Managing Street Vending in African City Centres


In the first pandemic of the 21st century, COVID-19, cities across the African continent experienced lockdowns as usual trading was put to halt. As cities that are characterized heavily by informality particularly street vending, the lockdowns have revived the longtime debate on regulations regarding street vending. What provoked this discussion was the tranquility in city centres and town centres during the lockdowns, as there was no street trading. Many people found this environment of no vending in city centres to be tranquil and ideal. Following this lead, municipalities have been discussing how they can maintain the tranquility of city centres that most citizens witnessed during the lockdown. In their intentions however, it became evident, street vending is a very polarizing issue that need to be discussed candidly among experts and policymakers to find common ground.

A Polarised Issue

Street vending is one of the most controversial and polarizing issue in the built environment. On one side of the polarization is the antipoverty argument that contends that vending is a symptom of a deep-seated problem of a poorly performing economy. The proponents of this position argue that street vendors have the right to the city, that they should earn their living from city centres where vending is most vibrant. On the other side of the polarization is the absolute order argument. Proponents of absolute order argue that street vending hampers the operation of formal businesses so it needs to be moved out of the city centres where formal commerce is concentrated.

When a city has such controversies and conflicting interests among various groups of society, it is the primary role of town planners to rationalize these conflicting interests. By their very nature as professionals, town planners solve challenges in a way they keep cities and towns in equilibrium, whenever a city goes into disequilibrium it is the role of town planners to correct the disequilibrium using land as their primary tool. By doing so town planners act as allocators of scarce resources among all the inhabitants of the city, making sure the interests of one group do not trample the interests of other groups, by that creating harmony.

In most cities across Africa however, the town planners themselves as the responsible professionals do not have a common position on how to address street vending. Most of the expert opinions of the town planners are also as polarized as the opinions of the public. There are town planners who believe that since vendors have the right to earn a livelihood, they should not be moved out of their vending places, that the governments should address the fundamental cause of vending which is poor economic performance. Such town planning opinion stems from the idea of ‘right to the city’ of a socialist city, which is also currently fashionable in urban development.

Another group of town planners are of the opinion that vendors should be moved out of the city centres to ensure formal commerce operates in tranquility. This idea stems from the modernist movement of utilitarian orderliness of the 1950s, which shaped most zoning regulations that are used in town planning across Africa, as most have not been updated since the end of colonial administrations. This opinion leans towards the capitalist side of town planning, by asserting right to private property and promotion of the formal economy.

As town planners are also polarized on how to solve street vending, they are challenged to remember that they create great cities and towns not when they act as moralists that ban activities absolutely or allow activities unregulated, great cities emerge when town planners act as rational allocators that put land use activities in places that ensure harmony.

As polarized arguments keep dominating the street vending discussions, the centred argument has not been explored as much. So, I would like to take on this task of rationalizing these two polarized arguments. I believe if African cities and towns are to integrate street vending in their centres successfully the two polarized ideologies on their own will not achieve the integration. The solution lies in a balance of this polarization. Before going into the rationalization of solutions to street vending however, there is need to understand the historical context of street vending, at least briefly.

A Historical Context

In the modern cities and towns, street vending may appear to be an alien practice that should be removed from city centres. The history of city centres, however, is a history of street vending. In the early evolution of cities, from Babylonia, Egypt, Medo-Persian Empire, Greek, Roman, British Empires, all these centuries, retail was mainly inform of designated central markets and street hawking. During these centuries, stores as they have become established now were not so. As a result, market squares and market halls were prominent features of town and city centres. During the days when markets were closed, street peddlers moved from place to place selling their wares and groceries. The establishment of permanent stores emerged as a new development to improve convenience, and they were mostly known as convenience stores.

Across the world regardless of the level of industrialization and formal economic activities cities experienced, they were not immune to street vending. In England for example with it being leading in industrialization, it also had a huge challenge of street peddling, so significant that in the late 19th century, the population of street peddlers in London was big enough. If London’s peddlers were to break off from London, they would have formed a city that was going to be the fifth largest in England. New York City as late as the 1950s it still had a huge challenge of street vending. The stories of the cat and mouse game between vendors and police in New York City resemble very much what is now happening in most African cities. 

This historical context helps us understand better how street vending has been a part of the city in the evolution of cities. It helps us locate the state of evolution of African cities and towns in relation to street vending. Eventually it helps us rationalize the polarized solutions to street vending.

The Anti Poverty Pole

The antipoverty proposition on street vending is very well-intentioned and understands the plight of the urban poor who survive on street vending. As well intentioned as the proposition is however, its absolutism creates more challenges in the long run. The challenge with this absolutist approach is that it focuses on the interests of one group that is the vendors. However, as street vending occurs in city centres where many other activities are impacted, the approach has ripple effects that eventually influence the urban poor negatively. As street vending is advocated for absolutely under the antipoverty sentiments, across the continent, vending has gone so radical to the extent of destabilizing the formally established retail. For example, there are now cases where vendors are selling groceries in front of supermarkets, clothes right in front of clothing stores. This creates a difficult competition environment for formal retailers that pay taxes and rates while also employing a significant number of people. To continue advocating for the antipoverty proposition creates a situation where formal businesses that contribute to the revenue of the city and the national economy more end up channeling their goods to the informal market to cut the costs of operating formally. This eventually weakens the formal retail sector and the revenues that city authorities and national governments rely on to provide the much-needed services.

As much as the vending population is struggling to make end meet, this level of free reign risks creating an environment of anarchy. Also, when indiscriminate street vending operates in places that are incompatible with other uses in terms of noise levels and pedestrian traffic, the formal commercial activities in city centres flee to suburban office parks. As this population leave city centres that are flooded with street vending to operate in suburban office parks and living in gated communities, the trend creates the opposite of inclusive cities that proponents of antipoverty idea seek to achieve.   The well-to-do will cluster in suburbs both as place of residence and of work; they will hardly ever mix with the urban lower class to understand the plight of each other which promote class cooperation. But it could be argued that such a development is a good ingredient for urban revolutions to abolish capitalism and class struggle as the well-to-do forget about inequality while cocooned in the wealthy enclaves. In such a situation, the municipal authorities will be losing on prime sources of revenue from city centre uses, the same revenue that can be used to subsidize for urban services for low income groups.       

The Absolute Order Pole

The call for absolute order is a position that is supported by many, from the public to urban planning professionals. For decades, municipal authorities have been trying to implement this approach of decongesting city centres without much progress. When municipalities designate market places that are out of the city centre, the street vendors do not go to these sites for one reason, there is less traffic to make the sites vibrant for vending.

The absolute order proponents have well compelling arguments because the city centres thrive on spatial harmony. The city centres are more successful when they are orderly, when their various operations operate harmoniously and properties are used effectively and efficiently by high value uses. These conditions however are still a utopia that we now see in postindustrial cities in developed countries. Across Africa, cities are still developing; the pains of poor economic growth do not allow such a utopia to exist. Therefore, the solution of absolute order will struggle to be successful as it ignores the realities of street vending.  Moving street vendors out of the city centres has been like pumping water upstream, it has been an act of defying gravity which requires a lot of resources.

Towards Rationality

To succeed at integrating street vending into cities two realities need to be acknowledged: (i) leaving vending unregulated creates spatial anarchy and (ii) vending is most vibrant where there is high traffic (mostly pedestrian).

Following the need to regulate vending, the current vending in city centres need to be put into designated vending sites. To succeed at this in city centres one crucial measure is to zone the city centres and town centres into sub districts. In most cities, this zoning also exists through various instruments of local planning such as town planning schemes, local development plans. However, this zoning in most cities and towns is not implemented effectively.

Without city centre  sub districts the various types of street trading conflict with the formal commerce that exist in specific areas because of incompatibility in terms of factors such as traffic levels, noise levels. When city centres are zoned into sub districts compatibility and spatial harmony between the street trading and the formal commerce can be achieved. For example, financial districts accommodate the financial services and other office uses of compatibility, shopping districts accommodate the retail activities of the city centre, entertainment district accommodate specific uses, government district also accommodate specific government offices. These sub districts are evident in most cities across the world. For example, New York City which introduced sub districts during the industrialization era to reduce manufacturing effects on other uses now have distinct sub districts such as garment district, financial district, and entertainment districts.

When cities have such sub districts, compatibility of various uses is easy to achieve when regulating street vending. The location of vending sites can be in accordance with the sub districts that they serve best. For example, vending sites for clothing will be  located in the designated fashion district where such customers cluster. When vending is regulated according to compatibility to sub districts issues such as noise and traffic levels becomes easy to manage.   Vending stalls are crucial to be established that are compatible with specific districts of the city centres.

While designating street vending according to sub districts is noble and rational, another challenge is that city authorities across the African continent lack adequate personnel to enforce regulations within the designated vending sites as well as effectively controlling undesignated vending.

Now, municipal authorities may not have adequate personnel to enforce regulations within designated vending sites as well as controlling undesignated vending. When city centre vending sites are established however, compliance to regulations such as noise levels can be enforced by establishing street vending associations that will be in charge of specific sub districts. Such associations can organize street vending more orderly and with compliance of municipal regulations and adoption of best practices in city centre trading.

The population that practice street vending in city and town centres across Africa is significantly high; it cannot be accommodated into the city centres all of it without disrupting the spatial harmony that city centres require to operate efficiently. This is where the decongestion movement comes in. The decongestion movement proposes moving vendors out of the city centres. To make the approach effective however, the decongestion of vending has to be done with accompanying uses that draw most of the traffic to the city centre. Cities and towns across Africa already have suburban shopping centres. In most cases, these shopping centres however are not as vibrant as the city centres.

To drive some of the traffic to suburban shopping centres it is crucial to also move supermarkets that are located in city centres. Unlike other retail activities supermarkets do not require agglomeration with other supermarkets for them to be vibrant; on their own they are already agglomerations. The challenge is that most town centres and city centres across the country have supermarkets yet the centres do not have residential living they serve. So they eventually serve suburban dwellers who some of them drive past their suburban shopping centres to do grocery shopping in city centres. In another ViewPoint, I discuss at length on the tragedy of city centre supermarkets explaining how central they are to the decongestion of city centres. The suburban traffic however which could have ended at suburban shopping centres also add to the increase of food and grocery vending that could have concentrated in suburban shopping centres where food retail is the dominant activity.

If municipal authorities across the continent are to decongest vending from city centres successfully, the decongestion should not be to sites that are totally new.  New sites have proven to fail and require huge amounts of resources to make them work.  The decongestion needs to be to the existing suburban shopping centres.

However, the decongestion of street vending to suburban shopping centres also depends significantly on the qualities of the shopping centres as transport nodes that receive traffic. This is also, where cities need to ensure suburban shopping centres become major transport nodes in the public transport network. Doing this also requires coordination and enforcement that can be done using public transport associations and operators. Nonetheless, decongesting supermarkets from city centres and town centres is such a tall order that most municipalities will not be able to do given that supermarkets in city centres are well established. At the very least, the municipal authorities, urban planning professionals, the public and policymakers have to know the real cost of locating disproportionate number of supermarkets in the centres of their cities and towns. As street vending is a phenomenon that evolve as the economies develop, it requires adjustments in various areas and collaboration of many stakeholders to implement medium and long-term strategies that ensure vibrancy and spatial harmony.

Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda is a senior research associate at the African Urban Institute. His research and technical advisory work covers the transformation of cities across Africa focusing on land use planning, urban renewal and municipal reform. His most recent book, Dystopia, discusses the fragmentation caused by specialist approaches to the development of African cities.


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