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With the expansion of cities and urban infrastructure comes a growing need to better understand the relationship between people and land in urban and peri-urban areas.

Urbanization is a global phenomenon. Countries throughout the world are rapidly urbanizing, particularly in the developing world, and for the first time in human history the majority of people today live in urban areas [1]. By 2050, 66% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas. The most urbanized regions include Northern America (82% of the population living in urban areas in 2014), Latin America and the Caribbean (80%) and Europe (73%). In contrast, Africa and Asia remain mostly rural, but are urbanizing faster than the other regions and are projected to become 56 and 64% urban, respectively, by 2050 [2].

The causes of urbanization include natural population growth and rural-urban migration, which can result from under-employment in rural areas, poor agricultural conditions, reclassification of rural to urban land, conflicts in rural areas, and from the prospect of better economic opportunities in urban areas. The consequences of rural-urban migration include the densification of certain parts of the city, often resulting in informal settlements. Urban sprawl and the expansion of the urban footprint may also result—either through formal or informal processes.

Urban tenure recounted

Meanwhile, as competition for land intensifies, nearly 70% of land systems across the globe remain undocumented [3]. Particularly in developing countries, enormous surfaces are covered under social tenures, informal and overlapping rights. Land regularization is not a feasible option to the majority of informal dwellers due to financial, technical and judicial barriers. As a result, rapid urbanization is often associated with a decrease of tenure security, particularly for the urban poor. This can negatively impact millions of people.

In 2015, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing as a Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living acknowledged the increasing rates of forced evictions with impunity, the expansion of informal settlements (often without basic services like water, sewage, electricity or roads), the development of unaffordable rental properties, and the tenure insecurity of millions of people [4].

With security of tenure, people are more likely to invest in their families, homes, and futures [5]. When households and communities have secure tenure, they are more willing and able to engage in housing and settlement development processes. When land tenure is secure, land can be a cornerstone for economic growth and an incentive for investment, but when land rights are insecure, this can lead to conflicts, instability and the exclusion of vulnerable groups, such as women, Indigenous Peoples and the poor.


Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI)


Slum Upgrading

While urbanization is not inherently problematic, the pace and sheer scale at which it occurs has, in many places, far exceeded local government capacity or willingness to provide basic services to city residents. These services including adequate housing, water, electricity, and sanitation. This problem has been particularly pronounced in developing countries. As a result, urbanization in many places has led to the creation or consolidation of vast urban slums, where thousands and sometimes millions of urban residents live in sub-standard housing conditions, without access to even the most basic services [6].

Tenure insecurity in urban areas also impacts on the ability of informal dwellers to voice their concerns, since they may not  be officially recognized as urban/city residents. Informal urban dwellers’ often have limited access to services such as water and sewage, electricity, pavements, waste collection, among others. Across the world, large numbers of urban dwellers live under one of the following conditions:

Urban areas may lack of formal land and property titles. These areas may result from informal occupation of land and self-construction, or from the prolonged occupation of abandoned buildings. Some formal land and property titles may exist in urban areas, but documentation may be inadequate or incomplete. Informal settlements are often a consequence consequence of irregular or illegal land parceling and building processes, improper permitting or licensing procedures, and inappropriate building and land use regulations from planning departments or other administrative bodies.

Informal settlements can take many forms. Not all slums are illegal or unauthorized. Many are fully legal – recognized by the appropriate government authority – but have poor infrastructure and services or are lacking proper documentation. Others are located on land that the occupier purchased through appropriate legal channels, but the transaction is not recorded in a land registry or the land is not zoned for residential development. Each of these types of informal settlements may in some ways serve the needs of populations with various income levels, and represent a semi-effective strategy for accommodating urban populations. Understanding how informal settlements help the poor and marginalized cope with urban life is critical to understanding how best to upgrade settlements and integrate the poor into sustainable and livable cities [7].

Slum upgrading means improving living conditions of informal settlements in a responsible manner, and providing access to decent housing in the short term and in the long term.


Women, Slums, and Urbanization

For women, the phenomena of urbanization and the growth of city slums have unique causes and unique consequences. The reasons why women move into informal settlements and the specific challenges they face once they arrive have been largely unaddressed by academic scholars, policymakers, and others.  Data on women and urbanization is limited [8].

The primary “drivers” for women’s migration to the cities include issues such as violence against women, forced eviction, and the feminization of poverty, meaning the phenomenon that women represent disproportionate percentages of the world’s poor. New trends show an increasing number of females are migrating on their own and that an increasing number of women are now the principal wage earners for themselves and their families. Women move to urban areas for a number of different reasons, such as to seek higher income, to flee conflict, to avoid environmental degradation, or to escape family problems, especially problems resulting from discrimination. These problems may also include coping with health-related problems, such like HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Women may also be isolated and financially destitute. Many hope for a quick acquisition of resources but this may be difficult for women with very limited resources and job skills. Many women end up in urban slums where they can be close to commercial areas and work opportunities [9].

For women living in informal settlements, housing and living conditions are especially harsh. Close to one third of the world’s women are homeless or live in inadequate housing and in many countries, a majority of homeless women have escaped from domestic violence [10].

Women and men should have equal rights to own, access and control over land and property, according to the international human rights (e.g. the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Voluntary Guidlines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure) and national legislation of several countries. However, male-oriented practices and governance may imply that women’s security of tenure depends on their relation with male partners and family members (husbands, fathers, sons or extended family members). If or when the relation between the woman and that male figure is broken, such as in the case of divorce or death, women may become vulnerable due to through unfair distribution of assets, psychological or physical abuse, threats or other forms of discrimination and harassment. In many cases, they are forced to leave their homes and move to informal settlements. Women living in informal settlements are even less likely to have recognized land and property rights.

Patrimonial violence against women is often reported, including psychological and sexual abuse. However, due to the lack of alternative of urban shelter (e.g. emergency shelter, and affordable housing), many women may be forced to continue to live under the same roof with as the aggressor. This is not uncommon in overcrowded housing units shared by several families.

Women living in slums usually work in the informal sectors of the economy and tend to be the lowest income earners and lack job security and benefit, such as health insurance and retirement schemes. This financial gap tends to widen. Since women are usually responsible for taking care of the house, children, elderly and the ill or disabled relatives, women tend to have less physical and socio-political autonomy. Given many women’s informal and usually unstable sources of income, they often lack access to credits, loans and mortgages, either to seek their security of tenure and improve their houses or to improve their working conditions. Informal work conditions may also push women into less formal rental arrangements, often times for higher prices, and without adequate infrastructure or clean water [11].

Women are also under-represented in political and participatory processes of formulation and implementation of policies and programs. In some countries, even when women utilize accountability mechanisms, such as the justice system, they face severe discrimination [12].

In the urban planning and design field, for instance, “there is a tendency to view urban planning as gender-neutral field, not shaped by or in the interest of a particular sex. This assumes that both sexes are affected equally. In reality, what is ‘gender-neutral’ usually has a male perspective and is in men’s interest. The exclusion of women from urban planning means women’s daily lives and perspectives do not shape urban form and function. In other words, city planning as such overlooks the specific challenges and concerns that women and girls face, underlining the fact that the city is not inclusive and equitable in its design, infrastructure, facilities, and services ” [13].

In sum, there is an increasing recognition of women’s disproportionate struggle to fulfill their right of adequate housing living in cities and, in particular, their security of tenure. Women are the worst affected in forced evictions, resettlement schemes, slum clearance, domestic violence, civil conflict, discriminatory inheritance laws and practices, development projects, and globalization policies. Violence, rape, and sexual assault are sometimes used to forcibly remove women from their homes before and during forced evictions.

Focusing on women’s security of tenure is key to overcoming unequal ownership, access and control over property, domestic violence and disproportionate violence against women in cases of forced eviction from conflict, natural disasters, or large-scale land acquisitions.


Disaster Resilience

Every second, one person is displaced by  disaster. This amounts to three to ten times more displaced people than that which is caused by conflict and war worldwide [14]. Meanwhile, many families are not willing to leave their homes even when a disaster is imminent, fearing their insecure land and property rights may prevent them from later reclaiming their land.

A key factor that influences the magnitude of a disaster is the “exposure” of populations to the threats of the natural event. For instance, floods and severe storms in coastal areas can cause landslides and other disasters. If large populations are settled in these areas, then there is a probability of many casualties [15].

In urban settings around the world, there is high demand but limited availability of land in safe areas. This may result in more disadvantaged and lower-income populations settling in high risk areas or illegally occupying land to build their homes. These may be places where local governments are not willing to provide basic services such as drinking water, sanitation, or electricity. Add to this the lack of secure land tenure, which deters households from investing in upgrades and maintenance. The totality of these circumstances dramatically inhibits the resiliency of these communities.

Furthermore, when a disaster strikes, people living in illegal settlements often do not receive government support, or even support from some aid organizations. Secure land tenure often becomes a criteria for selecting beneficiaries of aid, even when this criteria may be unfair or against humanitarian principles.

A city that is inclusive for all households must ensure access to safe land for current inhabitants and for those who will arrive in the near future. It requires land management and urban planning that seriously takes into consideration environmental issues, hazard mapping, livelihoods and gender issues.

In areas that are prone to a moderate risk of disaster, there may be adequate technical solutions for mitigating this risk, such as the development of infrastructure, sea walls, river embankments, or resistant, elevated, anti-seismic buildings.

These solutions necessitate “real” sustainable development: sustainable development that considers human rights and  socioeconomic and environmental impacts. Sustainable and inclusive cities can ensure better access to land, public services and infrastructure. A primary goal sustainable development is to assist households and communities to be more resilient to natural disasters.

Security of tenure and sound land management and information systems are key to reconstruction, essential elements of resilient settlements.

Responsible Land Governance in Urban Areas

Land governance concerns the rules, processes and structures through which decisions are made about the use, access to and control over land, the manner in which the decisions are implemented and enforced, and the way that competing interests in land are managed. It encompasses statutory, customary and religious institutions. It includes state structures such as land agencies, courts and ministries responsible for land, as well as non-statutory actors such as traditional bodies and informal agents. It covers both the legal and policy framework for land as well as traditional and informal practices that enjoy social legitimacy [16].

In most countries, there is a lack of reliable land information, especially around land use planning, zoning and administration, which negatively affects urban planning and design, infrastructure and socio-economic development. Effective land management and administration initiatives are frequently hampered by complex and vague legal frameworks, corrupt institutions, and inadequate human and financial resource capacity. Power imbalances in urban and peri-urban areas are prevalent. Urban and peri-urban areas host poor populations, often without any formal education or knowledge about their rights. They must negotiate for better land and property rights with the more educated and informed individuals in society. Sometimes these individuals misuse their positions of power for their own private individual benefit. In such an environment, it is difficult for the vulnerable and marginalized to realize and defend their rights [17].

Improving land governance is an urgent issue because pressures on competing interests for land is intensifying due to rapid urbanization, growing population, economic development, food insecurity, water and energy shortage, and the effects of conflicts and disasters. Effective land value sharing has the potential for generating wealth for the cities but needs to be balanced with equitable policies and approaches that will benefit all, especially the poor and vulnerable.

When properly functioning, fit-for-purpose land administration systems can support tenure security, urban planning, service delivery, agricultural development, environmental management, and effective land management.

Well-planned, land-based financing policies can incentivize compact and connected development, keep rents down by minimizing speculation, and encourage an adequate supply of built space. Effective city planning and the development of sustainable buildings and services can prevent the growth of informal settlements and sprawl, and thus ensure that land, nature resources, human health and well-being, and the environment are protected [18].


[1]  The Centre on Human Rights and Evictions (COHRE). 2008. Women, Slums and Urbanisation: Examining the Causes and Consequences. COHRE: Switzerland. Available at:

[2] United Nations. 2014. World Urbanization Projects. Available at: 

[3] Leeman, C. 2010. The Social Tenure Domain TOol. International Federation of Surveyors, UN Habitat, Global Land Tool Network. Available at:

[4] Statement of the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Ms. Leilani Farha, during the 2nd Latin America and Caribbean Regional Forum on Adequate Housing “Vivienda para la Vida”, in Monterrey, Mexico, May 6th, 2015.

[5] Habitat for Humanity. Solid Ground Campaign. Available at:

[6] COHRE, 2008.

[7]  Payne, G., Piaskowy, T., Kuritz, L. 2014. Issue Brief on Land Tenure in Urban Environments. United States Agency for International Development: Washington, DC. Available at:

[8] COHRE, 2008.

[9] COHRE, 2008.

[10] UN Habitat Shelter and Sustainable Human Settlement Divison. Why Focus on Women? Available at:

[11] COHRE. 2013. Women and Housing Rights Issue Brief. Available at:

[12]   Manson-Virsam, F., Uberti, L., and Brace-John, T. 2010. One World Action Brief: Gender-based political violence in Bolivia: A barrier to women's political participation. One World Action. Available at:

[13] 2010. UN Habitat. 2010. Gender Issue Guide: Urban Planning and Design.  Available at:

[14] Kamal, B. 2016. Climate Victims- Every Second, One Person is Displaced by Disaster. Inter Press Service News Agency. Available at:

[15] Cidon, J. 2016. Access to Solid Ground Reduces the Risk to Disasters. Solid Ground Campaign. Available at:

[16] Palmer, D., Fricska, S., Wehrmann, B. 2009. Land Tenure Working Paper 11: Towards Improved Land Governance. Available at: ; United Nations. 2015. Habitat III Issue Papers 9- Urban Land. UN: New York. Available at:

[17] United Nations. 2015. Habitat III Issue Papers 9- Urban Land. UN: New York. Available at:

[18] United Nations. 2015. Habitat III Issue Papers 9- Urban Land. UN: New York. Available at: 

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