Planning and policy-making are complex processes because there are multiple stakeholders and actors involved. These processes vary depending on the amounts of time and space involved, and are intricately entwined with the polity, politics, administration, and legislature of a nation state. These complexities often impede the identification of actual underpinnings and causations of the problems, and thus, the effective evolution of solutions. Systems thinking helps us establish the simplicity underlying the complex phenomena through identification of ideas, relationships, consideration of multiple perspectives, and construction of systems and sub-systems using the DSRP rules (D-distinction, S- system, R- relationship, and P-perspectives). Systems thinking is thus an extremely useful tool for policy makers because it helps them dig deep into a problem while relating it to a larger context.

The World Bank defines the urban poor as people who live with deprivations including: limited access to employment opportunities and income, inadequate and insecure housing and services, violent and unhealthy environments, few or no social protection mechanisms, and limited access to adequate health and education opportunities in an urban area. Rapid urbanization, inefficient land administration and inadequate capability to cope with the housing needs of people in urban areas have contributed to the development of informal settlements, a common phenomenon in most developing countries. Such settlements are popularly known by different names in different countries (e.g. Ranchos: Venezuela; Favelas: Brazil; Barriadas: Peru; Bustee/ Juggi Jhompri: India) and have certain common features, including substandard shelter, inadequate basic amenities, unhealthy living environment and hazardous locations. Due to illegal land occupation, residents have to live daily with the perpetual fear of eviction and demolition by authorities, as well as the threat of natural disasters such as floods, landslides, and earthquakes. The occupation of land without formal rights is called informal tenure.

Tenure marks out the extent of rights individuals and communities have over a commodity. Land tenure in particular explains the rights of an individual to use land, the extent of freedom for that use, and the duration for which it is allowed. Land tenure recognized in the presence of legal systems gives rise to land tenure security. In informal settlements in developing countries, tenure informality is the result of land tenure not recognized by legal systems and gives rise to tenure insecurity. Cities attract new entrants through the prospects of both economic and social opportunities, but these increasing populations lead to competition for urban housing and increased property prices and rents. The urban poor then turn to informal land markets to gain easy access to land and property that would otherwise be inaccessible because of high prices and rents. Although informal tenure enables easy and quick low-cost access to land, it hinders the provision of urban infrastructure and services, discourages investment in housing, distorts land use, and results in loss of safety nets and job networks, trapping dwellers of informal settlements in poverty. Census data from India in 2001 reveal that the nation’s slum-dwelling population increased from 27.9 million in 1981 to 61.8 million in 2001. It is estimated that the total slum population of India will be 104 million by 2017.

Access to land is fundamental to human existence. It is the basis of shelter, production of food, economic activities, etc. Land tenure security enables socio-economic empowerment of the urban poor. As Payne explains, giving tenure rights provides incentive for people to invest in housing and improve it. This in turn has various direct and indirect impacts not only on the household, but the settlement as a whole. However, these relationships between land tenure security and access to basic services, housing conditions, health problems, and environment are not easily identifiable because land tenure security has a complex correlation with different social, economic, and political aspects of human life. It is therefore imperative to deconstruct the concept of land tenure security and urban poverty, and explicate the action-reaction relationship between the two.

Consider Figure 1; a diagram I constructed in the initial stages of my research without using systems thinking.

Fig. 1. Land, human beings and legislation- relation

This Venn diagram seems to capture the idea of formal land tenure. However, it does not make the concepts of tenure security, tenure informality, and the cause-effect relationship between these components apparent. The diagram prevents identification of parts and sub-parts of each idea and establishment of dynamic relationships by overlapping the ideas. Other diagrams such as Figure 2 may additionally be needed to understand the concept comprehensively.

Fig. 2. Land Tenure, rights and security – relation

A systemic diagram built using the DSRP theory of systems thinking allows us to distinguish between the different ideas contained in the problem statement such as land, land tenure, land tenure security, and urban poor (D-distinction); to deconstruct each of the ideas into parts and sub-parts (S-systems using parts and sub-parts), establish relationships (R-relationships), and consider different perspectives (P-perspectives). Application of the DSRP rules of systems thinking changed the metacognitive way the problem was organized and approached.

A significant inference was that land tenure security impacts all aspects of urban poverty positively, either directly or indirectly. Land tenure security is ensured by the state either by administratively recognizing the occupation of land and granting real property rights to the occupiers of land, or by notifying the entire squatting area as one that cannot be evicted, popularly called ‘regularization of slums’ in India. As the probability of eviction reduces, tenure security through occupancy rights or titles directly impacts at least four poverty-related indicators: inadequate and insecure housing, inadequate basic services, violent and unhealthy environments, and little or no social protection. Tenure rights and land titles provide a saving opportunity through own-housing stock investment. Also, the return on investment (housing) increases with a decrease in the probability of eviction. Furthermore, owners of formalized dwellings are likely to invest in the community and exert positive externalities. Therefore, land tenure security is extremely important to improve the plight of the urban poor. Furthermore, individual rights and land titles have a much larger impact on socio-economic development of the poor than does regularization.

In India, regularization is a popular solution for providing land tenure security to the urban poor in lieu of providing individual land-plot rights. An examination of policy makers’ mental model using systems thinking revealed various reasons for this. First, policy makers and government have been unsuccessful in making poor households with land rights stay on the same plot—owners rent out the property as an extra source of income and move to shanties in other slums. This creates a never-ending and vicious circle of poverty. Second, governments have been unable to find adequate and fair criterion for subdivision of land: should land be divided equally among all households? Should the property size be proportional to the number of members in each household? Should the allotment be based on the number of years of occupation of the land?

It is apparent that giving individual land titles in slums is a complex and fairly uneasy task. As such, considering a government’s mental model, regularization indeed seems a more viable way of dealing with the issue of tenure security for the poor. This is because: first, the problem of renting out property and illegitimate use of land rights by households is negated as no individual rights are granted; second, subdivision of land is easily avoided; and third, governments can legitimately say the poor are being protected from eviction by notifying the area. Thus, the common notion that governments exclude the poor from enjoying land rights only because land has become a scarce and high-valued resource is not entirely true. The problem of granting of formal tenure security, among other reasons, also stems from a lack of effective policy solutions to retain new landowners on their respective pieces of land and the absence of a clear criterion for subdivision of land.

In India, land tenure security is determined by land policy, which is formulated by the state governments. Other than the reasons stated above, various other external factors influence the government and its policies. One of these factors is the elite and affluent classes[1] who influence the government depending on their negative perception of the urban poor. This negative mental model stems from the government’s inability to provide the urban poor with basic services, infrastructure, and housing. These conditions force the urban poor to reside in hostile environments and to engage in activities and roles that reinforce negative images of this group of people as trespassers, encroachers, carriers of diseases, etc. The negative images the government’s failures facilitate lead to the affluent class pressuring the government to make decisions that oppose the needs of the urban poor, perpetuating a negative feedback loop.

However, this feedback loop is also a complex adaptive system. This means that an improvement in the provision of basic services, infrastructure, and housing to the poor brings a positive change[2] in the behavior of the urban poor, resulting in a positive change in mental models of influential classes, which then influence government policies for the urban poor in positive ways.

In short, providing service and infrastructure changes are micro-behaviors of independent agents, which can lead collectively to larger-scale positive change. This is depicted in Figure 3, where each box represents a distinct idea, black arrows depict the direction of the relationship between the ideas, and yellow lines are the perspectives of the affluent classes on conditions of urban poverty and the slum dwellers.

Fig.3. A Feedback Loop

Thus, a systems based analysis of land tenure security for urban poor in India unveiled the complexity of the situation. The analysis revealed that tenure security and urban poverty are intricately correlated to one another, are components of other larger systems, and are impacted by various immediate and extended factors such as existing policy issues (regularization or individual title granting), and biases of higher income classes against the poor. It is important to note here that these may not be the only issues affecting the problem of land tenure insecurity for the urban poor and the complexity of the topic could be much more severe than what has been portrayed. The aim of using systems thinking is not to make the right choice or decision, but to understand the premise and the context of a given problem and effectively identify its underpinnings.


  1. Businessmen, real estate developers, and other influential people most often belong to this class.
  2. Faith in government, promise of help, and social protection give the poor confidence to engage in social life in better ways. It is often seen that just because of this confidence, school attendance improves, delinquency decreases, and there is an overall positive change in the behavior of households and the community.



Banshree Banerjee. “Security of Tenure in Indian Cities” in Holding Their Ground: Secure Land Tenure for the Urban Poor in Developing Countries. London: EARTHSCAN Publications Ltd (2002).

Derek Cabrera; and Cabrera, Laura. Systems Thinking Made Simple. Odyssean (2015).

Erica Field. Do Property Titles Increase Credit Access Among the Urban Poor? Evidence from a Nationwide Titling Program. Harvard University Press (2006).

Geoffrey Payne. Urban land tenure and property rights in developing countries: A review. London: Intermediate Technology Publications (1997).

Natraj Kranthi; and Rao, Daryani. Security of Tenure and Protection Against Evictions of Slums Dwellers: A Case of Hyderabad. Delhi: Institute of Town Planners of India Journal (2010).

Nilima Risbud. “Policies for Tenure Security in Delhi” in Holding Their Ground: Secure Land Tenure for the Urban Poor in Developing Countries. London: EARTHSCAN Publications Ltd (2002).

US AID. Land Tenure in Urban Environments. US AID (undated).

UN-HABITAT. Secure land Rights for All. UN-HABITAT (2008).


About the Author: Apoorva Kumar is a first year Masters in City and Regional Planning Candidate at Cornell University.

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