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A history of Habitat

Words: Huw Morris
Habitat logo

From Vancouver in 1976 to Quito in 2016, the UN's Habitat summits have attempted to set the agenda for urban planning around the world. Huw Morris looks at the history of Habitat

By the time of the first Habitat summit, the world’s population had already reached four billion. By the second it was approaching six billion. When the third comes around later this month, it will be past 7.4 billion.

The world’s eyes will soon be on Quito, Ecuador’s capital, where delegates will meet for Habitat III. This is the latest UN summit, after gatherings in Vancouver in 1976 and Istanbul in 1996, to tackle global challenges posed by a rapidly expanding population and urbanisation.

So how far have the Habitat summits influenced planning? Or is it really that planning has influenced the three Habitats?

In UK terms, the environmental implications from the Rio Declaration of 1992 and Kyoto Treaty of 1997, related but distinct UN initiatives, had considerably more influence. But the Habitat summits have recognised planning’s role in tackling global challenges and not merely confined it to a national or local level. Habitat I, for example, crucially called for “bold, meaningful and effective” spatial planning strategies.

Gradually, the idea of sustainable development, now fundamental to UK planning, attained a huge international profile, thanks to the summits. Although the concept has different connotations in varying countries and regions, the World Commission on Environment and Development defines it as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

"The UK has 38 planners per 100,000 people. In Nigeria and India the figure is 1.44 and 0.23 respectively"

Habitat’s chief influence since 1996 has been through the Millennium Development Goals of 2000. These aimed to achieve “cities without slums” while combating poverty and ensuring environmental sustainability.

The subsequent agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (see pages 22-25), also has Habitat’s fingerprints, particularly Goal 11’s aim for safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable places. With their emphasis on health, education, poverty and gender inequality, these continue to have implications for UK planning in environmental sustainability and healthy communities. Other significant UN events, including the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 and Rio+20 in 2012, have followed the Habitat Agenda.

But major bugbears continue with significant challenges for Habitat III and, if it takes place, Habitat IV. Governments have consistently failed to meet their commitments under the summits as there is no legally binding framework.

The World Cities Report 2016 says many cities rely on outdated forms of planning despite its central role in achieving sustainable development. In particular, planning frameworks are not gender-sensitive – women are left out of the planning process. The same research says planning capacity is also grossly inadequate in the developing world. The UK has 38 planners per 100,000 people. In Nigeria and India the figure is 1.44 and 0.23 respectively.

1976: Habitat I – Vancouver

The backdrop
The economist EF Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful cited the limits to the planet’s resources, comparing the Earth to a bank with mankind “the investors” living off the capital.

In 1974, the UN estimated the global population had reached four billion. Habitat I responded to trends indicating that “the numbers of mankind in the next 25 years would double”. Hence the increasing concerns of governments to manage the problems of urbanisation, population growth, environmental impact, social change and resource management. Habitat I followed four UN conferences in the previous five years on quality of life, each looking at particular aspects of human settlements.

What happened?
The conference led to the Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements, a statement of principles to influence national government objectives. Alongside this, Habitat I made 64 recommendations for national governments to improve “human settlements”. A third element concerned international co-operation, study and research programmes, and exchange of technology, skills and expertise. The 64 recommendations covered settlement policies and strategies, settlement planning, shelter, infrastructure and services, land, public participation and institutions and management.

"A direct result was the creation of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, the predecessor of today’s UN-Habitat"

What succeeded?
The conference raised international understanding of urbanisation, and established the need for comprehensive and integrated approaches. Habitat I pointed to policies and programmes based on planning and for governments to involve their citizens in them. A major breakthrough recognised the importance of spatial planning strategies for urban growth.

The conference also stressed that while every country had its own pattern of settlements, they can all learn from each other. It highlighted not only problems at the national level but the inter-relationships and responsibilities among nations. A direct result was the creation of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, the predecessor of today’s UN-Habitat.

What didn’t?
The declaration’s focus on action by national governments was subsequently recognised as a significant weakness. It overlooked the role of local-level authorities, which was limited to implementing national policies and targets, as well as the potential contribution of civil society and non-governmental organisations. Habitat I made no legally binding duties, a theme that would become more apparent at the next summit.

A changing urban landscape

  • By 2030, the urban population of developing cities will double.
  • In 1995, there were 22 large cities and 14 megacities. By 2015, both categories had doubled with 22 megacities located in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
  • Cities now generate 80% of global GDP.
  • Housing accounts for more than 70% of land use in most cities.
  • By 2013, 600 million households were without decent shelter
  • Between 1950 and 2005, the level of urbanisation globally increased from 29 per cent to 49 per cent.
  • Contribution of cities to national income is greater than their share of national income. Paris has 16% of France’s population but accounts for 27% of GDP. Kinshasa is 13% of the DRC’s population but accounts for 85% of GDP. Metro Manila is 12% of the population of the Philippines but contributes 47% of the GDP.
  • Vulnerable employment accounts for 1.5 billion people, or over 46 per cent of total employment. In both Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 70% of workers are in vulnerable employment.

Source: World Cities Report 2016

1996: Habitat II – Istanbul

The backdrop
By 1996, the world’s population was approaching six billion. Habitat II was heavily influenced by the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This agreed the Climate Change Convention, which in later years would lead to major international initiatives on the environment such as the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement. The summit also agreed Agenda 21, a voluntary action plan on sustainable development.

What happened?
Habitat II was significantly extended to local government, academia and civil society. Two key documents were signed, the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements and the Habitat Agenda, as well as setting out the rules of procedure for the world’s local authorities. The documents recognised the sustainability of cities, towns and villages within a global goal of providing adequate housing for all.

"Sustainable development became the cornerstone of future UN initiatives"

What succeeded?
The documents addressed the key issues of poverty and inequality, receiving considerable international praise. Meanwhile, sustainable development became the cornerstone of future UN initiatives. In 2002, the UN adopted the Millennium Development Goals with the aim of reducing the number of slum dwellers. This programme was later extended through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

What didn’t?
The absence of a legally binding framework, an old chestnut from Habitat I, would prove to be a big stumbling block for Istanbul’s legacy. This meant governments did not meet their commitments, while citizens had no chance to demand their rights.

2016: Habitat III - Quito

The Quito summit will aim to agree the New Urban Agenda, which will put sustainable development at the heart of the urbanisation agenda for the next two years of nations, cities, regions, the UN and civil society. Two key concepts will dominate: “development enablers”, which include national urban policy, governance and the urban economy, alongside “operational enablers”, chiefly planning, local fiscal systems and basic services and infrastructure.

Democracy, human rights and the relationship between the environment and urbanisation are expected to feature heavily, as will equity, the safety and security of everyone, regardless of age and gender, risk reduction and urban resilience.

The Habitat Agenda remains, while the summit will recognise the phenomenon of mega-regions, urban corridors and city regions. However, the New Urban Agenda will, once more, not be legally binding.

"Democracy, human rights and the relationship between the environment and urbanisation are expected to feature heavily"

The RTPI and Habitat III

In the build-up to Habitat III, the RTPI has:

  • Participated in the World Urban Campaign’s (WUC) Urban Thinkers Campus, and made contributions to the WUC's The City We Need (PDF), calling for more socially inclusive, well planned cities.
  • Submitted Planning Aid and the Plymouth Plan as planning and design solutions to the WUC’s Urban Solutions working group. These could be presented to government leaders at Habitat III.
  • Attended the Habitat III Pre Com meeting in Prague and hosted side event on 'How urban planning can meet Europe’s housing needs'.
  • Submitted comments poor air quality, the urban heat island effect and addressing corruption to the zero draft of the New Urban Agenda. Subsequent drafts of the New Urban Agenda have included RTPI suggestions.

For the event itself, RTPI president Phil Williams and chief executive Trudi Elliott will attend Habitat III and take part in side events, including an International Federation for Housing and Planning seminar at which they will speak on post-conflict place-making and the role of place in attacking poverty.

The internet and mobile broadband networks


  • 69% of the world’s population is covered by 3G
  • 29% of the world’s rural population covered by 3G
  • 89% of the world’s urban population covered by 3G

In the Future

  • An extra 10 mobile phones per 100 people in developing countries increases the GDP growth rate per person by more than one percentage point.
  • Web applications will enable 22% of China’s total GDP by 2025.
  • By 2020, improved computer literacy and mobile data usage could grow India’s GDP by 5%.
  • Should the internet reach 90% of the world’s population, global GDP will grow by $22 trillion by 2030.

Sources: Sustainable Development Goals Report 2016 (PDF) and Quantumrun

2036: Predicting Habitat IV

If there is Habitat IV in 2036 what will the summit consider? Foretelling the future is precarious but here are a few predictions.

By 2030, the UN projects at least 41 megacities worldwide and by 2050, 70 per cent of the world will live in cities, closer to 90 per cent in North America and Europe. But 70 per cent of the buildings and infrastructure needed to support this influx does not exist.

Quantumrun, a Futurology consultancy, predicts the rise of the smart city, urban centres that rely on digital technology for everything from municipal services to governance and planning. Internet infrastructure and the Internet of Things will be drivers of GDP (see box ‘The internet and mobile broadband networks’) while cities will rely on hoards of ‘big data’ that will be analysed to predict future trends and adapt systems and policies accordingly.

"The top-down nation state will “be only cosmetically alive”, with city states and “statelings” prevailing"

Nassim Taleb, author of the influential The Black Swan, says the top-down nation state will “be only cosmetically alive”, with city states and “statelings” prevailing. Most technologies that are now 25 years old or more will be around, but younger technologies that provide efficiencies will be overtaken or replaced by more archaic ones. Taleb cites the car, the plane, the bicycle, the voice-only telephone, and the bookshelf as examples.How the world is changing


Read more about Habitat III

Habitat III - What's in it for me?

What’s on the Agenda? The New Urban Agenda Assessed

How a city in Ecuador will shape life in the 21st century

Can Habitat III effect real change in our cities?

Two minutes with... Carolina Proaño

Why Habitat III must reflect the century of the city

Sustaining notes: Sustainable Development Goals and the UK