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The urban challenge

Adequate and affordable shelter for all, and ways of providing it are the cornerstone of UN-HABITAT’s relationship with governments, municipalities, civil society, and the financial world, both public and private.

From its world headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) works with organizations at every level, including all spheres of government, civil society and the private sector to help build, manage, plan and finance sustainable urban development. Our vision is cities without slums that are liveable places for all, which do not pollute the environment or deplete natural resources.

At the dawn of a new urban era, with most of humanity now living in cities, UN-HABITAT is at the frontline of the battle against fast growing urban poverty and the scourge of climate change caused by poorly planned urbanisation and which threatens the lives and livelihoods of entire cities and communities.

Urbanization in Asia: City view of Dhaka. The Asia-Pacific region is urbanizing rapidly. While for the world as a whole the urban population growth rate is 2.0%, in Asia and the Pacific it is 2.3%.

Urbanization in Asia: City view of Dhaka. The Asia-Pacific region is urbanizing rapidly. While for the world as a whole the urban population growth rate is 2.0%, in Asia and the Pacific it is 2.3%.

As the United Nations gateway for cities, UN-HABITAT is constantly improving its focus and responsiveness to the aspirations of cities and their residents. Our flagship publications are widely acknowledged as premier works of reference on the built environment, city trends and urban matters. Key areas on our agenda are urban mobility, better urban planning, disaster mitigation and reconstruction, improving local financing, and cleaner, greener cities that take the lead in tackling climate change.

At the same time, UN-HABITAT works with hundreds of cities and communities around the world to achieve tangible improvements in the living conditions and livelihoods of the urban poor. We support the efforts of governments and of civil society in attaining the Millennium Development Goals on water and sanitation and slum upgrading.

The combined impact of rapid urbanization, globalization and climate change that is increasingly shaping today’s development agenda.

On the one hand, cities present unparalleled opportunities for creating wealth and prosperity. Cities have become the driving force of global trade and the engines of economic growth. They serve as the nexus of our global financial markets, and the service centres of our information society.

On the other hand, cities also bring irreversible changes in consumption and production patterns. As human activity concentrates in cities, we change the way we use land, water, energy and other natural resources.

Today, urban areas are already consuming most of world’s energy and are generating the bulk of our waste, including green house gas emissions. Thus the urban dimension of climate change is one of the greatest development challenges facing humanity.

Video: UN-Habitat:Helping Communities Recover; Post-Tsunami Initiatives


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Some history

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) has an interesting story.

It all started as a consequence of the World War II destruction of towns and cities across Europe and Asia. The first effective UN-led shelter programme was the distribution of blankets to those huddling in the ruins trying to survive the bleakest of winters.

But another 30 years would pass before urbanisation and its impacts began to flicker on the radar screen of a United Nations created when two-thirds of humanity was still rural.

The United Nations convened the Habitat 1 Conference in Vancouver, Canada, in 1976, as governments began to recognise the consequences of rapid urbanisation, especially in the developing world.

Those gathering in Vancouver at the time were only too aware that rapid urbanisation was becoming a problem around the world in human settlements – the official UN parlance for towns and cities.

Yet still another 30 years would pass before the first Habitat conference was convened in Vancouver, Canada, eventually leading to the creation of UN-HABITAT. In 2001 the United Nations General Assembly decided in its Resolution A/56/206 to elevate UN-HABITAT into a fully fledged programme of the United Nations, overseen by a Governing Council of 58 Member States.

Also directly related to UN-HABITAT’s mandate are the Millennium Development Goals, which recognise the dire circumstances of the world’s urban poor. They articulate the commitment of member States to improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020 – a target set perhaps too low. Another target directly related to UN-HABITAT’s mandate is the reduction by half of the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

“The emerging picture of the 21st century city fits many descriptions. Some are centres of rapid industrial grown and wealth creation, often accompanied by harmful waste and pollution. Others are characterised by stagnation, urban decay and rising social exclusion and intolerance. Both scenarios point to the urgent need for new, more sustainable approaches to urban development. Both argue for greener, more resilient and inclusive towns and cities which can help combat climate change and resolve ago-old urban inequalities.” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
in UN-HABITAT’s State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011

An urban strategy for all

Cape Town, the second largest city and the chief port in South Africa. It is the legislative capital of the country.

Cape Town, the second largest city and the chief port in South Africa. It is the legislative capital of the country.

UN-HABITAT will therefore continue to prioritise core activities of its mandate. Those considered most important by governments include:

UN-HABITAT also has to respond to emerging urban challenges. These are:

It is not by chance that the recent financial crisis was based on the burst of the housing prices bubble. For the poorest of the poor, the impacts on people’s lives of such crises, of local and national policy, as well as international trade and aid, are palpably real.