The Political Economy of Productive Urban Space: A Sustainable Livelihoods Approach

It is therefore quite telling that women, globally and in Africa in particular, continue to be marginalised through historical and contemporary spatial organisation that create access barriers to public space. This “spatial marginalisation” has a negative impact on not only their political and social expression, but also, as I will argue in this paper, their ability to generate livelihoods in an urban context. 

Raisa Cole's picture


Urbanist. Human Geographer.

April 20th, 2015

Democracy depends, to a surprising extent, on the availability of physical public space, even in our allegedly digital world (John R Parkinsons,2012).

The role of public space as a site for social organisation and political and civil expression has been well documented in academic debate and the contemporary political events taking place around the world. From “Occupy Wall Street” to the events around Gezi Park, Instanbul, public space has re-emerged as the site and symbol of political commentary and democratic expression. The power dynamics of these spaces can be linked to the historical contestation over them. It is the stage upon which the contested symbolism of state power, revolution and resistance plays out. According to Madinipou (2003), “control of public space is essential in the power balance of a particular society” (Madinipour, 2003: 140). It is therefore quite telling that women, globally and in Africa in particular, continue to be marginalised through historical and contemporary spatial organisation that create access barriers to public space. This “spatial marginalisation” has a negative impact on not only their political and social expression, but also, as I will argue in this paper, their ability to generate livelihoods in an urban context. 

Allison Brown, in “Claiming Rights to the Streets”, investigates the importance of urban public space to the income generation activities of the poor (Brown, n.d.). According to Brown, public space can and should be considered a common property resource from which the urban poor generate a livelihood (ibid). Apart from the social legitimacy that people have to public space, Brown fails to establish it within a legal framework. The recognition of the urban poor’s social legitimacy to income-generating resources cannot be denied but there is great practical value in placing these entitlements in a framework which can be recognised by policymakers in a mandated legal framework. The Human Rights Base Approach provides a framework for this access and can be used to advocate for public spaces as sites for accessing democratic and basic socioeconomic rights.

A Woman’s “Right to the City” 

Public space and its inclusionary and exclusionary processes tend to reflect the broader power dynamics within a society. This is particularly true in the study of gender dynamics. The distinction between public and private has been central to the feminist political struggle which interrogates the traditional associations between masculine occupation of the public sphere and feminine existence within the private sphere (Madinipour, 2003). This approach is embedded in the notion of public space as a social construction where space is seen as essential to social science with an inextricable link drawn between space and social processes (Spain, 1992). Spatial form is, therefore, not only a functional tool for carrying out social, political and economic activities, but can also be seen as a reflection of the social condition at a particular point in history. It reflects the value systems, behaviours and power dynamics of our human environment. 

The South African context, where race, class and gender have been played out in the inclusion and exclusion of black South Africans from various spaces in the city, is reflective of this socio-spatial theory. The country has developed into a society where new patterns of exclusion and inclusion dictate varying levels of access to the public arena. Many of the contemporary urban challenges faced by South African society can be traced back to the legacy of the Apartheid Spatial Planning System in which racial segregation had largely geopolitical representations. South African Apartheid Legislation, such as the Group Areas Act of 1950, controlled the movement of black people. The earlier Urban Areas Act prevented black people from staying longer than 72 hours in an urban area without permission from a specific municipal officeholder (South African History Online, 2014). 

According to Doreen Massey, this type of historical relationship between space and inequality, power dynamics, identity and exclusion can be addressed by attributing responsibility through the relational link between people, groups and the spaces they occupy and create (Massey,  2005). This alludes to the social transformational potential of public space, especially relevant within the South African context. Public space has the potential to provide previously marginalised people, women being a central social group in this regard, with essential urban assets that might begin to address historical inequality.

The social significance of public space has been well documented in literature with the recognition of its centrality to the power balance of society, however, the economic importance of public space has been somewhat overlooked. As Alisson Brown (n.d.) indicates, urban public space plays a crucial role in supporting an extraordinary diversity of informal sector enterprises and must be recognised as a necessary asset of the urban poor. This paper investigates the methods of inclusion and exclusions that exist on the streets of Johannesburg and how these affect the lives of poor women trying to earn a living in these apparently public spaces.

One could argue that the livelihood-generating role of public space socially legitimises access rights to these spaces. However, the question which is of utmost importance to the lives of the urban poor, the majority of whom are women, is whether the formal structures within cities (i.e. the policies, institutions and processes) recognise this right.  

Going beyond the social legitimacy of the urban poor’s access rights to the city, this paper will position public space as a means of fulfilling a constitutional mandate to protect these livelihoods. The paper will draw on the Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA), as well as the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) to position the livelihoods of the urban poor within a conceptual framework. 

The Political Economy of Public Space

Urban Public space plays a crucial role in supporting an extraordinary diversity of informal sector enterprises, providing a lifeline for new migrants and the established urban poor Allison Brown (n.d.).

Understanding the livelihood-generating potential of public space requires an understanding of the interconnectivity and tensions between the different actors, institutions, policies and infrastructures involved. Such a definition of public spaces would positions them as a political economy in which tensions of productivity and power relations play out. In a narration of how urban space became theorised through a political economy approach, Kazi Haque (2013) draws on urban theorists such as Harvey, Castells and Brenner. The political economy approach is grounded in Marxist Theory and takes a particularly materialistic view of urban space as sites of capital accumulation, inequality, uneven geographical environments and the spatial division of labour. Not only are public spaces the sites of political contestation but also that of economic contestation. 

In “The Political Economy of Public Space”, David Harvey (2006) describes this contestation as problematic yet hopeful. He states that, “the neoliberalism of public space is neither indominable nor inevitable and however much public space is now under clampdown, it is not closed” (Harvey 2006: 14). Despite the access limitations placed on public spaces and the increasingly private nature of public space management, the urban poor, especially women, have managed to negotiate these spaces as an invaluable asset in their livelihood-generating strategies. 

This contestation over public space reflects the value of these spaces to various players in the city. According to Setha Low (2006), the last 20 years have seen an increase in the privatisation of public space. It has “accelerated through the closing, redesign and policing of public parks and plazas” (Low, 2006: 82). Both private companies and the urban poor recognise public space as an essential urban asset. 

The SLA provides a useful framework for understanding the different types of assets and vulnerabilities that exist within the context of urban public space. The approach is based on the belief that poor people manage a complex range of capitals in order to sustain themselves (Norton & Foster, 2001). The SLA recognises five main asset domains that people draw on to generate livelihoods – social, environmental, financial, physical and human assets. While the approach is predominantly applied within the rural framework, it provides a useful tool for analysing urban poverty, livelihoods and policy. All five of these asset domains must be awarded equal importance as the urban poor draw on the interactions between them for survival. It is also important to understand the gendered nature of asset entitlements, activities and knowledge, which, in interacting with natural and social stresses, form the basis for different livelihood strategies (Katepa-Kalala, 1997). This is true when investigating the varying levels of access to public spaces, especially between urban poor men and women. In “Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches in Urban Areas”, Farrington, Ramasut and Williams (2002) outline the specificities of poor urban women’s vulnerability. Lack of employment, low wages and the lack of credit support are often accentuated by the constant fear of eviction and of municipal authorities and police as well as hazardous living spaces (Farrington et al., 2002). Access to public space, in its function as an urban asset used to generate livelihoods, therefore has the potential to address these vulnerabilities. 

Woman and Informality: Livelihood Strategies of Poor Urban Women

Understanding the livelihoods of the urban poor in South Africa inevitably leads us to the issue of informal trading. The link between informality and urban poverty is not clear cut but significant evidence exists that show a strong correlation between the two. There is, however, a definite link between informality and gender. For instance, in a study conducted by the Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), which divided the total South African workforce into formal and informal employment sections, found that this ‘division’ had a significantly gendered dynamic (Budlender, 2011). The percentage of women in the informal economy surpassed men in this sector in both wage employment (23.2 percent of women and 18.7 percent of men) and self-employment (16.3 percent of women and 12.7 percent of men) (ibid). 

Similarly, a study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute Global Policy Network (EPI GPN) compared the livelihoods of formal and informal sector workers in South Africa and revealed that, while formal workers tend to earn more than R1,000 (approximately US$100) a month, people working in the informal sector tend to earn less than this (Avirgan, Bivens & Gammage, 2005). In South Africa, 33 percent of the entire work force exists within the informal sector, as quantified in accordance with the Stats SA (2005) definition given below, with 39 percent of all employed women generating an income through informal work (Budlender, 2011). 

A significant number of those in the informal sector are street vendors, the majority of whom are women.  According to a report by Jan Beeton, the City of Jo’burg (Johannesburg) (CoJ) Municipality has estimated that 85,000 people in Johannesburg work as street traders in the informal economy and this is a conservative figure at best (Beeton, 2010). The South African Statistics Board (Stats SA) provides insight into sites of the city in which these interactions take place in their definition of informal traders. Informal traders are defined as: “not registered in anyway. They are generally small in nature and are seldom run from business premises, instead they are run from homes and streets pavements or other informal arrangements” (Stats SA, 2005). The CoJ Metropolitan Municipality (2012: 7) draws a clear definitional link between street trading and public space, defining it as “the act of selling or offering or rendering of services in a public space shall constitute for informal trading”. Informal trading and public space can therefore be said to be inextricably linked and informal traders are city actors who rely on access to these spaces as an essential asset in their livelihood generation. 

The size and significance of the informal sector and the fact that it largely relies on public space for its livelihood-generating activities, necessitates maximum access to the financial capital contained within these urban spaces. The varying levels of this access, especially for the female and male urban poor as well as the justification for its essentiality, are investigated in the sections below. 

The Right to the Economic Benefits of the City: A Human Rights Base Approach

In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence (International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1976.)

Human Rights can be defined as the universal and inherent entitlements of all human beings (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2014). These human rights can be divided into three generations, First Generation Civil and Political Rights, Second Generation Social and Economic Rights and Third Generation Environmental and Developmental Rights. While the First Generation Civil and Political Rights  have been universally recognised in law, Second Generation Rights are harder to enforce within a legal system (Icelandic Human Rights Centre, 2014). 

Consequently, the existing literature on the value of public space seems to document the role of these spaces in realising the civil and political rights but fail to mention the ways in which it can be used to activate Second Generation Rights which include the right to education, housing, food, health, social security and the right to work (National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, 2014). While the first six rights can be seen as indirectly affecting the argument for public space as an economic asset, the right to work is directly linked to the justification of people’s access to the economic benefits of these spaces. The South African Constitution is one of few in the world that accepts socioeconomic rights into the legal framework, making them enforceable by law and guaranteeing protection of these rights under the constitution (South African Constitutional Court, 2014).

The South African Constitution makes special provisions for the rights of women, children, gays, lesbians and workers and for access to information. These rights are given special focus in the Constitution due to their historical neglect. It was not until the development of the South African Constitution Bill of Rights (a list of human rights guiding South African constitutionality) “that all women in this country received formal recognition as equal citizens. South African women – under the social and even legal control of their fathers or husbands – were second-class citizens for many years” (South African Constitutional Court, 2014). The special provision given to women in the South African Constitution is based on its recognition that “Nowadays women and black women in particular, are still economically disadvantaged: they make up a disproportionate section of the unemployed and tend to occupy more of the lower-paid jobs, as domestic and farm labourers. And they often earn less than men for the same tasks” (South African Constitutional Court, 2014). 

It is disappointing to note that there is no special provision given to black women traders (or women traders in general) in the Johannesburg street-trading by-laws or legislative framework guiding informal trading in the city. Yet, most policy documents in South Africa involve gender mainstreaming and recognition of gender inequality. The failure of the Johannesburg street trading policy framework to do so can be interpreted as unresponsive and reactionary disadvantaging of urban poor women. One way of understanding the development of this legal framework is to investigate the identity issues around public spaces in the city. 

Institutionalised “Identity” and “Culture” Identity as a Barrier to Access

Space as a social construction is followed by the construction of an identity attached to this space. Due to the state/civil ownership of public space, the first step in understanding the barriers to access is to investigate public policy and the type of spatial identity or character they wish to create. According to Tunesree Paul, urban spaces are becoming increasingly masculanised (Paul, 2011). The Johannesburg by-laws that govern informal sector work lack the necessary gender considerations to adequately address the marginalisation of urban poor women in the city and to support their diverse set of livelihood strategies. 

The policy framework affecting the livelihoods of women traders in the inner city consists of two policy streams. First, since women make up more than half of informal economy workers, it is important to investigate the policies that govern the activity of informal traders such as the CoJ Informal Trading Policy and Street Trading By-Laws. Second, the primary site of these activities is a public space and an investigation into ways in which these public space policies recognise the particular access barriers of women is essential. The CoJ Metropolitan Municipality Council (2012) Public Open Space By-Laws defines an open public space as any land which: 

Is owned by state; or 

Over which an organ of state has certain real rights arising from the filing in the Deeds Office or other registration office of a general plan of a township, agricultural holding or other division of land, or any alteration or addition to or amendment of such land approved by the Surveyor-General on which is marked the land on which is marked the land to which the public has a common right of use; and 

Is controlled or managed by the council.

Informal trading in these spaces is subject to a comprehensive set of rules and regulations that are geared towards the formalisation of these activities. The CoJ Metropolitan Municipality Council Informal Trading By-Laws clearly state that the intention of the street trading by-laws is to “harmonise” formal and informal trading and to facilitate the migration of informal traders into the formal economy (CoJ Metropolitan Municipality, 2012). The by-laws set out guidelines on how to make this transition into the formal sector which include: 

entering into a lease agreement with the CoJ for the economic use of public space;

holding the token of lease agreement on the possession of trader at all times; and

applying to the CoJ if this token is too transferred to an employer of the lease agreement holder 

(CoJ Metropolitan Municipality, 2012).

The additional costs incurred due to the mandatory leasing of public space add an extra burden to women traders who start their business with very little capital (Karumbidza, 2011). Women traders often experience higher levels of poverty than their male counterparts in both urban and rural areas. According to Chen, Vannek and Heintz (2006), South African women-headed households were found to have higher levels of poverty than those headed by men. Similarly, the houses that are headed by women in the informal sector have higher poverty levels that those headed by men in the sector (Chen et al., 2006). 

Apart from the financial barriers, the by-laws also allow for the demarcation of prohibited areas that criminalise street trading in certain areas of the city. The CoJ Metropolitan Municipality (2012) states that the Council reserves the right to determine: 

specific places where goods and services in respect of which informal trading is restricted or prohibited; and

The location of boundaries in respect of restriction or prohibited areas.

Braamfontein, a multiuse area bordering on the CBD, has been identified as one of such areas. This prohibition was instituted after the implementation of the Braamfontein Regeneration strategy. The strategy was implemented in 2005 as part of a targeted effort to upgrade the inner city’s cultural precincts. According to a paper by Laura Burocco (2014), the regeneration of Braamfontein has managed to attract more people to the area. The question remains as to the types of people who are attracted and the types of people and activities that are deemed undesirable. The production of a new identity in Braamfontein (one that excludes traders) can be explained through Liz Bondi’s (2003) critique of the postmodernist culture of gentrification processes. Bondi argues that, while postmodernism is believed to be a challenge to the modernist dichotomisation of gender roles, within a context of gentrification, it reinforces these roles (Bondi, 2003).

In an investigation into the ways women negotiate violence in Inner City Johannesburg, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) found that gay and lesbian women found the felt the city to be a safer place than township areas due to an increased acceptance of alternative cultural identities (Vetten & Dlala, 2000). However, Bondi goes on to describe the drivers of gentrification as the cultural class (those people who earn livelihoods through the arts and culture industry) who claim to dedifferentiate the modernist culture of gender roles but instead redifferentiate cultural divides in the city due to their exclusion of certain demographics (ibid). 

As seen in the Braamfontein case study, alternative cultures were incorporated into the new identity of the area (Burocco, 2014). However, creating this identity requires the exclusion of others instead of an integration of different social groups. One of the central objectives of the Braamfontein regeneration strategy was to deal with the “crime and grime” in the area (ibid). This was largely successful through the installation of CCTV cameras and on-foot patrols (Johannesburg Development Agency, 2004). The exclusion of traders from this area after its increased safety means denying poor urban women the opportunity to generate livelihoods in a safe and secure environment. 

While the streets of Braamfontein might be safer for homosexual women of a certain age, class and social position, it has failed to provide a space for poor women to generate livelihoods – homosexual or not. The perception of inclusive spaces or spaces for alternative lifestyles is, therefore, a virtual reality that excludes the majority of urban dwellers because they fall outside of its legally entrenched, constructed identity.


Public space, especially within an urban context, creates a platform for the realisation of both First and Second Generation Human Rights. While civil liberties have been expressed, contested and negotiated in these spaces, the realisation of livelihoods in public space has been equally contentious. As socially constructed spaces, public spaces provide us with a useful insight into the social condition, power dynamics and value systems of a particular society. The institutionalised exclusion of the urban poor, most of whom are women, from the public spheres reflects the persistence of gender inequality, at most, and, at least, gender blind spots within the policy framework. There is a definite need to review the legislative framework guiding the financial use of public space with a gendered lens as is mandated by the constitution of South Africa in its recognition of the special focused rights of women and other historically marginalised groups as well as its protection of socioeconomic rights.

Raisa Cole as five years’ experience in sustainable development including policy analysis, research; community based planning, stakeholder engagement and international development cooperation. She has worked for organisations such as the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), United Nations World Food Programme, African Union, Solidaridad Southern Africa and the African Institute for Community Driven Development. She is qualified in the application of Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches and Community Based Planning and has a Bachelor of Social Science degree (Political Science) from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Raisa has successfully completed a Master’s Program in International Cooperation and Urban Planning at the Technische Universiteit Darmstadt, Germany and is currently completing a specialization MSc in Urbanisme, Habitat et Coopération Internationale at the University of Pierre-Mendès-France (UPMF). Her professional and academic career has been guided by vocational has been driven by the need for sustainable, resilient, adaptable human settlements. She is particularly interested in urban adaptation strategies and systemic approaches to resilient urban planning and design” 


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About the author(s)

Raisa Cole leads the Urban Solutions team, a multi-disciplinary consultancy specialising in youth-based consulting, small-scale urban project management, and place-making facilitation. Raisa has extensive experience in sustainable development, having done policy work and analysis for the UN World Food Programme, African Union (AU), Solidaridad Southern Africa and the African Institute for Community Driven Development, among others. She has an MSc degree in International Cooperation and Urban Planning as well as an MSc in Urbanism, Habitat and International Cooperation. Raisa is also the head researcher for the Not in My Neighbourhood documentary. Twitter handle: .Cole


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