Urban legislation has proven to be far from perfect. The experience of several countries shows that it often suffers from misguided assumptions or overambitious expectations, inadequate appraisal of costs and consequences, unrealistic expectations and severe gaps between legislation and reality. For example, planning laws are often outdated, irrelevant and inappropriate for the contexts within which they operate.  Laws that fail to make land available in pace with rapid urbanization, result in insufficient land supply, increases in land prices and slum formation. Laws that are not in line with the needs of the people and local socio−economic realities such as urban poverty and informality result in high degrees of non−compliance and in a loss of credibility for the planning system, not to mention their selective application in favour or specific groups or elites. Other common problems include regulatory barriers that limit opportunities in formal land markets, exacerbate inequality and discourage investments, laws with high compliance costs and laws that are not enforced and implemented.

The objective of the Essential Law Programme is to promote a better formulated and more transparent legal framework for urban development. The emphasis lies on the establishment of a basic system of regulations and rules that provide a solid and predictable long-term framework for urban development that can be built upon, and that is adequate to real needs, real capacity and available resources. The different areas of urban law that the Programme has covered are: urban planning and design, public space, land, slum upgrading and housing, climate change, and basic services.  In these areas, the programme has developed knowledge products and tailored legal assessment tools to identify and analyse the strengths and weaknesses of legislation in a structured, objective and systematic way to support legal reforms.

pieces of urban legislation assessed using the UN-Habitat Planning Law Assessment Framework in Saudi Arabia.
countries have been supported in the adoption of enforceable urban laws or regulations (urban planning, land, waste, slum upgrading, building codes, rental laws)

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.

The Programme advances the protection of the human rights in cities by stimulating greater responsiveness of the policy and legal environment for urban planning, land, housing and access to basic services to the needs of local communities and by building the capacities of both local governments in delivering their duties and performing their functions and vulnerable communities to understand their rights and hold local governments accountable. The Programme uses a three-pronged approach: first, identification of the vulnerable communities and their organizations and local governments institutions to assess their capacities and needs; second, identification of the root cause of legal and institutional problems that exclude the targeted communities from the enjoyment of basic human rights; third: build stakeholders capacity and recommend improvements to the existing policy and legislative framework to make it more responsive to vulnerable people needs.

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Men and women, boys and girls experience cities in very different ways, and face various challenges and needs that cities have to address. UN-Habitat promotes the stronger commitment of national and local governments as well as other relevant stakeholders to work towards the realization of a world in which men and women are recognized as equal partners in development and enjoy equal human rights so that economically productive, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable cities and other human settlements can be achieved more rapidly, completely and sustainably.

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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 the Essential Law Programme is dependent upon successful partnerships with academic institutions, research centres, private law firms and legal NGOs.  Partners support the programme by contributing to the development of the Programme strategies and objectives, by peer reviewing the research methodologies and tools and by supporting their practical implementation on the ground.

UN Environment and UNFCCC: The programme worked with UN Environment and the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for the development of the legal assessment questionnaire for Land use planning law and climate change for the Law and Climate Change toolkit.

World Bank: The programme is part of the WB managed Global Forum on Law, Justice and Development. A permanent forum for knowledge sharing and co-generation of innovative and customized legal and institutional tools to address global, regional or national development challenges.