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.