and civil society actors by reconciling their conflicting actions and logic, and the Societal Gap; which should manage informal settlements in a suitable manner by adopting a proactive approach in providing access to and allocation of land for low-income housing. The concept of “action space” is adopted as an analytical framework in order to tackle the identified gaps in urban land governance. The concept of “action space” provides the potential to analyse the dynamism in the governance pattern by analysing push and pull of “action space” between each combination of actors, through the established relationship between them. In this study, the concept of “action space” is modified and conceptualized.  

The general objective of this research is to understand via an “action space” based analytical framework the urban land governance in managing the informal settlements by integrating logics and actions of all three key actors (government, market, and civil society). Under the umbrella of this overarching objective, three specific objectives are studied. The first objective is to understand the “action space” between government and civil society actors in the case of urban informal settlements. The second objective is to understand the “action space” between government and market actors in allocating land for low-income housing in the case of land readjustment. And, the third objective is to understand the “action space” between civil society and market actors in managing informal settlements and low-income housing in the case of resettlement of informal settlers. The case study approach has been adopted in analyzing the governance patterns between government-civil society, government-market, and market-civil society in each sub-objective. The cases studied are: i) Regularising of informal settlements, ii) Application of a land development approach like land readjustment in allocating land for low-income housing and iii) Resettlement of informal settlers by providing low-income housing. All selected cases are from different urban areas in Nepal.

The findings from the first objective revealed that due to lack of regulatory compliance of providing legal recognition to informal settlers, the “action space” gets predominately skewed towards the civil society actors via social legitimacy and thus, enabling the informal settlers to reside in the same area for several decades. In addition, it is recommended that the gap between legal legitimacy and social legitimacy could be narrowed down by intervention strategies with a defined role for market actors. Next, findings from the second objective revealed that due to lack of regulatory compliance with market norms and values, the level playing could not be established for the market actors in the process of delivering land for low-income housing. Hence, the “action space” is skewed towards market actors, which were able to cater only for high-income groups. Lastly, the findings from the third objective revealed that the lack of policy that define market actors’ role in allocating some part of their development to low-income housing via “corporate social responsibility” and also lack of policy to boost entrepreneurial activities of civil society groups, has resulted “action space” to be skewed neither towards market actors nor towards civil society actors. However, the “action space” was found to be skewed towards the civil society actors at the project level because of the establishment of the urban community support fund (UCSF).       

The overall  findings  from each objective demonstrate on how each actor tries to pull or push the “action space” according to their own logic of viewing the world and the types of legitimacies (legal, social and market) that are triggered according to the action of each type of actor. Finally, the cross-analysis of the empirical evidence from the cases has given the pathway in developing the integrated analytical framework of “action space” for understanding urban land governance for managing informal settlements from the perspective of low-income housing.

The integrated analytical framework of “action space” consists of three-core notions, which are ‘regulatory compliance’, ‘corporate social responsibility’ and ‘social entrepreneur’ and each notion tends to trigger the legal legitimacy, social legitimacy, and market legitimacy. The balancing of ‘action space’ of each pair actors is achieved by bringing in the role of the third actor into the interactions of the two other actors in the “action space”. This balancing philosophy refers to the blended actions and logic among the three key actors. Finally, the understanding of the urban land governance via the integrated analytical framework of “action space” was found to be linked to the characteristics of hybrid governance.

The framework opens up a clear insight of hybridity in governance pattern. In addition, it has also filled the knowledge gap with a theoretical framework, by blending the actions and logic of various actors. As societal contribution, the findings like market actors’ potential in allocating land for low-income housing via CSR and civil society actors’ strength via social entrepreneur are relevant.

Based upon the overall research approach, findings and their implications, recommendations for future studies were derived. One recommendation is given to explore the applicability of the pro-poor land recordation model and STDM in creating hybridity in the governance pattern via the “action space” framework. The application of the developed framework on various other land development approaches is recommended. In addition, it is recommended to test this “action space” based analytical framework to analyse governance pattern in the case of informal land markets. Finally, the integrated framework is recommended to be tested in the case where government, market and civil society actors can be analysed all three at once.