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Land Surveying and Squatting

Ronald Coase Centre for Property Rights Research, Department of Real Estate & Construction, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Land 2022, 11(10), 1740;
Submission received: 15 September 2022 / Revised: 28 September 2022 / Accepted: 4 October 2022 / Published: 8 October 2022


Although its scale and social implications depend on the specific country or local situations, squatting is a global urban and rural phenomenon associated with such humanitarian issues as social justice, poverty and environmental impact, as well as economic issues, such as rent seeking by certain groups. It can be sporadic or massive. The state appears to deal with the former by implementing legal rules and the latter with social policies. With regard to the economic gains and costs of allowing squatting, it can be argued that squatter policies, which confer some entitlements on squatters, are akin to the doctrine of adverse possession in equity through recognising the benefits of long-term possession of land. Surveying and mapping as a key tool in the regulation of squatters in this context may or may not be carried out, contrary to common belief. This paper demonstrates, with documented real-world examples from Australia and China, that the state surveying of massive urban or rural squatting on government land is contingent on the benefits and costs of tolerating squatting. The discussion is related to the transfer of development rights (TDR) as a practicable inclusive policy in the context of a global drive towards land assembly for real estate development, which squatters often obstruct.

1. Introduction

One of the areas of planning that can help promote sustainable development in support of UN 2030 goals is to “Create new planning instruments to free land from its outmoded cadastral boundaries to release its development potential without violating rights to land (to guarantee spatial efficiency and equity).” This work shall deal with examples of the transfer of development rights (TDR) in relation to squatting, which forms the habitat for many.
Squatting is a global phenomenon associated with such humanitarian issues as social justice, poverty and environmental impact and economic issues. It has become articulated with the autonomous and mainly non-institutional mode of citizen participation, protest and self-management, summarised as the Occupy movement [1,2].
Defined as the occupation of land belonging to others without permission and denying their rights, squatting on government land is often conspicuous, manifesting as insightful shanty towns, slums or street shelters for rough sleeping, which draws attention, if not also public outcry, as unacceptable, substandard housing.
According to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11.1 of the United Nations (UN), by 2030, everyone in the world will need access to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services. This also means upgrading slums as informal settlements, which has captured international attention [3,4,5,6].
While squatting can be sporadic and unconnected with poverty or homelessness, widespread squatting as a mode of shelter can be symptomatic of the land market if not also land planning. Endeavours to control these squatters, in line with the rational bureaucracy thinking, typically begin with a squatter survey to collect the data, to be updated regularly.
This paper uses extant research works on real-world cases to demonstrate that the surveying of massive urban or rural squatting on government land involves weighing the benefits and costs of squatting.
The discussion pertains to the implementation of SDG 16 of the UN, namely to improve people’s lives by reducing violence, improving access to justice and promoting effective, accountable and inclusive institutions.
A major source of actual and potential violence is land assembly for profit-seeking real estate development running roughshod over squatters who sit on the land targeted.

2. Literature Review: Surveying and Mapping of Squatters by the State

Government surveying and mapping of the topography and use of land is often taken for granted for the smooth functioning of an efficient economy, if not a responsible government. “By the end of the seventeenth century, Anglo-Americans on both sides of the Atlantic accepted the importance of surveying to any system of land ownership. Most historians of colonial British have similarly taken colonial surveying practices as a given.” [7].
However, the application of surveying and mapping to deal with squatting is in the literature, which focuses on unquestioned proactive measures by the state [8,9] or community bodies [10] to help squatters, which is seldom articulated in terms of the government’s choice to intervene.
Suspicion of and animosity towards the surveyor by native peoples and squatters has a long history (see, for instance, Ref [11]), but the matter has not come to pass. In an era of a drive towards surveys based on more advanced aerial reconnaissance techniques [12], government squatter surveys should serve genuine housing rather than ulterior purposes, especially when indigenous or customary interests are denied or violated.
In the economics of industry, the growth in demand for land surveying as a profession has been attributed to population growth, as in the case of the Maritime Provinces [13,14], but does not seem to be well connected to squatting [15].
A growing body of literature on post-colonial developing world land problems has highlighted land surveying as a rent-seeking tool. In Sudan, for example, due to an increased demand for land and the interest of its government in owning and controlling greater areas of it, “surveying and titling efforts have interrupted traditional patterns of land use and created opportunities for both rent-seeking and inequitable distribution of land, with a disproportionate number of the victims being returnees or women.” [16]. The land surveyor and their client(s), not the squatter, are the rent seekers. Lending support to such research is the factor of violence as part of the materiality of land property, which is predicated on land surveying, as propounded in the works of Refs [17,18]. One should be careful with the meaning of violence here, as the institution of property (communal or private) cannot survive if it cannot constrain rent dissipation or enable the betterment of land [19].

3. Massive Squatting as a Policy Issue from an Economic Point of View

Squatting means the unauthorised possession of land belonging to others in defiance of their titles or rights to land (communal or private) as real property. Common law allows squatters to gain ownership of the land under the doctrine of adverse possession if their occupations are continuous.
Squatting can be sporadic or massive, overt or hidden, urban or rural, and involve individuals occupying other individuals’ or communities’ properties or government land. When it is massive, and the occupied land belongs to the state, squatting poses a special land problem with social implications from the ruler’s point of view. The land problem is one of asserting state ownership to pre-empt the loss of potential income from the occupied land, which could otherwise be sold, leased or used by the government. This social dimension varies according to the mode and aesthetics of squatting, whether it is for residential, industrial, agricultural or other use. Massive squatting, notably urban or peri-urban, in the form of dense, unhygienic and unsightly shanty towns or slums, would put great political pressure on governments in terms of social justice and adverse national image with serious international financing consequences.
Research on squatting as a habitat issue during the first three decades after World War II, with a focus on developing countries, concentrated on its housing and developmental dimensions. Now, the research has become global, as squatting in the developed world is now more conspicuous—appearing along the streets of town centres—and vocal with the rise of pro-squatting organisations.
The economics of squatting is a special growing research area. From the welfare economics point of view, massive squatting has been treated as a negative externality (i.e., incurring social cost) that justifies government intervention. Accordingly, competent states have land, town planning and/or housing policies to regulate and rehouse squatters in better accommodations.
Recent research informed by neo-institutional economics sees squatting not as a “social problem,” but as: (a) a form of competition with the formal housing sector [20]; (b) rent seeking [21,22]; (c) a means to new property rights formation [23]; or (d) a way of investment by squatters [23]. This paper shall explore the last thesis within a Coasian framework of investment in which property rights are not clearly defined.
Prior to dealing with the theory, it is necessary to reflect on squatting in terms of boundary re-delineation from a meta-historical viewpoint. Squatting is a process of denying and usurping the rights of landowners. It can be argued from this definition that the colonisation of the Americas, Australia, Africa, etc., was a form of European squatting, which generally ignored the property rights of the natives by imposing new de facto boundaries and rules. New state and rights systems were established by the colonists to create, allocate and adjudicate these boundaries, thereby rendering them de jure. For better or worse, these systems generated new forms of settlement, as well as social and economic activities that opened up the continents involved. A feature of the process of colonisation in terms of land was the delineating and re-delineating of boundaries of land plots with the help of surveyors. This was the advent of colonial squatting. “The race that developed between the surveyors and squatters marked the entire history of the land survey, and it was rare for a surveying team to measure productive country that had no settlers at all.” [24].
In the global real estate revolution [25], that is, the drive towards real estate development using international financing, valuable squatted peri-urban land is often the target of land assembly by developers, and this raises issues of how to rehouse the squatters. Market measures, such as land readjustments (LR, see Ref [26]), which are a special case of TDR [27], have been promoted as inclusive means that are in line with SGD 16. TDR refers to the freeing of interests in and entitlements to land parcels from its existing boundaries, so that they can be given new boundaries. When a new boundary is more or less in the same locality, it is called LR.
Boundary delineation leads us to the Coase theorem.

4. Methodological Statement: Coasian Framework for Surveying Squatted Areas

The pertinent policy question is: how should squatting be dealt with from a resource use point of view? Prior to a neo-institutional economic treatment, it should be pointed out that the doctrine of adverse possession hints at an answer.
This equity doctrine balances the social needs and squatters’ economic contributions on the one hand with the interests of landowners as the land’s custodian on the other [28,29]. It affirms that one’s legal title to land property can be revoked if one cannot manage one’s land for various reasons and that the long-term use of a land plot by a trespasser, a de facto occupier, can establish de jure rights that supersede those of the landowner. The legislative move in common law has drastically shortened the minimum length of private land use to the squatter’s advantage from 25 to 12 years.
The doctrine of adverse possession acknowledges the contribution of the squatter to a land plot over a period of continuous actual possession, and it is reasonable to infer that such a contribution has an economic element. Therefore, there is no sensible economic ground for the state to pursue a squatter policy that seeks to punish or eliminate squatters without considering the costs and benefits of squatting.
Generally, the state deals with massive squatting as a property boundary issue in three steps: (a) surveying and mapping the extent of squatting; (b) freezing the limits to squatting; and (c) conforming the squatter’s land holdings to planned units of land or property allocated by sale or grant. These steps are only taken when it can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to squatting as an economically positive activity.
According to the Coase theorem formulated by Nobel laureate George Stigler based on his colleague Nobel laureate Ronald H. Coase’s work [30] “The Problem of Social Cost,” written with the purpose of devastating Pigou’s concept of social cost, how land boundaries are delineated does not affect land resource allocation, where transaction costs are zero. Furthermore, there would not be any room for the consumption of production innovations or investment, as the technology is given (as the best), and there are only instantaneous and costless exchanges of property rights in response to changes in the relative prices of the resources, goods and services in question.
If property boundaries are immaterial, then squatting as a means of redefining de facto property boundaries (with innovations already assumed) would not affect land resource use or efficiency. In that case, any law, policy or government intervention against squatting, which usually precedes surveying and mapping, would be redundant.
However, as the real world is full of transaction costs, boundary delineations (and therefore squatting) do affect land resource use and efficiency. Above all, massive squatting in specific locations, as agglomerated economic activities, does not simply redefine boundaries but likely also involves gainful investments rather than purely rent seeking, which aims to redistribute wealth from the legal owners to the de facto land users—the economic foundation of the doctrine of adverse possession. Therefore, the surveying and mapping of squatted land boundaries are tools with efficient resource use implications.
The rest of this discussion regards widespread squatting on state-owned land by many and how land surveying and boundary delineation play out in such a scenario.

5. Case Studies of Massive Productive Squatting on Land of the State

Although the squatter surveying cases selected in this section were conditioned by their historical and jurisdictional idiosyncrasies, they should feature as ideal samples for further discussion on the subject. The focus is on whether or not to survey, which is the state’s economic choice when confronted by squatters on its land.

5.1. Squatter Farming during the Imperial Ming and Qing Eras

The first case is interesting, in that the governments of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) Dynasties refrained from surveying the cultivated lands within their boundaries operated by squatter farmers. According to the dynasties’ imperial laws, all lands belonged to the emperor, so farmland holders needed to pay land dues to the central (not local) government according to the area of cultivation recorded in the country registrar surveyed by the state. There was only one national farmland survey, which produced the so-called “fish scale atlas” [31] at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (in YEAR) and in 1910—shortly before the end of the Qing Dynasty. Between these two landmark years, there was no survey, although the Chinese officials were aware of the extensive unregistered cultivation of imperial land. The fish scale atlas was used throughout the Ming and Qing eras, when China’s population and the farmland needed to feed it grew from 59,873,305 in 1381 to 329,617,750 by 1910 [32].
The Ming survey findings were used by both dynasties, and the late Qing survey was used by warlords during the Republican era to extract fiscal revenue from landowners.
It has been suggested that this neglect of surveying was connected to the dual land holding system, under which the absentee registered landowners (of “land bones”) paid land taxes and leased their plots to “land skin” holders on fixed rents, regardless of the extent of area under cultivation or the crops they produced. This system allowed for a division of labour between the land bone holders, who ensured a steady supply of tax revenue to the central government, and the land skin holders, who had an incentive to cultivate without express permission by the state beyond their registered boundaries to meet the growing demands for food. The system also indirectly supported local public spending in the absence of local government (county) budgets; the well-to-do landowners were often willing to donate money to disaster relief efforts or local public works as a quid pro quo for being under-taxed [19,33,34]. There was an attempt by a Ming minister to resurvey China to allow the state to collect more revenue. He passed away shortly before the survey was due to commence. His followers were purged, and the survey was dropped due to strong opposition by other officials.

5.2. Squatter Runs in New South Wales during the Colonial Australia Period

Australia’s colonial government was slow to tackle sheep grazing “squatter runs” operated by pastoralists who generated much GDP, as they reared sheep on squatted Crown land in southeast Australia and produced wool for export [35]. In New South Wales (NSW), no survey was performed until it was necessary to placate the latecomers (“selectors”) who wanted to obtain Crown land (“selections”) for farming. The squatters were given legislative pre-emptive rights to purchase significant amounts of the land they occupied.
The method of converting “squatter runs” into “pastoral holdings” under the 1884 Crown Land Act involved the services of land surveyors. “Each pastoralist was obliged to divide his or her holding in half, one of the halves being declared a resumed area upon which selectors could choose their farms, and the other half a leasehold area over which the pastoralist would have some security of tenure. Each pastoralist employed a surveyor to survey the run boundaries and to divide the run in two.” [36].
Forming a wealthy, landowning social class, “the squattocracy,” these squatters greatly impacted the Australian economy and politics [37,38].
Unlike the dynastic Chinese governments, the NSW government, from the beginning, attempted to regulate the squatters on Crown land. However, the state’s land surveying efforts were poor and, in any event, lagged behind any official attempt to regularise squatter runs and the sale of Crown land to selectors [39,40].
That squatters enjoyed a long period of free riding on state-owned land in the countryside and the right to purchase Crown land surely had to do with their positive contribution to the Australian economy.

5.3. Post-War Kowloon Walled City below the Kai Tak Airport Landing Path during Colonial Hong Kong Days

Unlike the two previous cases, the Kowloon Walled City (KWC) is unique, in that the colonial British Hong Kong government regularly surveyed this place, which was densely squatted. It was determined to confine its horizontal and vertical boundaries, as it was officially Chinese territory. Before its demolition in 1993/1994, the KWC was a dense mass of high-rise buildings that lay under the western landing path of the aircraft approaching the Kai Tak International Airport. These buildings were built without any building approval by the government, and their units were not registered as official properties.
KWC’s squatter saga began when the British leased a part of China that the colonial government named the New Territories (NT). Under the treaty for the land lease, the fortified KWC, an enclave in the leased land close to the shore, was expressly Chinese territory, insofar as it posed no danger to the security of the colony of Hong Kong. Soon after the leased land was taken up, the Chinese officials were driven out on grounds of security threats. From that point on until the signing of the Sino–British Agreement of 1984, the jurisdiction over the KWC was contested.
The colonial government granted short-term Crown leases for housing within the fort after a cadastral survey of the NT. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, a resolution was made to turn the fort into a public garden, as it was a tourist attraction. All lease holders were asked to surrender their land plots in exchange for compensation. During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the Japanese demolished the fort’s stone walls, while the squatters moved into the void left behind. They erected wooden and stone huts for housing and industrial purposes. The KWC, with no walls for physical demarcation purposes, spread beyond its ill-defined original boundaries. The post-war British administration sought to survey the KWC during the early 1960s, but the People’s Republic of China protested, as the KWC’s residents saw it as a prelude to squatter clearance.
For a long time, until official records from 1933 to 1976 were released for public inspection (in 2003) by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, scholars had considered that there had never been any government planning for KWC [41]. However, unknown to the general public, the government devised a confidential plan after 1963 called the “Nunnery Scheme,” which was still mooted by 1976 to (a) encircle the squatted place, as delineated by its main walls, with new public roads and public resettlement housing blocks and (b) wait for the squatters to give up their slum units and be rehoused in government public resettlement housing blocks erected in Hong Kong. The scheme deemed a triangular and once-walled portion of the old fort’s uphill defence area as irrelevant and used it to build a resettlement estate after licensing the area for a refugee camp [42,43].
Although the government succeeded in building two roads and public housing estates along the northern and eastern peripheries of the KWC, its squatters did not “surrender” but cooperated with developers to redevelop their possessions into high-rise blocks for various uses: residential, industrial, commercial, entertainment, etc. The government did nothing to stop this, except to ensure that the height of these buildings did not contravene the airport height restrictions for Kai Tak Airport.
The residential units inside the KWC were sold and leased freely at a discount compared to registrable properties in Hong Kong and an informal registrar merged to record these transactions [44]. Industries, trade and commerce flourished inside the KWC during its lifespan and were open to everyone. Government land surveys did not aim to regulate or promote free trade inside the KWC but were part of a political strategy to contain and regulate its spatial dimensions pending a diplomatic solution for it.
Eventually, the city was demolished, and all occupants whose units were registered by the informal registry were given a chance to buy Housing Authority (HA) home ownership scheme (HOS) units.

5.4. Post-War Squatter Settlements in Colonial Hong Kong

The colonial British Hong Kong government adopted a laissez-faire policy of non-intervention towards the looming squatter settlements, which were fuelled by refugees fleeing China during and after its civil war, until a big fire burnt down the Shek Kip Mei squatter area. The policy triggered an entrenched programme of resettling squatters occupying unallocated Crown land in nominal public housing rental units, irrespective of wealth or income, as the land the squatters occupied could then be sold or formally developed. This process was called “development clearance,” and the government financially benefited from it. The policy shift was justified expressly not in terms of humanitarianism or philanthropy but land economics; the costs of disaster relief and the opportunity costs of Crown land exceeded the costs of using taxpayer money to rehouse squatters in public housing. Squatter clearance and rehousing only occurred when the occupied land was needed for sale as leasehold interests to industrial and residential developers whose activity would generate revenue for the government [45].
From 1972, squatters were surveyed hut by hut and given surveyed numbers for identification in the rehousing process. Clearing squatter areas for development and rehousing squatters was a protracted process, which continued past the 1997 handover due to the continuous immigration of low-income immigrants from China.
The squatter survey added a layer of land information to the regular land survey of the colony as a typical GIS building. The largest survey maps were 1:600 and 1:1200 (imperial scales for Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and New Kowloon) and the NT (outside New Kowloon), along with 1:1000 (metric scale for all of Hong Kong).
Using planning vocabulary, the colonial British Hong Kong government used a form of TDR to survey and rehouse urban and peri-urban squatters in public housing units. Although the squatters had no formal land rights, they did acquire some entitlements to formal assisted housing units under the housing policy, which they could surrender in exchange for better quality and saleable units under the Home Ownership Scheme, so they ended up as proprietors similar to private market homebuyers.
The Hong Kong system was also driven by the consideration that the city’s squatters supplied cheap labour and/or manufacturing products for a growing economy [23].
Presently, massive squatting in the form of shanty towns is far less extensive or common in Hong Kong, as the government now clears squatters more readily even without an imminent need for land sales. However, squatting has continued in the form of intense subdivisions in formal housing units in violation of building codes and/or land leases.

5.5. Small Property Rights (SPR) Housing, China

Small property rights (SPR) housing in China is a massive form of squatting—perhaps the biggest in modern history [46,47]. SPR housing consists of blocks of units built on collectively owned land, which is supposed to be used only by members of collectives. However, there is a covert market for these units, which are transacted at prices lower than those on the formal housing market. In terms of appearance, there is no difference between SPR and officially approved housing. The purchasers of SPR housing are, legally speaking, squatters. About 20 percent of China’s population live as squatters in SPR housing. No mapping or survey has been conducted of the land it occupies. The cost of removing the squatters is so high that the squatters have gained some de facto rights, even though their units are actively transacted on the black market.

6. Discussion

Several points that are significant in terms of property rights can be discussed from the five examples mentioned above.

6.1. Production Activities of Squatters

First, squatter zones are often entrepreneurial production apart from being settlement centres. This was the case for the peasant squatters during the Ming and Qing eras, the NSW squatter runs, KWC building units and some squatter areas in colonial Hong Kong. They have social values after a long period of settlement, and they also contribute to the local or even international economy.

6.2. Surveying as a Policy Option for Dealing with Squatting

Second, in each case, the government was sensitive to the theoretical and/or potential economic contributions and costs of the squatters. Surveying the areas they occupied was only important for the sake of containment, as in the case of the KWC, or TDR, as in the cases of squatter conversion in NSW and squatter rehousing in Hong Kong.

6.3. Squatting as an Act of State

Third, the state is sometimes a super squatter. From a Han Chinese point of view, the Qing regime was a barbarian usurper and less than legitimate. In Australia, the colonial administration did not regard the aborigines, who had used the land for ages, as having any land right entitlements to any part of the country. However, if one treats them as having natural rights to land, then the colonial state was the country’s super squatter. Similarly, China treated Britain as Hong Kong’s squatter, while Britain treated its unwelcomed occupants within its defined perimeters as squatters. Both parties tolerated their squatters for a while for economic and/or political reasons.

6.4. Purpose of Surveying Squatter Areas

Fourth, the goal to ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services, upgrading and replacing slums, is an ongoing struggle for any country. In terms of resources, growing economies should be more able to attain this goal. However, when squatting contributes positively to an economy, the improper regulation or indiscriminate eviction of squatters can defeat the goal and shift the problem of squatting elsewhere instead of eliminating it. Surveying squatter settlements without a credible programme of resettlement serves no meaningful purpose other than simply collecting information.

6.5. TDR for Squatters

Fifth, TDR can be seen in the purchase of portions of squatted land parcels in situ by NSW pastoralists and rehousing of Hong Kong squatters into public housing units ex situ. In the former, the squatter runs were surveyed and shared by pastoralists and selectors according to the legislative rules. In the latter, squatter huts were registered for the relocation of their occupants to formal public housing units.

6.6. The Third Coase Theorem

Sixth, in all of the above cases, the third Coase theorem [33], based on Coase’s paper on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) [48], as identified by Cheung and accepted by Coase as the Coase theorem [49], was at work. Unlike George Stigler’s version, this does not require “clearly defined property rights,” but only “some delimitation of rights” for market transactions. As exemplified by the colonial NSW and Hong Kong experiences, policies conferred some entitlements on squatters (incomplete private property). This was akin to the doctrine of adverse possession in recognising the benefits of long-term possession. As a result of this entitlement delimitation, different markets emerged for squatting. A dual land system consisting of land bone and land skin rights evolved to organise imperial Chinese farmland. What the Chinese bureaucracy was interested in was the registered amount of land (i.e., area) cultivated as a proxy for land tax calculations; the exact location and shape of a land parcel (i.e., its surveyed boundaries) was immaterial. The same occurred when land certificates were issued to privatise communal land in the post-Soviet Ukraine [50]. The building units of the KWC, squatter areas in Hong Kong, and SPR housing unit were freely transacted on informal markets through simple contracts. In these cases, a clear delineation of boundaries for individual possessions was unimportant.
The KWC is an interesting case because it was no ordinary shanty town. It was a clearly delineated and regularly surveyed settlement of high-rise reinforced concrete buildings with power supply and telephone communications provided by franchised companies [41,42,43,44]. However, the transactions of unregistrable properties were recognised de facto in the market and de jure for stamp duties [44]—though in the absence of government title registration. The post-demolition conferral of housing benefits to KWC squatters was based on the information voluntarily registered with the informal registrar.

6.7. Squatting and Title Registration

Seventh, the cases shed light on the implications of the contrast between the relatively efficient land use policy of adverse possession associated with mature common law jurisdictions (say, NSW) and the apparently “sloppy” approach in the examples from Ming/Qing China and the PRC outside common law. The former enables the newly titled land owners (the former squatters) to use their land as collateral for loans for capital accumulation and betterment of land by entrepreneurial ventures. Is title registration decisive for capital formation? Soto’s Mystery of Capital [51] says so. Endorsed by such pro-market scholars as Milton Friedman and Ronald Coase, Soto holds that the lack of formal titling prevents the use of property as collateral and hence prevents the capital embedded in these assets from being alienated with the aid of formal bank loans.
The examples from Ming/Qing China and the PRC outside common law are important not so much because there was an immaturity of law, absence of title registration or lack of technical expertise of surveying but an apparent tacit understanding between the officials and those who have/had formally registered rights about the need to maintain the status quo of not surveying or resurveying registered land.
Coase’s endorsement of Soto’s work is best interpreted in relation to his [48] FCC piece. Soto is, in a sense, Hayek [52] writ land capital. Hayek’s view of capitalism, i.e., Western market economy, is that it can work only in the presence of well-entrenched rule of law rather than rule by status. The FCC piece breaks new theoretical ground by positing that some (not full or clear) delimitation of rights is sufficient for market transactions. Soto’s analysis actually lends support to this more general view of market transactions, as a land market exists everywhere under different forms of governance.
However, a mere title registration (to reduce the transaction costs of knowing who the owners of the land are) is insufficient unless the land registry also registers cadastral boundaries (who owns how much land where). Soto’s work makes no reference to surveyors, land surveying or land or cadastral boundaries—the focus of our paper. The Ming/Qing system had a good title registration of who owned how much officially granted land where in each country.
To facilitate a better appreciation of the types of squatting, Table 1 below shows a matrix of the squatting examples examined in this paper by mode of title registration and boundary survey.

7. Conclusions

This paper articulated land surveying and land boundary delineation in terms of the UN’s SDGs 11 and 16. Through a literature review of the government’s surveying and mapping of squatters and the economics of massive squatting on government land, the authors examined five real-world cases of surveying and non-surveying of squatters as a decision variable. These examples are squatter farming in imperial Ming and Qing China; squatter runs in colonial New South Wales; Kowloon Walled City in colonial Hong Kong; squatter settlements in colonial Hong Kong; and small property rights (SPR) housing in the PRC.
In light of the Coase theorem, the boundary dimension of massive squatting on government land and government responses to it via surveying were discussed. The above examples showed that surveying is less a matter of where to draw the line, which is a purely technical story, but whether or not to draw any line regarding a squatter area as a social, economic and political consideration. The points discussed were: squatter settlements as potential entrepreneurial production zones; surveying as a policy option and an act of state; the purpose of squatter surveys; TDR for squatters; the Coase theorem and squatting; and title registration and squatting.
Land surveying in recent discourses on the materiality of land was taken as something that renders land investable [53]. This work shows that squatters can render land investable, so surveying has to take this into consideration. Like refugees, squatters have not only human dignity and capital but also hope and labour, which can positively reshape a place. Therefore, land surveying practices, such as town planning [54], should be applied to squatting.

Author Contributions

Conceptualisation, L.W.C.L. and K.W.C.; methodology, L.W.C.L.; formal analysis, L.W.C.L. and K.W.C.; investigation, L.W.C.L. and K.W.C.; writing—original draft preparation, L.W.C.L.; writing—review and editing, L.W.C.L. and K.W.C. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.


The authors are thankful for the useful comments of two anonymous referees and the advice of Iain M. Stuart regarding the Australian “rich squatters”.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Table 1. A taxonomy of examples studied by mode of land interest registration and government boundary survey.
Table 1. A taxonomy of examples studied by mode of land interest registration and government boundary survey.
Land Interest Formally
by Government
Land Interest Informally
Land Interest Formally
Unregistrable by
Boundary surveyed by governmentLand bone interest in imperial Ming/Qing China
Communal housing units in PRC
Building units inside Kowloon Walled City, colonial Hong KongBuilding units inside Kowloon Walled City, colonial Hong Kong
Squatter runs in colonial NSW, Australia
Boundary un-surveyed by governmentLand skin interest in imperial Ming/Qing ChinaNo example found yetSmall property rights (SPR) housing units in PRC
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Lai, L.W.C.; Chau, K.W. Land Surveying and Squatting. Land 2022, 11, 1740.

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