Interview with Geoffrey Payne
May 30, 2017
What was the turning point in your life that directed your interest towards urban issues and more specifically land rights?
I was always more interested and competent in the social and cultural aspects of design than in the technical. For my thesis, I worked on an area in the middle of England that was of decaying industry of mining and how were people adapting and adjusting and what did that mean for architecture. I got interested in how people use design and use space. So I got the opportunity to go to India, and I said to the professor there that as an architect I wanted to do something there that would be useful socially. He said, “Well, we’ve got this big problem with slums, would you like to look at that?” So I spent about a year trying to figure out how people survived, what constraints they faced, and how they managed to live and operate in the city. One thing I became aware of as a universal law is that most people are willing to suffer themselves if they think it will give their children a better life. That was certainly true in the slums I found in Delhi. What I realized is that you cannot just look at the slums as an individual thing. You have to look at them as part of a bigger picture. The big picture is what motivates people to come from poor rural areas where they had good housing and to live in slums in the big city. Why would they do it? Why would any sensible person leave a nice house and go to live in squalor? It is because generally speaking they thought that their children would have a better life. This was their stepping stone for the next generation. Some of them did well, and others didn’t. But they all had a hope of a better future. Housing and access to land were the key elements in either facilitating or constraining that process. I found my job was to see how the people used space in the informal sector. I’ve been all over the world, and I have never ever seen an informal settlement where people waste a square centimeter of land. In projects by professionals you see full hectares wasted, and it makes me quite angry. But you never see that in informal settlements. People use space not only efficiently from an economic point of view, but also from a social point of view. It is a very complex, very subtle process. My main conclusion from all this is: try and find out how people use and organize space themselves, and see how you can adapt and improve on it. Build on it. That probably means you will be much more effective in meeting people’s needs than if you were not that sensitive.
So you realized early on the importance of land?
I have been working now for nearly 50 years on these issues. I think it is probably true to say that in all of those years land and housing have never been more important or more central to the wider issues of social development than they are today. That applies across all countries: rich, poor, western, eastern, northern, southern, and so on. Land and access to land with the increasing global population and increasing concentrations in urban areas. In 2011 China came to be more than half urban. Think of the masses of people coming into urban areas–all wanting a better future, all willing to suffer in the short term for a long term benefit. The pressure that puts on land is enormous.
Those who are in positions of influencing access to land are very powerful. It’s very important that they use that power responsibly to benefit the whole society. Sadly, in today’s world we see a concentration of wealth. Two or three years ago 86 people held the same wealth as the lowest half of the world population. Last year was down to 65. This year it is down to 8 people who have the equivalent of half the world’s wealth.1 That is not sustainable in my view.
Land and property are vehicles that are expressing this inequality. We’re seeing these issues play out internationally and governments have been very slow to react, to see how you can create markets which are sustainable and equitable, which give a reasonable return on investment but capture a reasonable proportion of that added value for distribution in the public interest. In my opinion, governments need to get much smarter in terms of how to think in a market-driven way to attract investment and be much more skilled at capturing a percentage of that growth for allocation in the public interest.
What action can be taken? How did you face these challenges?
I have worked extensively as an academic, teaching and building capacity in the next generation of students and professionals. I have worked as a researcher, doing projects about things like land tenure, public-private partnerships, reviews of the regulatory environment in which land and housing takes place. All of those issues I’ve written widely on. Then, of course, doing consultancy brings all of these things into very sharp focus. I’d like to think that the research I’ve done informs my consulting. At the same time, the consultancy brings you down to earth in terms of what sort of things are needed for research. The combination of those two informs my teaching. I also learn a lot from teaching. So there is a great interaction. I like to think also that by doing consultancy, teaching, and research, I’m standing on three legs, which makes me more stable and effective in the long run.
Can you map your work for us? What places have influenced you and the way you work?
I have worked in every region of the world. Every area has its attractions and its frustrations and its opportunities. I suppose India is a deep root in my life; my wife is Indian, and we got married when we met there. So I’ve got very deep roots with India, it’s a great country with many challenges, excitements, and frustrations, like all countries. Probably the extremes are more exaggerated in India than they are in other places.
I’ve recently been fascinated by the experience of Vanuatu, a small island country in the Pacific. There they have very deeply ingrained concepts of customary tenure, where the concept of owning land is completely alien. The land owns you. We come from the land, when we die we go back to the land. So how can you own something like that? We are trustees. Vanuatu and many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa share the view that we are temporary residents on land. We need to regard ourselves as trustees for the next generation and for the foreseeable future. We’re inheriting it from our ancestors, and their spirits are what guide us.
So the idea of buying and selling land like a commodity, like cars or furniture or something, is a completely alien concept. So this makes them very vulnerable to ruthless speculators who come in and say “I’d like to share your land” and people welcome them, and then suddenly find out they have somehow lost control.
Now what we face is a clash of cultures, a clash of perceptions of land and the role that it plays in people’s lives. Trying to reconcile these is a big challenge and a big opportunity. There are no easy answers to these things, and society is in a state of flux. There are winners and losers. The role of government is to make sure that the benefits and costs are distributed equitably. What I’m teaching here in this course in Darmstadt is an exercise I’ve been doing for many years, but what I find interesting is that the students seem to recognize that this is an attractive way forward. My frustration is that if it is an attractive way forward, why on earth has it not been adopted? I can only conclude that in a world of inequality, if the political, administrative, and commercial elites in a country are benefiting enough from the status-quo, why should they change? Until we can find a way of persuading them that it is in their own interest change and to adopt more regulatory, well managed way of looking at markets, then I think we’re heading for trouble. So we need to be much smarter as professionals at selling the principles that we’re advocating. Or, if things go into difficulties, we need to be ready with options should things change.
The land management game we are playing now is an exercise of realizing different possibilities. There is not one solution, there are a multiplicity of options. A diverse supply.
A situation, whether it is a result of market forces or state-controlled does not matter, when you have a limited range of supply, whoever controls that supply effectively has a monopoly. There is no incentive to respond to different or changing needs, and there is no incentive for them to be efficient. So the role of government is to stimulate a range of supply options which reflects the diversity of needs. So you do not distort the market by subsidizing one group at the expense of others, rather what you do is to increase more supply options competing on a level playing field. Then people have a choice, and they will choose the one that suits their needs. It is up to the suppliers to be competitive with each other to meet that demand. Then you will have a well regulated market, and the job of government is to keep that system going, to keep always the supply options coming on stream to match changes in demand.
Mundus Urbano emphasizes interdisciplinarity. How have you seen this manifested in facing complex urban issues?
It is a very, very important point. When I was working in Egypt, they didn’t have enough space for all of us to have our own offices. We had to work together in the same office around a table where there was a map of the urban plan. The fact that we were seeing ourselves as part of a bigger picture, rather than in silos working separately and independently, enabled us to come up with proposals which ended up getting an Aga Khan award. It changed the way that we looked at the world. We began to see the benefits of interdisciplinary work. It was dramatic. We were not trying to colonize the other disciplines. We were not trying to colonize the approach. We were part of a bigger picture.
Do you think there has been progress towards a more interdisciplinary professional field over the course of your career?
I do think there is progress. I mean, progress is sometimes very slow and frustrating. Sometimes these things take time. All I can suggest is that you need to keep banging on the door until people open it.
You’ve been a Mundus Urbano visiting lecturer several times. Any words to the future students?
Well I have been very lucky, because all of the times I’ve been here I have had students from the course then come over to work with me as interns the following year. It is an opportunity for them to work on projects I’m doing with the World Bank, for example, or research projects that I’m doing. I now look at it as my time to pass on what I have learned to the next generation. The Mundus Urbano students are all very bright. They come from an enormous range of disciplines and countries and backgrounds, and that’s the richness of the course that I love contributing to. I hope to help in some way to open people’s eyes, to help them see things in a different way, by giving anecdotes and sharing hard experience in case studies.