Claiming the Streets: Property Rights and Legal Empowerment in the Urban Informal Economy

This paper looks at the concept of law and urban development with a focus on property rights and land, exploring the potential collective rights in the public domain to underpin a more equitable approach to the management of public space and challenge inappropriate regulation that criminalizes the lives of the poor. The focus is on street trade and the informal economy. The hypotheses are that: collective use rights extend to public land and are crucial to the livelihoods of the urban poor; such use provides public good as well as private profit, and legal traditions in sub-Saharan Africa can often accommodate the broad definition of rights entailed. The literature review interrogates debates on property rights, legal empowerment, and public space, to suggest that urban public space should be considered as a common resource where open access remains. Fieldwork draws on comparative studies of Dakar, Senegal, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, based on in-depth interviews with street traders and key informants, and a legal review in each city.

The findings suggest very different trajectories in each city. In Dakar collective action with political support has created space for dialogue, while in Dar es Salaam lack of solidarity among traders meant that evictions were uncontested. In both cities the balance between public and private gain was moderated through complex social processes to create the hybrid space of the street, defined here as a ‘collective pool resource’. Finally the paper explores bundles of rights that might include access and beneficial use but with collective management to establish such a ‘collective pool resource’. Thus the paper challenges the usual conception of the public domain as state land, to recognize the collective claim for the street that is core to the operation of urban informal economies.

Source: World development via ScienceDirect (subscription required

Photo Credit: Michelle Schmitt


Publication Type Journal Article
Publisher World Development (Elsevier Ltd.)
Year 2015
Author(s) Alison Brown
Other Numbers Volume 76, December 2015, Pages 238-248
DOI doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2015.07.001
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