Academic journal article The Geographical Bulletin

The Right to the City in the Informal Sector: Claiming Rights or Gaining Access in Kampala, Uganda?

Academic journal article The Geographical Bulletin

The Right to the City in the Informal Sector: Claiming Rights or Gaining Access in Kampala, Uganda?

Article excerpt


Before the warm, equatorial sun peaks and dries the red dirt road, a shoe vendor lays out his blue tarp, carefully displaying an immaculate array of used and counterfeit shoes. Considering the sandstorm of dust vehicles kick up as they speed by, the shoes gleam surprisingly brightly; an obvious image of constant care. Alongside the dozens of other vendors and scantily built shacks which boast permanent layers of amber dust, he continues meticulously aligning his goods. Yet these details are crucial when hawking shoes is the only source of income. Maintaining the cleanliness of goods can make the difference between a day when he earns enough money to feed himself and his family and a day when he does not.

When he places his last pair of shoes, he sits above a stagnant drainage ditch polluted by green sludge and debris, waiting for the scarce customer that can afford fake Nikes after buying food for their family. But today that customer will not come. Even before this vendor was setting up, he was unknowingly being watched by a city policeman, easily disguised amid the densely urbanized streets of Kampala, Uganda's capital. As the policeman approaches the shoe vendor, an all-too-familiar interaction begins. The city official informs the vendor that he is illegally selling his goods and confiscates all of his shoes. Then, the vendor pleads with the policeman in order to regain his only source of livelihood, and finally offers him a bribe which will hopefully prove sufficient. Indeed, as Isaac, the shoe vendor along Kafumbe Mukasa Road told me after describing this event, "Whatever money I make, it is just for protection; it is not for prosperity."

Yet vulnerability does not end at economic activity. When many return home, they return to property on which they squat. Therefore they have no legal claim to their own private space. "In slum areas like this," carpenters Charles and Thomas informed me, "you find people in the lower level will come and settle there, and the moment they try and build a house...the government comes and disorganizes [them] by pushing [them] away." Without lawful claims to a place or access to a source of livelihood, Kampala is certainly not a city to which citizens living in informality belong. They do not have that right.

In a city like Kampala, where 60 to 85 percent of the population lives in informal settlements (Giddings 2009, 11; Mukiibi 2011; UN-HABITAT 2007, 10), factors that deny the lower class the right to the city undeniably marginalize the vast majority of the city's population (Fig. 1). The legacy of a complex land tenure system, poverty, and underdevelopment deny these citizens the right to space while corruption, poverty, political instability and legal restrictions on informal activity prohibit them from earning a livable wage. Without the necessary protection to legitimately claim rights to the economy and to a home, citizens living in informality cannot secure their place in Kampala because where they work, where they live, and where they exist is void of the inalienable civil liberties that are necessary to guarantee that right. This is the informal sector. Without resources or investment capable of producing adequate infrastructure, Kampala has been unable to accommodate its rapidly urbanizing population, which has created a city characterized by underdevelopment. Out of this inability to absorb the almost two million residents who seek housing and jobs, informal activity and informal settlements have emerged citywide. Despite granting access to space and the economy, however, the informal sector cannot secure this access because it is inherently outside of legal protection.

What then, does the right to city look like in a place where residents have no legal claim to any types of rights? How should it look? This essay will begin by exploring literature on the right to the city. Next, it will explain the emergence of underdevelopment and the subsequent rise of informality in Kampala. …

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