UN-Habitat is the United Nations programme working towards a better urban future. Its mission is to promote socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements development and the achievement of adequate shelter for all.
UN-Habitat’s work depends on close partnerships with national and local governments, helping authorities and institutions to identify and address their specific needs. Despite UN-Habitat’s tremendous efforts to prevent uncoordinated human settlement growth and urbanization issues from becoming the world’s next major crisis after climate change, this challenge still requires involvement from all sectors of society. Governments, policy makers, experts, media actors, and members of the public are all vital to addressing the massive urban challenges that we face today, and we encourage everyone to get involved in transforming our shared urban future.
History, mandate & role in the UN system
Although the UN General Assembly had already urged its members before on several occasions to address urbanization issues, it is only in the 1970s that tangible yet timid actions were taken to deal with the rapid and often uncontrolled growth of cities. On 1 January 1975, the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Habitat and Human Settlements Foundation (UNHHSF), the first official UN body dedicated to urbanization. Then under the umbrella of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), its task was to assist national programmes relating to human settlements through the provision of capital and technical assistance, particularly in developing countries. The UNHHSF was only given an initial budget of 4 million US dollars for a total period of four years.
At the time, urbanization and its impacts were less prominent in the UN agenda, mainly because two-thirds of humanity was still rural. The first international UN conference to fully recognize the challenge of urbanization was held in 1976 in Vancouver, Canada. This conference – Habitat I – resulted in the creation, on 19 December 1977, of the precursors of UN-Habitat: the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements – an intergovernmental body – and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (commonly referred to as “Habitat”), which served as the executive secretariat of the Commission.
Habitat was then also mandated to manage the UNHHSF funds. From 1978 to 1996, with meagre financial and political support, Habitat struggled to prevent and to ameliorate problems stemming from massive urban growth, particularly in developing countries. In 1996, the United Nations held a second conference on cities – Habitat II – in Istanbul, Turkey to assess two decades of progress since Habitat I in Vancouver and to set fresh goals for the new millennium. Adopted by 171 countries, the political document – dubbed the Habitat Agenda – that came out of this “city summit” contained over 100 commitments and 600 recommendations.
From 1997 to 2002, Habitat – guided by the Habitat Agenda and, later, the United Nations Millennium Declaration in 2000 – underwent a major revitalization, using its experience to identify emerging priorities for sustainable urban development and to make needed adjustments and corrections in its direction and organizational structure. On 1 January 2002, through General Assembly Resolution A/56/206, Habitat’s mandate was strengthened and its status elevated to a fully-fledged programme in the UN system, giving birth to UN-Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. Key recommendations and fine tuning of the agenda were now underway, along with new strategies for achieving the urban development and shelter goals and targets for the next 15 years.
In 2015, member states approved the Sustainable Development Goals including a dedicated goal for urban development, SDG11 which calls to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” A year later, at the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development – Habitat III – member states signed the New Urban Agenda. This is an action-oriented document which sets global standards of achieving SDG11, rethinking the way we build, manage, and live in cities.
The Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements (Habitat II) and the Habitat Agenda
Stating that “cities must be places where human beings lead fulfilling lives in dignity, good health, safety, happiness and hope,” it also formulated UN-Habitat’s (then still the Habitat Commission) current main twin goals, namely 1) to ensure adequate shelter for all and 2) to guarantee sound development of human settlements in an urbanizing world. To improve the quality of life within urban areas and human settlements, the Habitat Agenda outlined several focal areas necessary for efficient urban development, such as proper urban planning and access to basic services, infrastructure, and adequate housing. Economic, social, cultural, spiritual, and environmental concerns were also taken into account.
Already advocating decentralized systems, the Habitat Agenda moreover stipulated that financial and institutional capacities of municipalities and local authorities be strengthened, thus creating a streamlined and more enabling environment to solve the problems of rapidly growing cities at the ground level. Furthermore, it was stressed that more responsibilities be taken by the private sector to help address human settlements growth, joining in the efforts of governments and local authorities. Likewise, the UN General Assembly agreed to strengthen the Habitat Commission, both in its mandate and financially in order to help member states achieve the goals and commitments set by the Habitat Agenda.
Strengthening UN-Habitat's mandate: Resolution 56/206
It was decided that the Governing Council would be composed of fifty-eight members, to be elected by the UN’s Economic and Social Council for four-year terms. Sixteen members were to be elected from the African States, thirteen from Asian and Pacific States, six from the Eastern European States, ten from Latin American and Caribbean States, and thirteen from Western European and other States. The resolution also mandated UN-Habitat to manage and oversee the United Nations Habitat and Human Settlements Foundation (UNHHSF), the body receiving funds and distributing financial assistance to urban development programmes. It furthermore placed utmost emphasis on the implementation of the Habitat Agenda, with a particular focus on attaining the goals of adequate shelter for all and sustainable development of human settlements.