Shaping the agenda and demanding action

Timeline: how IIED and partners have engaged with the themes emerging from Habitat meetings for the past five decades

07 October 2016
Shaping the agenda and demanding action

The United Nations Conference on Housing and Urban Sustainable Development, more commonly known as Habitat, takes place just once every 20 years, but IIED has been engaged in each of these events since the start in 1976.

Logo of Habitat IIIA lot can happen in 20 years. The 2016 New Urban Agenda will be the first Habitat agenda that explicitly considers climate change in cities, for example. Looking back over the history of Habitat, several critical themes that emerged from Habitat I have remained central, including the push to recognise the role of civil society and local government in urban development (and IIED’s efforts to ensure that these groups can influence Habitat agendas), and the need to improve universal access to basic services – an ambition that is central to the Sustainable Development Goals today.


Putting urban issues on the agenda

Urban issues, including housing, were identified as a key part of the sustainable development agenda by IIED founder Barbara Ward in her seminal text on development and the environment, Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, co-written with microbiologist and Nobel Prize nominee René Dubos.


IIED's work on urban issues began in earnest when Ward chaired an expert meeting ahead of the first UN Conference on Human Settlements (or Habitat I). The following year David Satterthwaite (now a senior fellow) joined IIED as a research assistant to Ward. He worked alongside urbanists such as Jorge Hardoy and John F C Turner, who were advising Ward in relation to Habitat I and the book she was preparing for the conference.

IIED staff, including founder Barbara Ward (middle row, third left) and future senior fellow David Satterthwaite (back row, third left) in the 1970s

IIED staff, including founder Barbara Ward (middle row, third left) and future senior fellow David Satterthwaite (back row, third left) in the 1970s


IIED and Habitat I

In 1975, IIED convened the Vancouver Symposium to determine priorities for the first ever Habitat conference, taking place in Vancouver. Participants at the symposium included the anthropologist Margaret Mead; the first head of the UN Environment Programme, Maurice Strong; the author and inventor Buckminster Fuller; and union activist Jack Mundey. The group decided to champion universal access to water and sanitation, 30 years before the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formalised this pledge.


Home of man cover

The Home of Man was Barbara Ward's next book, written for the Habitat conference at the request of the Canadian government, who were the conference hosts, and the conference secretariat. An urban companion to Only One Earth, The Home of Man set out the issues that would guide IIED's urban work over the coming decades, recognising 'informality' and urging a role for urban poor groups and support for action to improve or "upgrade" informal settlements, rather than knocking them down.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau arm-wrestles with a bartender at the Habitat conference

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau arm-wrestles with a bartender at the Habitat conference, from The Toronto Star

Building on IIED's strong relationship with the Canadian government, David Satterthwaite was seconded to the conference secretariat to develop a programme for non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The result was a programme that involved a wide array of civil society organisations. (Conference staff also built the world's longest bar).

Ward was invited to give the plenary address at the Habitat conference, and the conference went on to approve the Vancouver Plan of Action, including a recommendation to nations on universal water and sanitation, as proposed by the Vancouver Symposium expert group convened by IIED.

Quotation from the Vancouver Plan of Action, 1976:

Safe water supply and hygienic waste disposal should receive priority with a view to achieving measurable qualitative and quantitative targets serving all the population by a certain date: targets should be established by all nations

A similar demand remains in the Sustainable Development Goals, endorsed by nations in 2015. Sustainable Development Goal, 2016:

By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all

A few nations that greatly exceeded their targets, around 55 others met their targets or were close, but 64 did not meet their targets

The conference helped to legitimate slum dweller/squatter upgrading as an approach, replacing the previous focus on evictions and bulldozing of settlements. Upgrading involved making homes safer, more connected to basic services, and more recognised by local authorities. Although the recommendations from the first Habitat conference were very top-down in nature, they were also progressive, challenging the status quo.

Following the conference, Jorge Hardoy, who had already been detained by Argentina’s military dictatorship, learnt that he would be in danger if he were to return home. He was invited by Ward to move to London and establish IIED’s Human Settlements Programme, and accepted the offer.

The programme’s name was selected to reflect its coverage of both urban and rural settlements; and IIED’s work on rural-urban linkages would prove to be enduring. As would its novel focus on building partnerships with urban poor groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America.


Assessing the outcomes of Habitat I

The first task of IIED's newly established Human Settlements Programme was to assess progress on the recommendations endorsed at the Habitat conference. This involved 19 separate country studies in collaboration with research organisations in Sudan, Argentina, India and Nigeria. The findings were not promising. The Assessment of the Vancouver Recommendations for National Action Research Project on Four Latin American Case-Studies noted that some government officials in the Latin American countries studied had not even heard of the Habitat conference, let alone the Vancouver Plan of Action. This, despite the fact that their governments had formally endorsed the recommendations. IIED stressed the importance of follow-up and network building to ensure that the conference would not be found to have been unproductive.

At IIED we believe that the sequel to Vancouver will be more important than the Conference itself. Despite the time lost since Habitat and despite the world-wide inertia that continues to prevail among most Governments and agencies, we are convinced that IIED, through its contacts and its own research efforts, can help to reinforce and focus the interest of National Governments, International Organisations, professional groups and non-governmental organisations, towards human settlements.

– Aid for human settlements in the third world: a summary of the activities of multilateral agencies


Building our urban agenda

With the urban agenda still largely focused on big cities, IIED embarked on a new area of research, focusing on small and intermediate urban centres. Little explored up to this point, this would become a growing focus internationally in the subsequent decades.

The Human Settlements Group now firmly established, and at the urging of his family, Hardoy returned home to Argentina. While doing so still had an element of risk, he was assured informally that he would be safe so long as he didn't publicly denounce the government. He would go on to found IIED-América Latina, as well as head up the Commission for Historical Monuments in Argentina, following the country's transition to democracy.


Cover of Medio Ambiente y Urbanización

The newly established IIED-América Latina created a new journal, Medio Ambiente y Urbanización, focused on urbanisation and the environment. IIED's partner teams in Latin America, as well as in Africa and Asia, allowed the organisation to develop a collaborative approach to research coupled with action. With government action following Habitat I still limited, research and action programmes like this stepped into the breach.

In Argentina, IIED's community development projects highlighted the importance of paying attention to small and intermediate urban centres – a continuing theme in IIED's urban work.

Construction of the New Barrio Hardoy

Construction of the New Barrio Hardoy, which was built in collaboration with Jorge Hardoy and his wife Ana Hardoy, to house residents of Barrio San Jorge and allow for new approaches to water and sanitation provision there.

We did and still do many things together with IIED. Encouraged by the Human Settlement Programme we managed to install a water and sanitation network and undertake many other activities so as to improve the barrio.

- Susana Carlino and Rosa Montoya, residents of Barrio San Jorgé, San Fernando, Argentina

Cover of Squatter citizen

Slums, squatters and shack dwellers

Although Hardoy was now based in Argentina, he continued to collaborate with his London colleagues, publishing Squatter Citizen with Satterthwaite in 1989. The book drew heavily on IIED's research on implementing the Vancouver Plan of Action, and provided a clear indictment of government failures to address the problems of low-income cities.

Slum and Shack Dwellers International housing development

Slum and Shack Dwellers International housing development in Joe Slovo, Cape Town, South Africa

In the same year, IIED established the sister journal to Medio Ambiente y Urbanización, Environment & Urbanization (E&U). The journal would become a key means of disseminating alternative viewpoints on the Habitat conferences and other urban topics.

Building on this assessment, IIED started working with Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) in the 1990s. It was to prove a fruitful partnership, raising the profile of the issues faced by slum and shack dwellers, with some 50 papers published in Environment & Urbanization by or about SDI.

IIED’s relationship with SDI and with other organisations representing the urban poor such as SPARC, the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, and the Orangi Pilot Project, have formed a cornerstone of IIED’s urban work, focusing on the role that communities can play in identifying and responding to local development challenges.

Recognising the importance of local urban NGOs describing their own work, Environment & Urbanization published a series of NGO profiles beginning in the early 90s.


In 1993, the journal also published its first paper related to the upcoming Habitat II Conference. This fact sheet appeared in the same issue as a tribute to the recently deceased Jorge Hardoy.


Cover of Future cities

Habitat II

With preparations under way for the second-ever Habitat conference, IIED’s David Satterthwaite was invited to be the principal consultant author for UN-Habitat’s 1996 Global Report on Human Settlements, An Urbanizing World. IIED researcher Diana Mitlin, who had joined the institute in 1989 to share David Satterthwaite’s role, also contributed.

The April 1996 issue of Environment & Urbanization was dedicated to Habitat II and future cities. It took stock of the two decades since the first Habitat conference, noting the lack of progress in certain areas, notably water provision. The editorial displayed modest expectations for the conference, given the previous gathering's inadequacies.

If the Conference helps establish the understanding that settlement problems need accountable, democratic and effective city and local authorities and that public authorities must work with local knowledge, resources and organizations in addressing problems, it will have achieved much.

– E&U editorial

Samsung fax machine

whimsical contribution to this issue came from the conference’s deputy secretary general, Jorge Wilheim, who imagined receiving faxes from the year 2024. The fictional futuristic character Titus explained how the past two decades had seen the rise of urban surveillance, “smart” buildings, and, less realistically, the weakening of capitalist structures.

At Habitat II, IIED lent its support to SDI's events, marking IIED's intensified focus on amplifying the voices of grassroots groups. The conference was disappointing in a number of ways. The outcome document was excessively long, yet – while firmly recognising the importance of sustainability – avoided any reference to climate change. And once again, implementation of the recommendations would prove to be weak.


Community-initiated infrastructure upgrading project in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Community-initiated infrastructure upgrading project in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Focusing on the finance

IIED’s work with urban poor groups has led to an increasing focus on finance, with dozens of papers in Environment & Urbanization calling for finance to be decentralised to involve these groups. This led to SDI and IIED creating the International Urban Poor Fund, to provide grants to savings groups established by low-income urban residents.

The funding was used by urban poor groups in various ways. Some sought to upgrade their housing in informal settlements; others chose to map and document their informal settlements as an alternative to top-down and inaccurate measurement; while some opted to use the money to supply basic services such as water and sanitation where public or private sector provision was insufficient. The fund provided the opportunity for communities to demonstrate their capacity to identify and plan solutions to development challenges in the city.


In 2008, the administration and management of the International Urban Poor Fund was handed over to SDI and became the Urban Poor Fund International. In the transitional process, IIED helped to link SDI with other donors, with the process serving as a conduit not only for funds, but also for relationships.


Street food vendors in Bandung, Indonesia, whose livelihoods are at risk from exclusionary local government policies

Street food vendors in Bandung, Indonesia, whose livelihoods are at risk from exclusionary local government policies.

Food in an urban environment

By 2009, IIED had become increasingly involved in research around urban food insecurity, particularly the links between production and consumption among the urban poor (notably street vendors). This was an emerging global concern, and a natural progression from the work of Cecilia Tacoli, who had been leading IIED’s work on rural-urban linkages. Food would be a theme that united the different branches of IIED’s urban work, from the effects of climate change on urban food prices to the use of innovative and locally-driven mapping techniques to assess food-related health hazards.


The growth of small cities

While new areas of work have developed, IIED’s interest in small and intermediate urban centres remains relevant in the 21st century. In 2014, new work to accurately assess the scale of urbanisation explored the growth of small and intermediate urban centres, alongside the connections between economic growth and urban growth, and the distinction between urban growth and urbanisation. This work, which was brought to life in a pair of data visualisations, showed that claims about the rapid global pace of urbanisation are often exaggerated. The first, "Reading national signatures in urbanisation-income space", examined the relationship between economic growth and urbanisation. The second, "Cities: an interactive data visual", explored the scale and speed of urbanisation.

Accurate data is essential to determine the direction of future urban agendas such as Habitat III’s.

In 2014, IIED also initiated the Urban Crises Learning Fund to build knowledge and local capacity around humanitarian response in cities. This was to become one strand of advocacy for the Habitat III agenda.


Ahead of Habitat III

In the run-up to Habitat III, IIED researchers have been involved in shaping the Habitat policy units on Housing, and Urban Ecology & Resilience, and participating in regional gatherings, preparatory committees, and thematic meetings.


Cover of E&U

The April 2016 issue of Environment & Urbanization, launched at an event at IIED in London, reflected on the history of the Habitat conferences. Michael A Cohen noted the poor implementation and monitoring of the Habitat I and II recommendations. The other papers called for strengthened focus on housing and health in the Habitat III discussions. These discussions would lead to the outcome document known as the 'New Urban Agenda', designed to help shape urban policy for the subsequent 20 years. And in the light of the recently declared Sustainable Development Goal devoted to cities, they urged that previously neglected areas be integrated into the New Urban Agenda, including inclusive urbanisation and the role of urban areas in dealing with humanitarian crises.

Overall, one key concern identified was the relevance of the Habitat agenda to local governments and civil society. There have been a number of “new urban agendas” and locally driven solutions over the years. It remains to be seen whether the implementation of the 2016 agenda will successfully build on the lessons of these.

IIED will be hosting several events at the conference with long-term partners, as well as running a publications stand. For a full list, please visit Towards a new urban agenda

Conclusion: looking forward

IIED researchers, IIED partners, and Environment & Urbanization authors are keen to ensure that Habitat III engages with local government and local society, but concerns remain as to how much of an impact it will have on ground-level outcomes. These concerns are not new – and we can be expected to continue to focus on creating spaces for civil society and local governments to influence discussions.

While the outcome of Habitat III is still to be determined, the trajectory of IIED's urban work over the past 40 years is easier to see. IIED has moved from tracking international aid flows for urban issues to becoming a donor to our current focus on working with urban poor groups to help secure access to funds, including Green Climate Fund financing. A continuing concern is the international aid community's focus on large-scale, centralised grants rather than the smaller and more local-level types of grants IIED has championed for decades.

Every 20 years, Habitat meetings have the chance to reflect and respond to significant global development changes and challenges. This will be the first Habitat conference since we have passed the milestone where more than half of the planet's population lives in urban areas. It will also be the first Habitat to consider how climate change mitigation and adaptation could be used to guide urbanisation in a way that serves all residents without harming urban environments in the process. Once the goals are set, the challenge returns to building inclusive governance at the city level, which incorporates civil society and recognises the role of local government.

World urban population

World urban population

Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, (ST/ESA/SER.A/366)


Transforming a 'New Urban Agenda' into a just urban agenda, Adriana Allen, Alexandre Apsan Frediani and Anna Walnycki (2016), IIED briefing

Future Cities, Vol 8, No 1, Environment and Urbanization (1996)

From the MDGs to the SDGs and Habitat III, Vol 28, No 1, Environment and Urbanization (2015)

Annual Report 2004 – Urban Matters, IIED (2004)

Jorge E Hardoy and David Satterthwaite (1989), Squatter Citizen, Earthscan

Barbara Ward and the Origins of Sustainable Development, David Satterthwaite (2006), IIED

The architecture of aid: How decentralised finance can drive sustainable development, Anna Walnycki (2015), IIED

Barbara Ward and René Dubos (1972), Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, Norton, excerpted at

Words: Christine Ro and Anna Walnycki
Infographic: Steph Ray

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