Contested land use changes

By Matt Burdett, 13 May 2020

On this page, we look at contested land use changes, including slum clearances, urban redevelopment and the depletion of green space.

  • Derelict land on the outskirts of the Central Business District of Córdoba, Argentina. Such land is an opportunity for someone – but who? Source: By the author.

What is ‘contested land use change’?

The main land uses in urban areas are:

  • Residential
  • Industrial
  • Commercial and administrative
  • Infrastructure (including transport)
  • Open space (including planned open space like parks, and derelict space)

Land use change can mean a change between one of these types of land use, such as a commercial area gradually turning into a residential area. Or, it can also mean that a change is occurring within a land use type, such as a historically impoverished residential district becoming more middle class, or a heavy-industry area becoming used for light industry.

Contested land use change is when there is disagreement about converting land from one use to another. This disagreement is generally between four ‘actors’:

  • The overlapping interests of groups within urban areas. Source: By the author.

The number of different opportunities for disagreement among these groups are significant. These are compounded by the competing interests of each group within itself – for example, different businesses desiring different outcomes.

The concept of power in contested land use

When changes in land use occur, different people can have different views about the change. Often, the disagreement is between people who live in the area compared to developers who want to change the land use. The outcome will depend on who has the most power. Sources of power might include:

  • Economic power: who has the most money
  • Political power: who has the most control over the decision-making
  • Social power: who has the most people on their side

Social power is perhaps the most interesting one of these, because when changes are contested people have options about their reaction. One option is for them to gather together to form a group to fight their cause. This kind of organised group is a ‘civil society’ group. Civil society groups are when people group together who are not part of the state (government), private profit making business, nor groups or friends and family. Rather, they are groups of people who are joined together for some other reason. Common examples include environmental pressure groups, trades unions, religious organisations and charities. By joining together, they create a block of people that can be powerful enough to change the decisions about the land use.

Alternatively, people may remain as individuals. By not forming a group, it can mean that they have less power, because some people will accept different outcomes. For example, a village may be threatened by demolition due to a new airport. If individual homeowners agree to sell their houses for a high price, it makes it harder for the village as a whole to survive. However, this means that some individuals will benefit a lot; in this example the homeowner who sold their house probably got a good price for it, even though the village as a whole lost out.

Contested changes in informal settlements

Informal settlements are urban residential areas where people live in “conditions that harm their health, safety, prosperity and opportunities” (UN Habitat, 2014). Informal settlements are sometimes used synonymously with slums (which have their own formal definition) and squatter settlements (which are areas where the inhabitants have no formal rights over the land they reside on). Informal settlements are characterised by severe problems, such as:

  • Lack of land tenure (the people who live there don’t own the land, and/or have no legal rights to the land)
  • Threat of eviction
  • Lack of sanitation
  • Lack of an improved water supply (i.e. clean drinking water)
  • Poor services such as education and healthcare
  • Little or no infrastructure e.g. paved roads, electricity cables

The power held by residents of these areas is often very little: they have few financial resources, are politically ignored and struggle to organise together due to the lack of organised groups in the area.

Contested land use changes in informal settlements are often due to two aims:

  1. To improve the area for the local residents. When the area is improved, a key question is ‘improved for whom?’. Is it for all residents, or just a few? What happens to the others?
  2. To remove the informal settlement. This can be for alternative development such as transport routes, commercial outlets or improved residential land. The cause of the change being contested is the question of what happens to the previous residents.

Self help schemes

Self-help refers to projects in informal settlements and slums where the residents are given the opportunity and means to improve the area themselves.

The legal right to live on a piece of land is known as ‘tenure’. One of the most important elements of self-help is ensuring the residents have a legal right to live there. If they do not, the threat of eviction becomes a disincentive to development.

Self help schemes must also take into account:

  • The level of start-up capital required to provide the materials for the residents to use
  • Any existing skills (or lack thereof) within the informal settlement, such as carpenters and bricklayers
  • The design of the buildings; many informal houses double up as workspaces
  • The level of services to be provided. For example, if private indoor toilets are provided, there is a risk that they will be attractive investments for more wealthy households
  • Who will provide the funding, and if/how it will be paid back

Slum clearance schemes

The word ‘slum’ has become used in several different contexts, so in 2002 the UN-Habitat, the United Nations Statistics Division and the Cities Alliance created a new, clear definition to avoid the word being used politically. Their definition of a slum is (UN Habitat, 2018) as follows:

A ‘slum household’ as one in which the inhabitants suffer one or more of the following ‘household deprivations’:

1. Lack of access to improved water source,

2. Lack of access to improved sanitation facilities,

3. Lack of sufficient living area,

4. Lack of housing durability and,

5. Lack of security of tenure. By extension, the term ‘slum dweller’ refers to a person living in a household that lacks any of the above attributes.

It’s natural that groups would wish to improve the living conditions of such places. Slum clearance schemes are one such way, and they involve the forced eviction of the residents and the clearance of the buildings.

Slum clearances are among the most contested changes. Clearance is often done in the name of helping the residents by providing new housing on the same site (or nearby), but residents are suspicious that it is really to make profit by developing the land for other purposes. Even when alternative housing is provided, it may be too expensive for the original residents to afford, or not appropriate for their needs.

In some cases, residents are still in the houses when the demolition begins. This is sometimes because of a lack of warning, and sometimes because residents refuse to leave, perhaps because they have nowhere else to go.

Redevelopment schemes

The term ‘redevelopment scheme’ is used by many as a catch-all term to include slum clearance and self-help. If redevelopment involves the informal settlement being improved in some way, the key thing is that the residents remain, but do not do the work themselves.

Contested changes in the inner city

Slums and informal settlements may be located in the inner city (the area around the Central Business District), but in many cities it is not only the poorest districts that are changing.


Gentrification occurs when an inner city area undergoes a transformation from being a relatively poor area to a relatively affluent area. The word has the same root as ‘gentleman’ i.e. to be more refined or polite. Gentrification involves incomers from other areas who take advantage of low property prices and the proximity to the Central Business District, and want to live in a more historic, characterful area than the suburbs.

There are three main results of gentrification:

  1. Improvement of building stock. The buildings themselves are improved (usually not torn down), as incomers want to live in high quality accommodation and have the money to improve the old buildings. This results in an increase in property prices.
  2. Demographic change. The incomers tend to be more affluent, younger, childless and more educated with professional, formal employment. The increase in property prices then forces out the traditional inhabitants of the area.
  3. Economic change. With a more affluent group of inhabitants, the ‘services of poverty’ such as launderettes, hardware stores and cheap cafes are replaced by ‘services of affluence’ like cake shops, restaurants and boutique clothes shops.

Importantly, gentrification is a bottom-up process. It is not led by government agencies or large businesses, but by individual people who eventually create a mass movement. Local authorities may encourage it, such as reducing property taxes for new businesses or reducing the restrictions on a change of building use, but gentrification always starts as a ‘grass roots’ initiative.

Redevelopment schemes

Redevelopment schemes are the opposite of gentrification, in that they are ‘top down’. Governments and large businesses make policy decisions to alter the land use in a part of the inner city. Local residents may have the opportunity to contribute to the plans, but they are usually not the ones who are in charge.

The most common reason for redevelopment is the loss of industry from cities in High Income Countries (HICs) resulting in derelict land in the inner city around the Central Business District. More details about urban deindustrialisation and its consequences can be found on the page ‘Urban deindustrialization’ elsewhere on this site, including a summary of the changes in Lynchberg, Virginia USA, where the redevelopment of the former industrial area next to the river and railway has become a thriving entertainment district. Redevelopment schemes in the inner city often involve the development of business parks, such as larger warehouse-style stores that cannot fit into the city centre. They may also include entertainment districts, such as that in Lynchberg. Many authorities encourage such changes as a way to keep economic activity near the city centre rather than moving to out-of-town areas which contribute to urban sprawl.

The depletion of green space

Many urban areas gradually find they are losing their green spaces. This is for several reasons:

  • Economic development demands that the land be used for something economically productive, rather than socially useful – so parks are turned into car parks, for example
  • Green spaces are seen as wasted, so they are removed in favour of something ‘useful’
  • In some countries, green spaces are seen as open land for immigrants to build squatter settlements so they are fenced off and eventually built on instead
  • In wealthier parts of cities, green spaces may require maintenance, so they are urbanised (covered over) to save money

The Green City Index is a project that aims to quantify how ‘green’ a city is (Economist, 2009). The project comes from the Economist magazine supported by Siemens, the large transnational corporation. It originally focused on Europe but spread in 2011 to over 120 cities around the world, and some cities have even developed their own indexes. The data (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2011) suggested that cities have wildly varying problems with the depletion of green space and that successful strategies must depend on the individual city, with international comparisons being difficult due to the differences in how data is collected in different regions.


Economist, 2009. The European Green City Index. Accessed 13 May 2020.

Economist Intelligence Unit, 2011. The Green City Index: A summary of the Green City Index research series. Accessed 13 May 2020.

UN Habitat (United Nations Human Settlements Programme), 2014. Concepts and definitions. Accessed 26 February 2020.

Contested land use changes: Learning activities


  1. State the main urban land uses. [1]
  2. Identify and outline two types of power that affect urban land use decisions. [4]
  3. Define ‘informal settlement’. [2]
  4. Outline the principles behind self-help schemes. [3]
  5. Define the geographical term ‘slum’. [5]
  6. Outline the issues around slum clearance schemes. [3]
  7. Define the geographical term ‘gentrification’. [1]
  8. Describe the main outcomes of gentrification. [3]
  9. Distinguish between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches to land use change. [2]
  10. Explain why city authorities may engage in an inner-city redevelopment scheme. [3]
  11. Do you think the contested land use issues faced by inhabitants of low income countries and high income countries are similar? Explain your answer. [6]
  12. ‘The needs of residents should always take priority over any change of land use.’ How far do you agree with this statement? [10]

Other tasks

Conduct a search for photographs of your nearest city.

  • Can you identify any areas of potentially contested land use?
  • For these areas, who are the ‘actors’ involved and who do you consider has the most power?
  • Do you agree with the outcome of any decisions that have been taken regarding the land use? What would you change?

© Matthew Burdett, 2020. All rights reserved.

All secondary material on this site is clearly referenced and may be subject to copyright restrictions by the original authors. All original material on this page is subject to copyright.