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?

Habitat III is a bi-decennial conference (1976, 1996 and 2016) focused on addressing the challenges associated with urbanization.

In 1976, governments started to recognize the challenges posed by the rapid growth of our cities. As a result, the United Nations held its first Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver, Canada in 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 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 in 1996. The outcome of the conference was the Istanbul Declaration, which endorsed the universal need for adequate shelter 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.

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 a 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, funders of international development, the private sector, the United Nations programmes and civil society for the next 20 years.

The New Urban Agenda guiding principles are:

The key components of the New Urban Agenda that will provide 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 cover just 2% of the Earth's surface, 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 see 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.

Read more in the World Economic Forum report, Harnessing Public-Private Cooperation to Deliver the New Urban Agenda.