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.
Mandate and Role within the UN System
UN-Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, is mandated by the UN General Assembly to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities. It is the focal point for all urbanization and human settlement matters within the UN system. The main documents outlining UN-Habitat’s mandate are the Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements (Habitat I), the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements (Habitat II and the Habitat Agenda), the Declaration on Cities and Other Human Settlements in the New Millennium, and Resolution 56/206. UN-Habitat’s current mandate is also shaped by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 3327 (XXIX), which, in 1975, established the United Nations Habitat and Human Settlements Foundation (UNHHSF).
The mandate was expanded in 1977 through resolution 32/162, which transformed the Committee on Housing, Building, and Planning into the Commission on Human Settlements. This Commission, comprising fifty-eight member countries, was serviced by the Centre for Human Settlements (also known as “Habitat”) that served as the focal point for human settlements actions and the coordination of activities within the United Nations system. Later, in 2002, through resolution 56/206, the UN General Assembly merged the UNHHSF foundation, the Commission on Human Settlements, and Habitat into UN-Habitat, a fully-fledged UN programme managed by its own secretariat and headed by its own Executive Director (who is also a UN Under-Secretary General).
The mandate of UN-Habitat is further derived from other internationally agreed upon development goals, including those established in the United Nations Millennium Declaration (Assembly resolution 55/2) -- in particular the target on achieving a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum-dwellers by the year 2020,* and the target to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by the year 2015.** Through the UN General Assembly resolution 65/1, Member States also committed themselves to continue working towards cities without slums, beyond current targets, by reducing slum populations and improving the lives of slum-dwellers.
*This target has already been achieved in 2013, seven years ahead of target. Nevertheless, the overall number of slum dwellers has increased due to more people arriving into slums than leaving, calling for more efforts and actions than ever to curb this trend. ** From the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development
The Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements (Habitat I)
In 1976, alarmed by rapid and uncontrolled urban growth, particularly in the developing world, the UN General Assembly called for the First United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I) addressing the challenges and future of human settlements. During the conference, which was held in Vancouver from 31 May to 11 June 1976, it was recognized that the conditions of human settlements directly affect human, social, and economic development, and that uncontrolled urban development can have severe environmental and ecological impacts. This led to the Vancouver Action Plan which outlined the first strategies at an international level to address and control the issues of urban growth. The approach towards urbanization was already holistic and global, linking together political, spatial, social, cultural, economic, and environmental concerns.
Governments were given specific recommendations and were urged to develop national strategies and policies to deal with land use and tenure, population growth, infrastructure, basic services, and the provision of adequate housing and employment, while taking into account human and social dimensions as well as the needs of disadvantaged and marginalized population groups. The cornerstones of the current UN-Habitat mandate were set by the Vancouver Declaration and by the Vancouver Action Plan.
The Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements (Habitat II) and the Habitat Agenda
In 1996, the UN General Assembly organized the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in Istanbul, Turkey to assess the member nations’ progress made towards tackling urbanization issues since the Vancouver Declaration (Habitat I) 20 years before. During the conference, held from 3 to 14 June 1996, the participating governments acknowledged a global deterioration of shelter and living conditions, already attaining crisis proportions in several countries of the developing world. The urgency of immediate and bold action became clear to all, resulting in the proclamation of the Habitat Agenda, a strategic plan adopted by 171 countries and containing over 100 commitments and 600 recommendations.
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.
The Declaration on Cities and Other Human Settlements in the New Millennium
On 9 June 2001, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Cities and Other Human Settlements in the New Millenium. This declaration reaffirmed the fundamentals of the Habitat Agenda and renewed the commitments made during the Habitat II conference in Istanbul. It also noted with great concern that, despite governments’ continued efforts to fulfil their commitments in regards to the Habitat Agenda, the general situation of human settlements was still worsening in many countries. Widespread poverty still remained the core obstacle to sustainable development in numerous places. In addition to working towards the goals set by the Habitat Agenda, it was decided that UN-Habitat would concentrate on more efficient poverty eradication strategies.
This in turn required not only renewed political will, but also the mobilization and allocation of new and additional resources at both the national and international levels. The Declaration asked developed countries to enact their commitment (first pledged in 1970 during the UN General Assembly) to contribute 0.7% of their gross national product (GNP) to official development work in general, in addition to looking into solutions to relieve the external debt burden of developing countries. In the Declaration, it was further resolved to empower local authorities, non-governmental organizations, and other Habitat Agenda actors beyond the government level, with the aim of including more partners – many of which were already in possession of valuable and untapped urban knowledge – in the shelter and human settlements development endeavours. Efforts were also directed toward providing urban dwellers with appropriate housing finance, supporting savings mechanisms in the informal sector, and strengthening regulatory and legal frameworks in regards to housing finance.
Furthermore, the declaration advocated popularizing the use of adequate and sustainable building materials and technologies, with the aim of providing low-cost housing and services within the reach of the poor, especially in slums and unplanned settlements. The declaration also reiterated the aim of the “Cities without Slums” initiative to make a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.
Strengthening UN-Habitat's mandate: Resolution 56/206
In 2002, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 25/206, strengthening the mandate and status of the Commission on Human Settlements and the status, role, and functions of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat). Effective from 1 January 2002, the resolution transformed the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements into a direct subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, to be known as UN-Habitat. Likewise, the Commission on Human Settlements – the intergovernmental decision-making body – then became the Governing Council (GC) of UN-Habitat.
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 African States, thirteen from Asian and Pacific States, six from 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.