What is Urban Law?

Urban law is the collection of policies, laws, decisions, and practices that govern the management and development of the urban environment. Legal systems are among the major impediments preventing innovative mayors and urban managers from creating reforms and overcoming the pressing challenges of their cities and urban systems. Many cities are burdened by laws that do not match the prevailing urban reality. Worse still, the capacity to enforce laws and regulations that are already in place is often lacking. Municipal authorities often have limited access to specialist legislative expertise, and struggle to respond to these situations. The multiplicity and rigidity of laws and regulations compel citizens to pursue informal routes to conduct land and property transactions, to do business, to acquire means of a livelihood, and even to access basic services. As a result, parallel systems flourish and Urban Legal informality becomes the norm.

The Challenge

The impact of legislation is important: it can set meaningful frameworks for sustainable development or accentuate inequalities and exclusion. The multiplicity and rigidity of laws and regulations compel citizens to pursue informal routes in areas such as land and property transactions, so urban legal informality becomes the norm. Practical legal interventions are needed to create robust, fair and effective legal instruments for a stable and predictable framework and to guarantee the inclusion of the interests of vulnerable groups, while also providing a catalyst for local and national discourse.

UN-Habitat’s Work on Urban Legislation

UN-Habitat’s knowledge pertaining to legal reform is used to support cities. In addition, UN-Habitat is developing mechanisms for the creation and dissemination of legal knowledge and a network to develop capacity and access external expertise, with the aim of producing:

  • an increased awareness of legal systems operating at the city and national levels;
  • recommendations for more robust strategies to reform urban legal systems; and
  • improved capacities of local authorities to design and implement legal reform.

In undertaking it’s work, UN-Habitat places a priority on practical interventions that are tailored to national and local contexts and needs. These priorities depend upon effective partnerships with local authorities, local experts, and affected communities. Through this approach, UN-Habitat provides the support local and national governments need to incrementally improve their urban legal frameworks while also developing innovative solutions to shape future urban development.


The Urban Lex database has
legal instruments from 68 countries across many thematic areas. The database provides over 24,000 stakeholders with access to urban laws for learning and comparative analysis.
UN-Habitat has supported
countries implement land policy reforms utilizing the continuum of land rights and fit-for-purpose land administration methodologies developed by UN-Habitat and the Global Land Tool Network.
new urban legal reform processes completed, improving the alignment of legal frameworks of national and local authorities for implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

News and Stories

“This training has provided knowledge in all fields of law and has assisted in identifying the reasons why the system is malfunctioning in my country. It has made me a better legal advisor.”

Training participant

Related Sustainable Development Goals

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Leaving no one and no place behind

Hover over or click the icons to learn about UN-Habitat's work on social inclusion here.

UN-Habitat believes in ‘rights-based’ legislation as it will help promote participation as well as the integration of urban dwellers in the development decisions and planning outcomes that affect their daily lives.

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Women are often excluded in urban development initiatives. UN-Habitat advocates for the participation of women and other groups in urban legal interventions as it is a key criterion of success for sustainable urban development

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Youth, children and older persons, especially those in situations of particular risk of marginalization, such as girl child and female-headed households, are often excluded from access to housing, urban basic services, public spaces and infrastructure, and the overall benefits of urbanization. Young women and men have been a key focus of UN-Habitat’s work. The agency has successfully advocated for the role of youth as leaders in sustainable urban development, recognizing the guiding principle of the SDGs of “leaving no one behind,” and the New Urban Agenda vision of cities for all. 

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Sustainable urban development can only be achieved if persons with disabilities are included meaningfully in decision-making and are able to access their rights. UN-Habitat partners with representative groups and individual rights holders, as well as national and local governments, relevant UN bodies and civil society to maximize impact and to meaningfully ensure that the rights including accessibility and universal design of persons with disabilities are promoted, respected and protected. 

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Donors and partners

The success of UN-Habitat’s work on legislation relies on a network of partners for developing mechanisms to create and disseminate legal tools and knowledge and to support legal reform processes.

UN-Habitat jointly organizes annual urban law days with academic institutions to exchange best practices, expertise, and innovation in the field of urban legislation and development among a multidisciplinary circle of professionals. This collaboration has brought about greater sustainability, comprehensive outreach and increased awareness of strategies to develop functional effective legal systems.

UrbanLex is UN-Habitat’s principal means of collecting and openly sharing primary information on urban law. As well as providing direct access to the largest collection of legal instruments organized and summarised according to urban priorities, UrbanLex provides a platform for comparative analysis and the identification of patterns and innovations in urban law and is supported by a growing network of partners, such as FAO, CNJUR, University of Wits, etc.

The Urban Legislation Unit is collaborating with UN Environment, UNFCCC and the Commonwealth Secretariat for the development of the Law and Climate Change Toolkit. The Toolkit provides a global resource to help countries to put in place the necessary legal frameworks for effective national implementation of the Paris Agreement and their Nationally Determined Contributions.