Habitat III

Alice Charles MIPI

Did you know that the United Nations will seek to secure a global agreement on sustainable urbanization this week?

This week an estimated 35,000 people from 193 nations will descend on the city of Quito, Ecuador to attend the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (commonly referred to as Habitat III.) So what is it all about?

What is Habitat III?

The United Nations Conferences on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat) is a bi-decennial conference (1976, 1996 and 2016) focused on addressing the challenges associated with urbanization.

The Habitat process commenced in 1976, when Governments started to recognize the challenges associated with rapid urbanization. As a result, the United Nations held its first Conference on Human Settlements, in Vancouver, Canada from May 31 - June 11, 1976. The outcome of this conference was the Vancouver Declaration which stated that "adequate shelter and services are a basic human right" and that "governments should assist local authorities to participate to a greater extent in national development". This declaration was accompanied by the Vancouver Action Plan, which contained 64 recommendations for national action including the requirement for Governments to prepare spatial strategy plans and the requirement for shelter, infrastructure and services to be planned and integrated into development. A further outcome was the establishment of a dedicated UN organization two years after the conference, which is known today as UN-Habitat.

Two decades later the United Nations held its second Conference on Human Settlements, Habitat II, in Istanbul from June 3–14 1996. The outcome of the conference was the Istanbul Declaration which endorsed the universal need for adequate shelter for all and the need to achieve sustainable human settlements in an increasingly urbanizing world. The conference also represented a significant landmark for the international municipal movement.

In line with the bi-decennial cycle (1976, 1996 and 2016), the United Nations General Assembly decided to convene Habitat III. Habitat III is the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development taking place in Quito, Ecuador, from 17 – 20 October 2016.

Habitat III will be the first major global conference since the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 Agenda entered into force in January 2016, and will enable a discussion on the opportunities that urbanization brings to the implementation and achievement of the SDGs. Habitat III will also assess progress made on the recommendations made at Habitat II.

Habitat III will seek to reinvigorate a global commitment to sustainable urbanization and will focus on how to implement the New Urban Agenda and realise sustainable urban development and housing solutions in our cities over the next 20 years.

What is the New Urban Agenda?

The New Urban Agenda is an action oriented outcome document, which will be formally adopted at the Habitat III conference. The document provides the global standards for the achievement of sustainable urban development to transform the way we construct, manage, operate and live in our cities. It will guide the efforts around urbanization for a wide range of actors including nation states, city and regional leaders, international development funders, the private sector, the United Nations programmes and civil society for the next 20 years.

The New Urban Agenda guiding principles are:

Leave no one behind, ensure urban equity and eradicate poverty


  • Providing equitable access for all, to physical and social infrastructure
  • Adequate housing and shelter at the canter of the agenda
  • Public spaces as an enabler of socio-economic function of the city
  • Recognizing and leveraging culture, diversity and safety in cities
  • Enabling and strengthening participation and enhancing liveability and quality of life.


Achieve sustainable and inclusive urban prosperity and opportunities for all


  • Enhancing agglomeration benefits of urbanization and avoiding land speculation,
  • Fair and equitable employment creation, productivity, competitiveness, diversification and
  • Innovation through a sustainable economic development


Foster ecological and resilient cities and human settlements

  • Driving sustainable patterns of consumption and production,
  • Protecting and valuing ecosystems and biodiversity, and
  • Adapting to and mitigating the impact of climate change while increasing urban systems resilience to physical, economic, and social shocks and stresses

The key components of New Urban Agenda that will provide strategic direction for the successful transformation of our cities are:

  •   Urban Rules and Regulations: The outcomes in terms of quality of urban settlement depend on the set of rules and regulations that are framed and made effective. Strengthening urban legislation, providing predictability and directive to the urban development plans to enable social and economic progression. 
  •   Urban Planning and Design: Strengthen urban and territorial planning to best utilize the spatial dimension of the urban form and deliver the urban advantage.
  •   Municipal Finance: Establishing effective financing frameworks, enabling strengthened municipal finance and local fiscal systems in order to create, sustain and share the value generated by sustainable urban development

So why is Habitat III important?

Our cities occupy just 2% of the earth’s crust, but are currently home to more than 50% of the world’s population, generate more than 80% of the world’s GDP, use 75% of the world’s natural resources, consume 75% of global energy supply and produce approximately 75% of global CO2 emissions.

Cities will witness an inflow of 2.5 billion new urban dwellers by 2050, more than the current combined population of India and China. In fact within the next minute the global urban population will rise by 145 people. Most of these cities are located in the global south and many lack the capacity and resources to ensure that the city develops in a sustainable manner. If left unchecked urban population growth can lead to vast unsustainable urban sprawl, or the creation of dense slums with poor living standards.

It is therefore critically important that the New Urban Agenda is not only formally adopted in Quito, but that cities are recognized as the key to achieving the implementation of the SDGs, global climate agreement and New Urban Agenda. 

What happens next?

While it is hoped that the path towards the implementation of sustainable urban development and housing solutions will be reinvigorated with Habitat III, the New Urban Agenda is non-binding and merely provides guidance. If significant progress is to be made post Habitat III, national governments will need to find the political will to empower cities, and build their capacity and resources. Cities, meanwhile, will need to enable vital cooperation between the public and private sector, as well as wider civil society, to create the planning, regulatory, financial and delivery models required to achieve sustainable urban development.

In an effort to accelerate implementation, the World Economic Forum has been enabling multi stakeholder discussions to strengthen the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. In its report on ‘Harnessing Public-Private Cooperation to Deliver the New Urban Agenda - Executive Summary’ which will be launched at Habitat III, the Forum recommends public-private cooperation that involves dialogue and engagement between multi stakeholders including business, government and civil society and provides key actions that must be taken by these stakeholders to achieve the objectives of the New Urban Agenda. 

The views expressed in this blog are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the IPI nor are they intended to reflect IPI policy.

Alice Charles MIPI is Urban Development Lead with the World Economic Forum. She tweets @alicecharles.

The Irish Planning Institute is represented at Habitat III by the ECTP-CEU and the Global Planners Network.


Alice Charles MIPI
Community Lead, WEF