Forty years on from the first international recommendations at the Habitat I Conference in Vancouver (1976) and the creation in 1978 of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (now the UN-Habitat Programme), precarious settlements are today home to nearly one billion people across the world, a number still on the rise. In dealing with these settlements, urban policies have not often followed the recommendations of international institutions, which advocate the legalization and improvement of living conditions in such precarious spaces. Yet, depending on the country and the period, policies have espoused multiple approaches that favor – or combine – repression or preventive measures, the demolition or rehabilitation of settlements, the upgrading of existing buildings or their replacement under renewal schemes, the eviction of populations or their rehousing, legalization of tenure or provision of basic services and infrastructure. But two main trends repeatedly oppose each other: keeping the residents on site or relocating them.
Why are these policies so diverse and occasionally so far-removed from international recommendations? How and on what criteria are national or local policies formulated? The choices made depend on the actors, the countries and the times, and particularly on the way in which these settlements are conceptualized by those intents on tackling them. The question of land plays a core role in shaping these policies. The fate reserved for precarious settlements by the national and local public policies is largely contingent on how the actors of these policies perceive land. The different views and approaches to land – as property, place, territory, value, location, space of social anchorage, of rights, norms, economic development, or collective use – set the urban actors at odds in conflicts of strategy or ideal visions, with the result that land has become embedded in these policies as a multidimensional criterion. Drawing on a comparative analysis of the recent history of urban policy in Beirut (Lebanon), Phnom Penh (Cambodia) and Damascus (Syria), this talk proposes to explore the role played by the different representations of land and shows how the co-presence and competition between these different conceptions shape public action on precarious settlements.
Valérie Clerc is a Research fellow at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development – IRD, and a member of the CESSMA Centre for Social Sciences Studies on Africa, America and Asia in Paris. She is an architect and holds a doctorate in Urban planning from the University of Paris 8. Her researches focus on cities of the global south, on informal settlements and on public policies that address them. She works on land issues, housing, property markets, sustainable urban development, public action and urban planning practices. Her current research focuses on the evolution of urban policies in a world in transition, and how the frameworks of contemporary urban action, the global city and the sustainable city, including the issue of climate change, are changing urban governments vis-à-vis informal settlements. She has worked in Lebanon, Cambodia, Syria and Myanmar.