Why Africa needs to modernize its urban laws — and how it can do so

Children cling to a bus in Nairobi in 2007. The city, like many across Africa, continues to operate under colonial-era laws that were never locally relevant in the first place. (Beppe_tapelessfilm/Flickr/cc)

A key tool for African cities dealing with complexities such as informal settlements or tight restrictions on land ownership will be updating the continent’s archaic urban laws and legal process — much of which remains mired in colonial-era regulations that were never relevant in the African context in the first place, according to a new guidebook.

Governance, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, must be tailored to meet the unique needs of the region’s cities rather than modeled after regulations better suited for Europe or the United States, urges “Reforming Urban Laws in Africa: A Practical Guide”, published by the African Centre for Cities, an interdisciplinary research and teaching programme based in Cape Town.

The guidance focuses on crafting laws for the continent’s rapidly mushrooming cities, particularly around how to improve the entire process of drafting new laws, from conception to implementation. The stakes for the continent are enormous: Forty percent of Africans today live in urban areas, a figure set to rise to 50 percent by 2030.

African cities require a “solid, workable legal framework that is capable of introducing fundamental change”, argues Stephen Berrisford, an urban planning consultant and lead author of the report.

[See: Cape Town undertakes controversial experiment to bring affordable housing to the city centre]

Long-abandoned building code bylaws for Nairobi illustrate the disconnect. Decades ago, a “colonial administrator” copied construction regulations from England for use in Kenya’s sprawling capital, the guidebook states. The result: a requirement that roofs in the city, where temperatures rarely dip below 17 degrees Celsius (63 Fahrenheit), must be strong enough to withstand six inches of snow.

While that stipulation was scrapped in the 1970s, the capital’s latest building codes fail to establish basic construction standards for slums.

‘Relevant context’

To improve the governance of African cities, the authors recommend that local laws are:

  • Pragmatic: Only achievable standards should be adopted. Goals that are unrealistic could encourage companies or citizens to cheat to ensure compliance.
  • Scalable and responsive: New laws should be able to evolve to fit the contours of fast-expanding cities. Otherwise, they could quickly become irrelevant.
  • Inclusive: Efforts to restrict the number of residents or workers in cities inevitably penalize poor residents, who become cut off from housing and job opportunities.

Luanda, Angola, is cited as an example of a city that desperately needs laws tailored to local needs. With less than 10 percent of households in possession of official property documents, customary ownership rights must be melded with a formal legal framework to address the unusual housing situation, the report says.

[See: Land rights can lift African cities from ‘low development trap’, World Bank urges]

There are several issues to be considered when overhauling municipal laws, including:

  • Constitutional set-ups: Proponents of new urban laws can become entangled amid power struggles between centralized national authorities — a legacy of colonialism — and municipal governments. Ideally, both levels of government would participate and provide checks and balances on each other.
  • Property rights: The abundance of slums in African cities has stoked tension over land ownership. A view gaining popularity is that there is a “continuum” of land ownership that looks beyond legalities to also consider someone’s long-term ties to property.
  • Judicial capabilities: Judges should never have unrestricted powers over decisions on urban laws. While some judges in Africa are unwavering in their independence, many are drawn from privileged classes and are quick to side against the poor in legal disputes, the authors say.

The goals outlined in the guidebook reinforce proposals in the New Urban Agenda, an international accord adopted last year that emphasizes improved governance and more inclusive decision-making.

“The most effective urban laws are those that are developed where they are to be applied, by the people that will abide by and enforce them,” the guidebook says. “Difficulties arise when laws are developed — often by outside advisors — without properly considering the relevant context.”

The guide was compiled with financial support from Cities Alliance, a global partnership committed to poverty reduction; Urban LandMark, an organization devoted to land and property rights; and UN-Habitat.

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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