Friday, September 30, 2016

Conceptualizing a Different Kind of Urban Space in Rural Africa

Iringa, in some ways, is a classic truck-stop kind of town.  Sitting on a top of a hill, it nonetheless serves as a transport hub where two of the country's major cross-country highways intersect.  A east-west highway connects the country's main port at Dar es Salaam with Zambia, providing ocean access for trucks coming from the landlocked interior of the continent.  And spurring off that east-west highway at Iringa is a highway leading north to the country's new showcase capital of Dodoma, where MPs and other political types from across the country congregate when the legislature is in session.

Iringa town proper is situated neatly on this north-south highway, with the paved two-lane road bisecting the town in half.  On both sides of it, a grid of mediocrely maintained dirt roads radiates away from the main road, creating a mishmash of residences, shops, and mobile roadside stalls.  As practically all buildings are single-story and inhabited by single families, the amount of space needed to house Iringa's urban population of more than 150,000.  As a result, the town spreads for kilometers along the north-south highway and the nearby dirt roads, creating a not-so-dense urban sprawl over quite a large area.

In this urban space, the most interesting feature is perhaps the frequent presence of farmlands immediately adjacent to many of the residences and other buildings.  While some of these can be termed "urban gardens," growing vegetables and other plants for supplementary diet or income of their urban resident owners, others are simply too big to fit that description.  Acres of maize and other staple crops grow on these full-fledged farmlands, right alongside honking traffic and shops selling various fast-moving consumer goods.  It is just an odd sight to see right in the middle of a large town.

The oddity is all the more perplexing when one considers the real estate value of the farmland.  Some of the farmlands are located right next to the more trafficked and densely populated parts of the town, such as the main local markets and university campuses.  These are ideal locations for shops who can depend on a steady stream of passersby to maximize sales, and as residential locations for people who place a premium on convenience of transport and shopping.  From a purely economic perspective, these land plots are just too valuable as commercial properties to be left as farmlands.

And this phenomenon is not particularly unique to Iringa.  On his many bus journeys across Tanzania and other African countries, he has seen many such farm plots right next to the main paved highways, in the middle of even the largest towns.  In some, even more surprisingly, there are empty plots in downtown areas, cordoned off but showing no signs of being prepared for usage.  Sometimes there are piles of bricks and wooden pieces to one side, and sometimes there are little vegetable plots in one corner, but there is no overall, overarching planning in place that can give a concrete sense of what the land is visioned to become.

From an economic perspective, there may be several possible explanations.  One is the common practice of paying for full cost at once when large transactions are conducted.  For instance, one-year rent on a shopfront requires the FULL rent for all twelve months to be paid immediately upfront, rather than a deposit of one or two months plus first one or two months of rent as is common in more developed parts of the world.  Such behavior, much of it stemming from the landlord's immediate need for maximum possible amount of cash, makes the immediate cost of purchasing high-value land way too high for interested parties.

To add on to the high cost, land is not really freely traded in a legal sense.  In a legislation reminiscent of the Homestead Act in the US at the turn of the century, the government in Tanzania grants ownership to individuals who take over a piece of land "without ownership" and "visibly improves upon it."  Given just how vaguely it is legislated, the law in essence enables willing individuals to claim barren lands in the outskirts of the town for free.  Sure, the land of the outskirts are less valuable than downtown ones, but the fact that they are free still depresses the demand for land in the middle of towns.

The economic cost unfavorable for trading up urban lands for more high-value activities may shape the local social norms of buying and selling land.  Outside of construction firms with government backing, it may just become socially abnormal to want to buy a piece of land that is owned by someone else already.  Such social norm can contribute to continued urban sprawl of Iringa (and other towns like it) as populations and demand for land increase, while the original downtown core remain essentially unchanged (unchangeable).  It leads to an interesting example of organic urban growth where non-urban cannot be replaced by the urban.

No comments:

Post a Comment