Johannesburg 10 April 2019—The first ever Urban Law Day in the Global South was recently held in South Africa, an initiative of UN-Habitat and Wits University.

Wits School of Law’s Chalsty Centre played host to the event which had the theme “Law, the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Cities”.

“Urban law” is a broad term referring to laws impacting on urbanisation, urban governance and the urban form. It typically encompasses local government law, planning law, housing law and municipal finance law, and also touches on, for instance, public health law, tax law and environmental law.

The aim for the day was to reflect on the readiness of various aspects of domestic legal and constitutional systems in sub-Saharan Africa for the effective implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (‘SDG’) 11, which calls for safe, sustainable, resilient and inclusive cities and the associated commitments in the New Urban Agenda (‘NUA’).

Professor Anél du Plessis, SARCHi Chair in Cities, Law and Environmental Sustainability at the North-West University in Potchefstroom, shared her research on the readiness of South Africa’s legal and policy framework for implementation of SDG11.

The South African overview was followed by assessments of the state of urban law in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia.  Justice Zione Ntaba from the High Court of Malawi bemoaned the poor alignment of bureaucratic structures and fiscal autonomy to the constitutional and legislative demarcation of local government responsibilities in Malawi, and also noted that the incongruence of Malawian urban law - with laws, policy frameworks and bylaws from different eras and with different purposes seemingly pulling in different directions – complicated the coherent pursuit of the NUA’s aspirations.

Justice Ntaba further hinted that some of the NUA’s underlying assumptions were out of step with the reality of developing world cities, a view shared by Mr. Archimedes Muzenda from the African Urban Institute. Relating how Zimbabwean local authorities have been too occupied with ‘crisis management’-style governance to effectively pursue the NUA’s objectives, Mr. Muzenda showed that the realities of informality, economic strain and politically divided authority detracted not only from cities’ ability to pursue the NUA, but also lead to a chasm between ‘official’ legal structures and their functioning ‘on the ground’

According to Mr. Chibomba, president of the Zambian Institute of Planners and associate of the University of Zambia’s Centre for Urban Research and Planning, an effective solution for some of the problems highlighted by Mr. Muzenda is to source planning, land use management and related urban governance powers in constitutionally ensconced autonomous local government. In Zambia, Mr. Chibomba showed, legal internalization of the SDGs and the NUA coincided with a process of constitutional amendment, leading to Zambian structures of government having been explicitly aligned to these instruments.

Mr. Chibomba’s concerns over land law and public participation were echoed by other participants, many of whom also emphasized that the timeframe for achieving the goals of SDG11 and the NUA (which both envisage compliance by 2030) was too short.

The focus then shifted to municipal finance law, with Dr Matthew Glasser of the Centre for Urban Law and Finance in Africa commending the NUA for its commitment to ensuring that implementation of its substantive targets are appropriately resourced.

Many of Dr Glasser’s warnings were borne out by Mr. Danga Mughogho, manager of the South African Cities Network (‘SACN’)’s Well-governed Cities Programme, who presented a synopsis of the SACN’s recent ‘State of City Finances’ report. With the central message that both South African cities and their inhabitants are experiencing financial crisis, the report revealed a worrying regressive trend in South African urban municipal service tariff structures.

The Urban Legislation Unit of UN-Habitat presented the outcome of a Planning Law Survey it conducted for the Sub-Saharan Region of the UN Global Sample of Cities. The survey revealed that most of the cities sampled were sprawled beyond their urban development boundaries (which were already disproportionately large compared to need), and functioned at sub-optimum density levels.

Overall, the information-packed Urban Law Day succeeded in its aim to stimulate discussion over ways to address shortcomings in existing legal frameworks, as well as related challenges of ‘localising’, ‘legalising’ and implementing the commitments of SDG11 and the NUA.