The urban land debate in the global South: new avenues for research
Griet Steel, Femke van Noorloos, Christien Klaufus
LANDac and International Development Studies, Dept. Human Geography & Planning, Faculty of Geosciences,
Utrecht University, P.O. Box 80.115, 3508 TC Utrecht, The Netherlands
Author manuscript published as article in Geoforum 83, 2017, p. 133-141,
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.03.006 Part of special issue “From land grabs to
© 2017. This manuscript version is made available under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license
The global ‘land grab’ debate is going urban and needs a specific conceptual framework to
analyze the diverse modalities through which land commodification and speculation are
transforming cities across the globe. This article identifies new avenues for research on urban
land issues by drawing on an extensive body of academic literature and concrete cases of urban
land transformations in Asia, Latin America and Africa. These transformations are analyzed by
focusing on three types of urban investments - investments in property, investments in public
space and public services, and investments in speculation, image building and ‘worlding’ - and
the way these investments are intermingled with and enhanced by processes of gentrification
and speculative urbanism. Addressing real estate and infrastructure investments, speculation
and gentrification through a land-based lens allows us to deepen the discussion on urban land
governance in the global South. We argue that urban land acquisition cannot be thoroughly
understood in isolation from the workings of urban real estate markets, public policies, and
displacement processes. The urban land grab debate needs to consider the dialectic interplay
between land use change and general socio-spatial transformations both in central - or
recentralized - and peripheral areas. This is why we plea for a kaleidoscopic perspective on
urban land governance by uncovering the complex patchwork of urban land acquisitions and
their diverse temporalities and spatialities, their hybrid character in terms of actors involved,
and the multiple and often unpredicted ways in which urban dwellers try to gain control over
and access to urban land.
The urban transition that is currently under way in Africa and Asia has urged scholars in the
political economy of land markets to shift focus from rural land governance to urbanization. One
of the academic debates in which increasing attention is paid to urban land markets is the ‘land
grab’ debate. Originally concerned with massive land acquisitions in rural areas in the global
South, scholars progressively assess the impact of large-scale land deals in cities (Zoomers et al.,
2017). The debate on the effects of the rural global land grab focuses on externally driven and
large-scale land investments fueled by the global food-fuel-energy crises as well by broader
developments such as climate change policy; it is also dominated by notions of direct and
indirect displacement, enclosure of the commons and food insecurity. Policy discussions on land
grabs often evolve around land administration and formalization, the recognition of customary
land rights; compensation and resettlement (and the lack thereof); and participation and free,
prior and informed consent (see other articles in this special issue).
Whereas the rural land grab debate traditionally focuses on large-scale land acquisitions
of at least 200 hectares (Zoomers, 2010), it is increasingly taking into account the effects of a
multiplicity of smaller land deals and the involvement of a large variety of actors, including
domestic and smaller scale investors (Zoomers and Kaag, 2014; Hilhorst et al., 2011). This also
means that urban processes of land-based transformation are slowly gaining increased traction
in the debate, which is arguably also fueled by the renewed dominance of urban policy agendas
(Parnell, 2016). However, the urban land grab tends to be more fragmented, gradual and
therefore less visibly-outstanding than most of the rural examples. It includes a patchwork of
different activities - ranging from land use change to regeneration and redevelopment as well as
to new-built and commercial gentrification - with the common objective to appropriate land and
to increase its value.
One important difference between rural and urban land grab debates is that discussions
over urban land easily conflate with debates over new urban reconfigurations and gentrification
processes, or what is often referred to as the urban transition (Shin et al., 2016). Hence, urban
land acquisition cannot be thoroughly understood in isolation from the workings of urban real
estate markets, public policies, and displacement processes. The urban land grab debate needs
to consider the dialectic interplay between land use change and general socio-spatial
transformations both in central – or recentralized – and peripheral areas. At the same time the
concept of gentrification is not precise enough to interpret the variety of current exclusionary
urban processes and the important role that land plays in these developments. While the
gentrification debate primarily addresses processes that take place on a given urban surface, the
land grab debate aims to understand urban transformation processes specifically through the
lens of land-related dynamics.
Since the urban transition is more and more acknowledged as an important source of
land transformation, it is important to find out what ‘inclusive’ development means in this
context. Defining and measuring inclusive development in the context of land deals might
become even more complex in an urban or urbanizing context: the myth of homogeneous and
territorially fixed ‘local communities’ is easily debunked, and a variety of populations - with
various degrees of mobility and diverse interests - make meaningful participation and benefit
sharing challenging. In addition, understanding land investments in (peri-)urban contexts
requires looking into the long term processes of urban change and the more indirect modalities
of displacement and land grabbing, which make it even more complex for urban and peri-urban
dwellers to demand their right to the city.
Urbanization rates in the global South demonstrate an urgent need for the careful
mapping of both urban land and real estate sectors in and around urban areas and for
broadening the scope of the original land grab debate to include (peri-) urban processes. Hereby
we aim to shape the outline for the ‘urban turn’ of the land-grab debate, in which a comparative
perspective is central. We depart from this perspective based on the plea that has become louder
over the last decade for comparative urbanism on the basis of urban notions that stem from
cities in the global South.
This article reviews some of the primary academic findings on urban land
transformations in the global South by exploring land acquisitions, capital-driven evictions and
displacements in urban or emerging urban areas, speculative urbanism as well as the
unintended processes of gentrification. It specifically focuses on the processual features of the
urban land grab in order to identify new avenues for research on urban land investment and
their issues of inclusiveness and participation, and to broaden the discussion of well-studied
rural land transformations. Drawing on an extensive body of academic literature on the urban
land debate in Asia, Latin America and Africa, the article provides an in-depth understanding of
the diverse modalities through which land commodification and speculation are transforming
cities across the globe. Studies from each continent are used to complement the debate on the
urban land grab. We ask: How can the concepts of gentrification, speculative urbanism and
world city making enhance the urban land debate and bring more complexity into thinking
about inclusive development and participation? To what extent is speculative urbanism – a
concept derived from studies on urban developments in Asia – also useful toward understanding
new urban developments in Africa and Latin America? Finally, how can gentrification – a
concept more often applied in a Latin American context – be a way to analyze local socio-spatial
consequences in cities in Asia and Africa?
We engage with these questions throughout the next sections of the article. We start with
a brief overview of urbanism in Asia, Africa and Latin America and by identifying diverse
processes of urban transitions and land transformations in and across the continents.
Afterwards we reflect upon the concepts of land use change, gentrification, and speculative
urbanism which come into place when we zero in on the specific dynamics of urban land grabs,
changing land values in cities in the global South and their meanings in terms of urban land
governance. In the discussion we analyse these urban dynamics by focusing on three types of
urban investments - investments in property (land or real estate), investments in public space
and public services, and investments in speculation, image building and worlding. In the
conclusion we reflect upon our findings and their meaning in terms of inclusive development
and sustainable urban growth.
Urbanism and land transformations throughout the global South
As the global urban transition is well underway, rapid urbanization in the global South is gaining
increased exposure and thus inviting both interest and concern. Indeed, Africa and Asia are
urbanizing faster than any other region. In fact, until 2050 nearly 90% of urban population
increase will be concentrated in these regions; by 2050, 56% and 64% of the respective
populations of Africa and Asia are projected to live in urban areas (UN DESA, 2014). Meanwhile,
Latin America and the Caribbean are already largely urbanized with about 80 per cent currently
living in cities (ibid.). As it is known to be the region where the ‘first’ urban transition is now
completed (UN-Habitat, 2012; Klaufus and Jaffe, 2015), it is relevant to consider what could be
learned in hindsight from these rapid transition processes.
In general, increased urbanization is still often seen as a main condition for sustained
economic growth, and cities as key sites of capital accumulation. On the other hand, a multitude
of social, environmental and institutional problems or even ‘crises’ are often highlighted when
conceptualizing urbanization in the global South (most often expressed in relation to the
proliferation of slums). According to the UN World Urbanization Prospects report, “as the world
continues to urbanize, sustainable development challenges will be increasingly concentrated in
cities, particularly in the lower-middle- income countries where the pace of urbanization is
fastest” (UN DESA, 2014: 1). In order to meet the challenge of ‘inclusive, resilient and
sustainable’ cities and to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 11, enormous investments in
housing, infrastructure, energy, and economic development are expected to be mobilized over
the coming years (Zoomers et al., 2017). This focus on urban development in academic, policy
and media circles is on the rise due to the United Nations Conference on Housing and
Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) and the adoption of the New Urban Agenda.
An increased interest in what has been coined ‘planetary urbanization’, understood as a
worldwide spread of urban forms, lifestyles, mobilities, media, etc., has brought to light the lack
of theoretical and methodological clarity in conceptualizations of the urban. The world is
increasingly made up of highly differentiated, discontinuous and complex urbanization
landscapes, thus making it difficult to delimit urban areas in simple ways or to separate the
urban and the rural (Amin and Thrift, 2002; Brenner, 2013; Brenner and Schmid, 2014). At the
same time, urbanization and urban transformation processes have created a dominant meta-
narrative when talking about planetary change. By delving into issues of land governance and
land-based transformations and by asking ourselves how a traditionally ‘rural’ debate can
enlighten our understanding of the ‘urban’, we aim to contribute to a more complex
understanding of the spaces commonly classified as rural, peri-urban or urban in spite of their
hybridity. Across the globe, globalization, and changing models of urban governance have left
their imprint on the urban landscape, especially with regard to changing land use and its social
consequences. Land commodification and speculation relate directly to land use change that is
enabled by public policies: real estate markets and infrastructural works not only heavily
influence ground rents, they also define who can share in the benefits of rising land prices
(Smith, 1996; Smolka, 2013).
Sheppard et al. (2015) frame these processes in terms of ‘neoliberal urbanization’ and
‘urban revolutions from above’: as part of western urban agendas and ideas, the postcolonial
world has moved increasingly towards privatization of public services, urban
entrepreneurialism and inter-urban competition as key to economic growth. As global cities
imaginaries - or ‘world city making’ (Roy and Ong, 2011) - have become dominant in urban
policy, urban development has been highly influenced by global finance companies, international
financial institutions and global consultants, which have actively promoted cities for the rich.
Worlding goes hand in hand with image building - the illusion of success projected onto the
future - and city branding. The framing of a promising future is key to making people believe in
increased land values, whether or not real profits will be realized. Iconic architectural projects
are a proven way to establish investor trust (Sklair, 2005). For future users and residents, a
project's functional value is fully subordinated to attempts to successfully frame the ‘surplus
narrative’. Speculative urbanism, largely surging in Asia’s rising economies and developmental
states, relates to the strong involvement of city governments in devising competitive and
speculative urban land strategies meant to attract private investment (Goldman, 2011). Yet, in
Latin American and African contexts such speculative and worlding developments are often
taking place in different ways and on a smaller scale. Nonetheless, in all three regions these
processes have in many cases led to forced evictions, dispossessions and housing demolitions,
which increasingly lead to protest and resistance (Sheppard et al., 2015). On the other hand, the
term ‘neoliberal urbanization’ seems too broad to adequately capture the complex and
variegated relations between the state and the private sector that shape current urbanism in the
global South, for example in Asia where city governments play much more active roles. At the
very least we should take into account local variations of the term ‘neoliberalism’ while also
recognizing that, in some cases, it might be wholly inadequate after all. In terms of these new
urban debates, it is important to draw some very broad strokes to characterize regions across
the global South. Indeed, in order to effectively analyze the ‘urban turn’ of the land-grab debate,
a comparative perspective is central. The plea for comparative urbanism, based on urban
notions stemming from cities in the global South, has become louder over the last decade.
Robinson’s (2006) search for ‘Ordinary Cities’ takes those different forms, scales and contexts
into account. McFarlane (2010) adds that an alternative framing of comparisons, not as a
methodology but as the focus of attention, articulates with a post-colonial perspective in urban
studies. Questioning the impact of comparisons in urban studies, he argues that more attention
should be paid to policy mobilities and the role of power in producing such comparisons.
Following from there, the ways in which comparisons are contested need to be taken into
account as well. The increase in global urban fora and best-practice lists are a case in point. For
example the 2014 World Urban Forum in Medellín - where successful policies and best practices
were exchanged diplomatically and without sufficient attention for the drawbacks - was heavily
contested at the Social Urban Forum held simultaneously in the same city (Ortiz, 2016).
Despite running the risk of oversimplification, it is important to stress some key
differences between the regions. First, while the African continent is said to be poised for an
enormous boost of urban growth in the coming decades (although much variation exists; see for
example Potts, 2012), this is expected to lead to significant challenges. The region is also
promoted as a new frontier for global capital (Watson, 2013), yet investments in spectacular and
new city projects are taking place on a relatively small scale –especially when compared to the
enormous spread of informal settlements. Indeed, African urbanism is often characterized by a
lack of formal economic opportunities, the domination of informal settlements and economic
activity and a lack of access to basic services; each is often combined with weak state capacities
for regulation (see for example Pieterse and Parnell, 2014). Asia also shows many of these
characteristics but combines them with stronger state power and influence, especially through
the region’s developmental states and strong city governments (see for example Goldman, 2011;
Li et al., 2014; Shin and Kim, 2016). The latter nevertheless often operates in very neoliberal
ways and as such pushes land speculation and displacement of the poor. Asian cities in
particular compete globally as ‘world cities’ by presenting themselves as global knowledge,
innovation and production hubs. Combined with large informal sectors and social and
environmental problems, this leads to urban spaces that are characterized by large inequalities.
This in turn is reminiscent of cities in Latin America and the Caribbean; having also often passed
through a more traditional industrialization phase followed in recent decades by a period of
neoliberalism, the formal and public sectors have largely given way to more vulnerable informal
economies. Many Latin American cities have strong traditions of informal housing and the
consolidation or improvement of informal settlements. The region’s engagement with the urban
question over the longer term has led to much experimentation as well as some of the region’s
ideas and models currently promoted as ‘best practice’ around the world (Macedo, 2004, 2013;
Bunnell, 2015; Gilbert, 2015). On the other hand, large social inequalities, socio-spatial
segregation and related problems of insecurity and crime are haunting the region’s cities
(Roberts, 2005). With these regional differences taken into account, the following sections
further analyze the way land speculation and commodification are shaping urbanization
processes in the global South. We thereby highlight the differences with the well-studied rural
land grab debate.
From rural to urban land grab: some differing focal points
Since the increase in volume and intensity of large-scale investments in agricultural land became
known as the ‘global land rush’ or ‘land grab’, the definitions of so-called land grabbing have
been very much contested (Holmes, 2014). Generally, the term refers to the buying or leasing of
large tracts of land overseas (particularly in the global South) by domestic and transnational
companies, governments and individuals; driven by changing commodity prices, these
transactions mainly concern the production of food and biofuels (Gudynas, 2008). These large-
scale land acquisitions produce asymmetric power relations between those gaining control over
land use and land value, and other parties involved. As such they have the negative connotation
of being a ‘grab’ (Margulis et al., 2013). Indeed the transfer of property and resources – where
local control is passed to more powerful ‘outsiders’ – is an important feature in defining land
grabs (Holmes, 2014).
Table 1: rural versus urban land grabs
Type of ‘grab’
Land and real estate
Natural resources (forest
carbon, food and non-food
crops, metals, etc.)
High-end residential areas
Commercial services (shopping
Megadeals (more than 200ha)
Dispersed/ fragmented deals
companies, state agencies.
Increased attention to the
roles of domestic and smaller-
Transnational elites, public-
private partnerships, with
foreign as well as national
companies, individuals, state
Land use change, land
development or redevelopment
Some of these key characteristics of rural land grabs take a slightly different form in an urban
context (see table 1). Issues of access and control are key in urban debates as well, but in urban
cases there is no unilineal transfer of local control over land towards more powerful outsiders.
Urban land acquisitions or changes in urban land use that result in 'grabs' generally involve a
variety of actors; as a result, the role of public policies in allowing or enhancing land use change
cannot be ignored. Commercial investors are not always established companies and the complex
role of transnational elites, for instance, is crucial in understanding manifestations of urban land
grabbing and speculative urbanism. Besides their important roles as potential consumers or
investors in ‘world city’ projects, transnational institutions, consultants and diasporas play very
active roles in promoting speculative urbanism. This is the case in Bangalore where
international finance institutions and donors, international NGOs and Indian diasporas living
abroad promote world city agendas together with national state officials and business elites
(Goldman, 2011). In a world where urban models and ‘best practices’ are increasingly
circulating (Roy and Ong, 2011; Bunnell, 2015), such transnational actors are also increasingly
present in Africa and Latin America, and often promoting a variety of land-based investments
and redevelopments. Hence where the rural land grab debate focuses on transnational elites in
somewhat limited terms (i.e., as investors in rural land), urban examples show us how important
it is to scrutinize their much more diverse and complex roles in urban land debates.
In terms of scale, urban land grabs might be less immense. While the specific contexts of
urban scaling vary much across continents, in general urban land acquisitions take place on a
smaller scale and are more fragmented, gradual and dispersed across the city and therefore are
less visible than most rural examples. This does not mean that the impact is less radical or
tangible than in urban areas; in some cases land acquisition for peri-urban development is as
radical in its forms and impacts as those in rural areas. Yet, in some cases land acquisition for the
development of peri-urban areas is as radical in its forms or impact as it is in rural areas.
Through immense value increases in urban land and real estate, individual residents and small
scale enterprises are no longer able to compete with big multinationals and foreign investors.
For low-income groups, rising land and real estate prices make access to housing in central
urban areas evermore problematic. As such, our attention should go beyond large-scale ‘new
city’ projects and mega-events alone: fragmented neoliberal urbanism is still very common, for
example in many of Latin America’s small and medium-sized cities (Klaufus, 2010). New
conceptualizations of gentrification - including the gentrification of commerce (Bromley and
Mackie, 2009) - are helpful here to make sense of the indirect and sometimes unintended
consequences of urban land investments and governance for specific urban groups such as
youth and elderly urban dwellers.
As shown in Table 1, we argue that issues related to land tenure in cities are always
directly related to the housing question, and hence, indirectly to livelihoods. In rural areas, land
as a prerequisite for rural livelihoods is key, regardless of the provision of housing. For large
parts of the urban population, rising land prices directly influence the access to affordable and
well-located housing for large parts of the population. Indeed, as Soja (2010) has stated, spatial
justice is an integral part of social justice and the role of access to land is crucial in this debate.
Traditionally, the urban land debate has focused on securing land rights for urban slum
dwellers: land tenure formalization was considered a precondition for their economic
advancement, access to basic services and for urban development at large. While this is still an
important and contested issue, current processes of neoliberal urbanization and world city
making oblige us to look at urban land transformations from a broader perspective.
One important difference between rural and urban land grab debates is that discussions
over urban land easily conflate with debates over new urban reconfigurations and gentrification
processes (Shin et al., 2016). According to Clark’s definition, gentrification implies a change in
the population of land-users; this is a process in which “the new users are of a higher
socioeconomic status than the previous users” (2005: 263). Powerful landowners worldwide
can increasingly benefit from the windfalls generated by rural to urban or residential to
commercial land use conversions as well as higher densities, and new zoning regulations.
Smolka demonstrates that the multiplier effect of an administrative change in land use from
rural to urban is typically more than 400 percent (2013: 6). Yet, López-Morales et al. (2016)
urge us to also consider less straight-cut relations between landowners and real estate
developers. For Latin American cities, they attest that “[t]he systematic and unequal
appropriation of ground rent by developers leaves small landowners, tenants and multi-
occupants at their mercy […]. Petty landowners are forced to sell, are short-changed for their
properties and cannot afford to remain in place. Tenants experience, unilaterally, massive
increases in their rent payments and are forced to leave” (López-Morales, 2016: 1101-1102).
Further inspiration from the gentrification literature can be helpful for interpreting
current developments. In Smith’s rent-gap thesis, places are made ready for investment through
prior periods of disinvestment and devaluation (Smith, 1987). In intra-urban cases of land
conversion, informal urban economies as well as land and housing arrangements are devalued in
order to create new high value spaces. Shin and Kim (2016) exemplify this with the case of Seoul
where they specifically analyze the speculative urbanism of South Korea’s developmental state
in terms of gentrification and displacement of the poor. The rent-gap thesis can also be adapted
for cases of peri-urban or rural-to-urban land conversion, especially where public policy and
deliberate action for creating ‘world class cities’ play a role. While urban land values tend to
exceed rural land values, and developers, state actors, and landowners have historically profited
from peri-urban land conversion, the current characteristics of urban expansion are such that
deliberate value creation and speculation play a large role on top of this ‘natural’ value increase.
In many areas around the world, rural land that has been stripped of its agricultural function
(often by deliberate public disinvestment) has later been ‘revalued’ for urbanization and tourism
(see van Noorloos, 2012). Rent gaps are thus actively created in peri-urban areas to enhance
investors’ and local governments’ earnings on land investments. Direct and indirect
displacement are therefore important to take into account.
These observations show that the land grab debate needs to go urban and that the
conceptual framework of ‘grabbing’ itself needs to be redefined. Our attention should go beyond
large-scale ‘new city’ projects and mega-events alone: fragmented neoliberal urbanism is still
very common, for example in many of Latin America’s small and medium-sized cities. New
conceptualizations of inhabitance and a shift in focus from land towards a focus on real estate
are helpful toward further analyzing the mixture of driving forces as well as the new tools and
techniques used to appropriate land and increase its value. In the next sections we further
analyze these general global trends in urban land transformations in order to reflect upon the
meanings, complexities and paradoxes of such processes in terms of sustainable land
governance and inclusive urban development.
Investment in property: new-built and commercial gentrification
In line with Lees et al. (2014a), we argue that any analysis of land acquisition processes in the
global South requires an understanding of the contingent processes and the mutations of ruling
theories and models, such as those on gentrification. Especially in the Latin American context,
studies on gentrification have gained ground (e.g. Ward, 1993; Jones and Varley, 1999;
Janoschka et al., 2014; Schlack and Turnbull, 2014; López-Morales et al., 2016). In general, these
studies show local peculiarities that do not fit the western model of gentrification. Studies on
inner cities in the global North, for example, primarily stress a class-based physical
transformation. Here, working-class residents are pushed out of their neighborhoods first
through ‘sweat equity’ investment in dilapidated housing by bohemians and later by investors
and the middle class. However, scholars have also argued that gentrification in Latin American
cities is not linked to the arrival of bohemians or middle-class groups with another lifestyle, but
instead to a change in the functional use of buildings, as housing is often replaced by small-scale
commercial activities or other functions (Ward, 1993; Jones and Varley, 1999; 1994). In Cuenca,
Ecuador and Cusco, Peru, for example, gentrification of the historical center was manifested in
the transformation of private houses into tourist facilities such as hotels, restaurants, bars,
discotheques, travel agencies, shopping boutiques, internet bars and call centers (Steel, 2012;
van Noorloos and Steel, 2016). In several Latin American cities we observe similar examples of
commercial gentrification where land use change is related to anticipated land value increases,
real estate purchases by foreigners as well as the creation of leased retail space by private
investors (Schlack and Turnbull, 2014; Steel, 2012; Klaufus and Jaffe, 2015), or temporary
shelter for tourists as in San Telmo in Buenos Aires (Herzer et al, 2014). 1
Apart from inner-city gentrification, gentrification processes have expanded to sub-
urban areas and have become increasingly multi-centric (Lees et al., 2014b: 443). Al least in
Latin America, there is also a growing tendency among real estate developers to gentrify the
poorly-developed periphery into condominiums or gated communities for middle- and upper-
middle class residents (Coy, 2006; Alvarez-Rivadulla, 2007; Borsdorf et al., 2007; López-Morales,
2016). Angotti (2013) speaks in terms of ‘enclave urbanism’ as the conscious design and
development of fragmented cities and metropolitan regions in Latin America. He argues that
these separate enclaves contribute to “the fragmentation of urban space into exclusive, elite
residential enclaves and ghettos, malls, and business districts” (Angotti, 2013:11). The same
holds true for exclusive urbanization processes in other parts of the global South (De Boeck,
2011; Morange et al., 2012; Watson, 2013; Grant, 2015; Herbert and Murray, 2015). In
Khartoum, for instance, the construction of gated communities in the periphery of Sudan's
capital has become a popular avenue to invest petrol-dollars and other financial gains from
abroad; these self-sustaining communities have little or no connection with the rest of urban life.
A number of gated communities, especially on the main road to Wad Medani (including El
Yasmine and Araak city), have popped up in the last decade. These high-end residential areas are
developed by Sudanese real estate companies working together with investors from the Gulf
states or the Maghreb. The real estate prices of simple condominiums and so-called ‘town
houses’ easily cost up to 400,000 US dollars. These villas are only affordable to the political and
business elite including parts of the Sudanese diaspora who work in the Gulf States; they invest
in these real estate projects to earn rental income from foreigners working for international
NGOs and embassies (Crombé, 2009; Choplin and Franck, 2014: 62).
In other words gentrification in the global South has evolved towards new
manifestations of urban development that are related to an often expected rise of land and other
real estate prices. This has resulted in highly visible forms of socio-spatial segregation between
those who have access to urban land and those who do not. Johnny Miller's aerial photography
project titled Unequal scenes shows how differential access to land in South Africa results in
visible segregation.2 This segregation, more complex and fragmented than before, is no longer
uniquely dominated by income standards; an important generational component has been
introduced. Many young families can no longer afford to buy urban property and so rely on
rental markets or the informal housing sector. In addition, these land markets have become
increasingly exclusive as real estate brokers and investors prioritize homogenous
neighborhoods by selling and renting property to foreigners and urban elites.
1 Similar processes have also been observed outside Latin America in regions where tourism or lifestyle
migration are prominent, but the term gentrification is hardly used in these contexts (an exception is
provided by Van Laar et al., 2013 on South Africa).
These particularities of urban regeneration and spatial gentrification are important for
the development of new lines of research on the urban land grab and the multiple struggles of
control over, and ownership of, urban space. Scholars typically focus on the urbanization of rural
areas, urban sprawl, and peri-urban land grabs. However, unless we recognize that
gentrification can also signal underlying processes of land grabs, we miss out on these cases that
are important to achieve a more complete and comparative overview of worldwide urban land
grabbing. Shin and Kim (2016) for instance argue that the concept of redevelopment and
demolition are widely spread in the popular vernacular in Korea, but that in the end
gentrification is what municipalities aim for in their attempts to generate investment windfalls.
The same holds true for the India cases studied by Doshi (2014). Here the term gentrification is
rarely used in popular and academic discourses despite the fact that urban land transformations
often entail aspects of gentrification and rising land values. These aspects include capital
(re)investment, commodification and the displacement of vulnerable groups to make room for
infrastructure and luxury real estate geared toward meeting the needs of elites and the upper-
middle classes. Hence, the interconnectedness of land use change and the subsequent increase of
land and property values, paired with new residents or user groups, demonstrate that
gentrification processes and the urban land grab cannot be considered separately. In the next
section we focus on another type of city investment, namely investment in public spaces and
services and how it can result in unintended processes of gentrification and land
Investment in public spaces and services: land value increase as a side effect
Many urban renewal projects are steered by global urban agendas. Since the 1996 Habitat
Conference in Istanbul, many city administrations and local governments have taken great pains
to promote a more sustainable and compact city model. They have also restructured historical
but dilapidated inner cities, and have exchanged successful policy instruments. With increasing
international attention placed on successful examples of local public policies, unintended
displacements and unexpected new inequalities tend to be overlooked for the greater good.
Theorizing on the discrepancies between planning, governance and administration on one hand
and survival on the other, Watson speaks of a ‘conflict of rationalities’ as way to understand
“why, so often, sophisticated and ‘best practice’ planning and policy interventions have
unintended outcomes” (2009: 2272).
Take for example the Latin America city of Curitiba in Brazil, one of the most commonly
cited on best-practices lists. The urban renewal policies initiated by three-time mayor Jaime
Lerner in the 1970s and 1980s became internationally famous; as a result, the city was
bestowed with the title of ‘First-World city’ in the global South and considered to be the “most
livable city in the world” (Macedo, 2004: 540). One of the interventions that contributed to this
mythic image was the policy to substantially increase the size of the city’s green areas in parks
and woodlands. This policy measure was part of a coherent set of land policies that aimed to
reduce environmental hazards caused by flooding and traffic jams (Rabinovich, 1992). Although
the high amount of public space per inhabitant is generally interpreted as one main aspect of
sustainable land governance (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2010), critical scholars have
pointed out that the construction of parks resulted in a rise of real estate prices in the adjacent
areas and thus gentrification (Irazábal, 2004: 152; Macedo, 2013). Although unintended, the
pursuit of healthy, livable and resilient cities resulted in speculative urbanism. Irazábal
concludes that while the “disfranchised residents of Curitiba’s metropolitan area have never
visited its parks”, the creation of the parks has helped to ”create or consolidate wealthy
neighborhoods or allow the gentrification of other important areas” (2004: 152).
The Curitiba example clearly shows that capital accumulation in urban areas,
gentrification processes and extreme inequality can be initiated by land governance
interventions and actors that differ completely from those typically associated with the rural
land grab. In this example, it is not multinationals or foreigners that acquire large amounts of
land for agriculture, mining, infrastructure or tourism, but an ambitious mayor and generations
of urban planners whose work has been highly appreciated worldwide. Nevertheless, an
increase of land and property values and the subsequent displacement of sitting residents was
one of the outcomes however unintended. The same can be said in the case of Medellín, where
integrated local projects (PUIs) were executed in the most vulnerable urban areas to break the
downward circles of violence and destitution. Although mayors Fajarado and Salazar were
internationally heralded for ‘fighting crime with architecture’, critics have pointed out that the
large investments in architectural icons, which attracted tourists and paved the way for the
international events and the title ‘Most Innovative City in the World’ (granted in 2012 by the
Urban Land Institute), could possibly result in increases in the value of real estate and
displacement. Scholars disagree about the impact of the plans on local communities (Brand,
2013; Martin and Martin, 2015; Samper and Marko, 2015). The consequences of land value
increases and the dilemma over whether or not improvements in public land and infrastructure
access can counterbalance the negative effects is highly debated, especially in the land value
capture debate (Smolka, 2013). In the next section we focus on urban investments that envision
value increases in the future and the ways in which they interrelate with speculative urbanism.
Investment in image and futures: ‘Bubble urbanism’
Urban and peri-urban land investment is often about speculation, worlding and image building
rather than physical constructions alone. Indeed, speculative strategies are gaining influence in
urban landscapes across the global South. In Africa, world city making through urban
regeneration and new cities is increasingly promoted mostly by private investors and central
state governments (which are highly influenced by transnational investors and donors), and in
some cases also by city governments (e.g., Cirolia, 2014 for the case of Cape Town, South Africa
and Otsuki et al., 2016 for the case of Beira, Mozambique). In Latin America we also find an
increased incidence of powerful city governments engaging in worlding strategies: Colombian
cities for example are claiming their position on the world map. The large-scale urban
redevelopments in Brazil, such as for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de
Janeiro, have also attracted worldwide attention as largely speculative worlding strategies
causing displacement (Gaffney, 2010; Jacobs, 2013; Menezes, 2015).
Another striking phenomena in rapidly-urbanizing regions is the construction of
massive, low-cost housing such as in the Casas Geo projects in Mexico. The houses in these
projects are designed to serve what the GEO Corporation defined as the ‘average Mexican’ family
(Inclán-Valadez, 2015). With up to 15,000 housing units, the scale of these projects is
unprecedented. In fact, over 2.4 million Mexicans are now living in a Casas Geo house
(Corporación GEO, 2015). The development project covers land acquisition, design, construction,
mortgage allocation, marketing and sales or post-sales services (Inclán-Valadez, 2015). The
majority of these projects are located in peri-urban areas; the objective is to generate interest by
focusing on the suburban lifestyle. Stimulated by the Mexican public policy framework on
housing and credit, the Geo Corporation converted communal agrarian ejido lands into urban
residential areas though large-scale land acquisitions. Homeowners have been strategically
included in the project as ‘co-producers’ or ‘partners’ instead of customers. This enables the
company to construct only the basic framework, a carcass that is not yet ready to live in, leaving
the upgrading activities needed for a minimum comfort level up to the homeowners. Although
the titling and the legalization of former communal land does not necessarily induce the
displacement of people (Varley, 2016), the Casas GEO method clearly connects land acquisition
with rural-to-urban transformation, urban real estate markets, and increasing land values
through the creation of an American suburban image. This Mexican example case exemplifies a
broader speculative trend in urbanism in which investments in image building and city branding
are paramount; such investments have appeared in various forms in different parts of the world.
The concept of speculative urbanism offers an original angle through its focus on the
risks and speculative aspects of urban land-based investments. Goldman (2011), for instance,
explains how Bangalore, India has been remade into a ‘world city’ by the local government and
parastatals’ speculative land development strategies in peri-urban areas. Transforming rural
agricultural economies into urban real estate economies through land speculation – and use of
international financing – has been the main activity; although leading to quick profits,
dispossession of previous inhabitants has also resulted. The speculative aspect of this new form
of urbanism - besides being based on debt financing - lies in its lack of connection to the ‘real’
economy: many new ‘world class infrastructure’ projects are not profitable investments in
themselves, but are rather investment bubbles used to create a world city image that attracts
additional investment. A new airport in Bangalore was not built because of any long-term
strategy or expected need, but purely to enhance local land values and to create momentum for
new investment in high-scale residential communities, medical hotels and business parks
(Goldman, 2011). In China, the rapid urbanization strategies of local states can be placed under
the same umbrella. Local governments use a variety of projects such as ‘new city’, ‘eco-city’ and
‘university town’ to generate land-related profits. For example, university towns are
mushrooming all over the country; this is a speculative strategy meant to raise the value of the
surrounding area (called ‘high quality spaces’) so that the local state can further profit from land
speculation (Li et al., 2014). The same processes can be observed in Dubai where the quest at
the city level for symbolic power and the need to be counted as a 'global city' has resulted in a
vertically-oriented built space characterized by skyscrapers, modern shopping malls, and the
longest automated metro-line in the world (Acuto, 2010). In more general terms, local
governments, parastatal officials, and the private sector are reaping the short-term rewards and
financial revenues from land and city image building. The main goal is to compete with other
‘world cities’: as cities increasingly inter-reference, speculative urbanism seems to be the new
model of urban governance that depends on circulating ideas, finance, and capital flows
(Goldman, 2011; Bunnell, 2015; Shin and Kim, 2016).
Speculative urbanism has emerged as an Asian concept related to a specific type of
governance. Yet debt financing, short-term profit orientation, worlding and image building as
well as the lack of connection to real economies and the creation of ‘bubbles’ can inform current
understandings of urbanism and the role of land in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Speculative
urbanism takes place in areas where ‘real life’ economic transformation and the creation of the
middle class - in other words a transformation that is endogenous and structural - is either
largely absent (such as in many African cities) or remains rather separated from the urban
speculation process (as in Asia’s urban economies). It thus prioritizes image over actual needs
and growth; it also uses world city image building as a short-term and speculative growth
strategy. Especially in African cities where the formal economic base is relatively thin,
speculative strategies seem even more empty and less connected to any real growth in the
broader urban economy (Potts, 2012; Turok, 2014).
Recent city renewal and new city projects in Africa for instance are likely to rely heavily
on transnational elites, expats and diaspora who can afford to invest in luxury lifestyles; as such,
local economic or middle-class growth is not a necessary precondition. For instance, la Cité du
Fleuve, financed by a group of international private investors and inspired by Dubai, is an
exclusive development that is situated on two artificially-created islands in Kinshasa, DRC.
According to De Boeck, it is a huge, gated community that created a consumptive enclave for the
rich so that, “once more, most people currently living in the city will never be able to set foot on
the two islands” (2011: 277). Many of the area’s fishermen and city farmers who carve out
vulnerable livelihoods have been or will be displaced (De Boeck, 2011). Moreover, such
urbanization strategies are mirrored by broader city government policies aiming to ‘clean the
city’ of less-desirable and informal structures, businesses, and ‘bodies’ (De Boeck, 211:.273).
Despite being announced, many new city projects have not yet moved beyond a first speculative
phase; these include Hope City in Ghana and Modderfontein New City near Johannesburg in
South Africa (see also Watson, 2013). Such projects thus lead to empty urban bubbles
characterized by high speculation, temporariness and absenteeism (see Shin and Kim, 2016). In
the absence of actual productive development and innovation that new cities promise to
provide, the consumptive, speculative and spectacular aspects predominate (van Noorloos and
Kloosterboer, forthcoming). In the meantime, land values are increasing and a variety of actors -
including well-connected local politician-landowners and businesses - are intent on reaping the
Latin America also has its share of such externally-dependent and speculative urban
projects, although at a smaller scale (van Noorloos and Steel, 2016). Similar to African projects
(but different from many Asian worlding projects), they are often driven by the private sector
within the context of weak local governance. Gated communities in particular come in all types
and sizes; they include large, urban and all-inclusive (see Janoschka, 2003 for Argentina) as well
as many smaller or more diversified types. For example, destinations for residential tourism and
lifestyle migration include the northwest coast of Costa Rica and many areas of Mexico. Here,
gated communities have sprung up to satisfy mostly American and Canadian demands for luxury
housing in affordable places and healthy and ‘relaxed' lifestyles. However, speculation and
supply-driven growth was part and parcel of these projects. In fact the latest economic crisis has
clearly exposed this aspect: many constructions were left unfinished and buildings were left
empty (van Noorloos, 2012).
Conclusion: new avenues for research
In this article we have provided an overview of a few central topics that are important when the
urban dimension of the global land grab debate is analyzed; they include concepts such as land
use change, gentrification, speculative urbanism, and the worlding of cities. We have indicated
how the commercialization of urban land is taking different forms and shaping different (and
often unpredicted) types of investments and outcomes. The main differences dividing studies on
rural land grabs and those that explore land grabs in urban contexts have been summarized in
Table 1; it illustrates that in the urban cases there is no unilineal transfer of local control over
land towards more powerful outsiders. Moreover, urban land grabbing is the result of a plethora
of actors; the role of public policies cannot be ignored. An increase of land and other real estate
values tends to lead to an exclusion of poor and young residents from the most attractive living
areas in the city. In the same manner, investments in public space and public services such as
parks, squares and transport infrastructure have resulted in skyrocketing real estate and land
prices although they have not necessarily been constructed for this purpose. A third
manifestation of urban investments does aspire to achieve increases in value, but not through
physical construction projects. Instead of relying on concrete investments in housing and
commercial building infrastructure, this strategy counts on the symbolic power of image
building and city branding in order to trigger value increases in land based on a ‘promise’. While
an appealing project alone may lure investors, over time they may ultimately be faced with an
unfinished project, empty land as well as absentee owners and users.
On the basis of these findings, we can formulate concrete avenues for future research on
urban land grabs in the global South. First, as urban development inevitably entails land-based
investments and we want such investments to be more inclusive and participatory, we need to
carefully map out the processes as well as the direct and indirect outcomes of different urban
land investments. Research should take into account the complex patchwork of urban land
acquisitions and their diverse temporalities. New lines of inquiry should thus acknowledge the
discordance that currently exists between short-term investments in land and long-term
investments, for example real estate and services on one hand (upgrading of public services and
gentrification of housing and commerce) and investment in world city images and publicity on
the other where the actual building or use of the projects has a longer-term horizon that might
never be realized..3 These complex temporalities intersect with the diversity of spatialities of
current urban land investments, and range from inner-city upgrading to tabula rasa approaches
to new city strategies. As we have shown, analyzing land grab processes in urban areas can be
fruitful for gaining a more in-depth understanding of contemporary phenomena such as
speculative urbanism and global-South forms of gentrification. On the other hand,
conceptualizing current urban processes through the lens of urban land grabbing adds the extra
dimension of land; this is increasingly viewed as central as actual and perceived land scarcity is
key toward understanding current urban strategies and their consequences which extend
beyond the urban realm. Indeed, the interconnectedness of the urban and the rural is key. The
concept of gentrification alone cannot capture the entire variety of exclusionary urban processes
nor the important role that land plays in these developments.
The urban land grab agenda also needs to connect topics such as land formalization, land
access, and user displacement to the layered realities of horizontal ownership (condominiums),
absentee ownership, trans-nationalization of land rights and the increased influence of brokers
and middlemen in establishing and mediating land rights. Who wins and who loses is less
straightforward in this context of hybrid forms of urban land acquisition. While unfinished
construction and empty buildings might be the result of speculation that lacks a connection to
the real economy, it might also bring new forms of customary tenure and land dynamics. In
Sudan for instance vacant plots of private land and unfinished constructions have given ‘home’
to many refugee families and internally-displaced people who temporarily guard the grounds or
the buildings under construction. It is especially these types of urban dynamics - and
globalization from below - that deserve more attention in future research as they can bring light
to the paradoxes and different layers of urban land issues. They make way for a kaleidoscopic
perspective on the urban land grab debate by uncovering the multiple and often unpredicted
ways in which urban dwellers try to access and gain control over urban land.
3 However, the temporalities of capital may be contradictory. For instance, investments in speculative
image building may still rely on quick capital and with expectations of short-term returns on investment.
City governments have a leading role in governing land and mediating urban land
conflicts but can only do so in close cooperation with other national and transnational actors,
which may include the private sector. Indeed, city governments are increasingly under the
influence of transnational corporations, global finance, and international brokers such as
consultants, real estate investors and architects. In addition, we are witnessing an increasing
trend of transferring ‘best practices’ into new urban contexts at a global scale. Hence it should be
further analyzed how such new flows of finance, ideas and knowledge can be proactively used by
city governments to solve very urgent urban issues as opposed to enhancing neoliberal
urbanization ‘from above’ (Sheppard et al., 2015) or inadvertently contributing to gentrification
and new inequalities in access to land. Following Habitat III, the renewed attention for land
value capture, at least in Latin America, can be a promising start (Blanco et al., 2016). City
governments will have to deal with the complexities and paradoxes of urban land governance,
making evaluations and recommendations increasingly complex.
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This study benefited from the support of LANDac, the Netherlands Land Academy, which works
on land governance for equitable and sustainable development. We are also grateful to Prof.
Dr. Annelies Zoomers, Dr. Kei Otsuki and Dr. Robert Fletcher for coordinating this special
issue as well as to the three anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments.