Planning, Property and Plots at the Gateway to Kenya’s ‘New Frontier’

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As the gateway to the former Northern Frontier District, Isiolo town has long been viewed as marking the beginning of a ‘Kenya B’ – a ‘low potential’ desert region of communally owned land – set in contrast to more economically productive and individually owned land to the south. In recent years, however, Isiolo has been reframed as the gateway to a region of economic potential with the announcement of the ambitious Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) project, which seeks to transform the town into an economic hub along an infrastructure network spanning the north. While ‘new frontier’ discourses portray the transformation of Isiolo and northern Kenya as a process of conversion and integration into the ‘nation proper’, and in particular through the formalisation and privatisation of its land, this article argues that transformations in Isiolo town are rather occurring through the articulations or ‘frictions’ between the anticipation of the projects and Isiolo’s historical politics of land and settlement. Since the town’s establishment in the early twentieth century, questions over who ‘owns’ the town have manifested in inter-ethnic competition over territory. The focus of this competition shifted to residential plots during the 1990s, when ownership of land at the town’s edges began to be re-written through ‘town planning’ initiatives and the formal allocation of plots. Between 2014 and 2015, the anticipation of LAPSSET and the increased demand for plots that accompanied it was amplifying the politics of land, settlement and ethnic identity in the town. Through tracing the historical micro-politics of settlement and the making of plots, the article illustrates how transformations in the town are occurring through the anticipation of LAPSSET, its articulation with historical politics of belonging, and local agency as people seek to secure a place in the anticipated city of the future.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Eastern African Studies
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)511-529
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Land
  • Urban planning
  • Property
  • Frontier
  • Anticipation

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