We are focused on advancing a number of critical areas for cities that correlate with improving human rights, labour, the environment and good governance and anti-corruption and the new Sustainable Development Goals.

We encourage action, projects, collaboration and sharing of knowledge and practice in these focus areas.

Focus Area


Given the rapid and accelerating growth of city populations and ongoing inequality of access to land and housing, there is an increasing need to promote affordable housing innovation for sustainable cities. Access to decent, affordable housing is the foundation for families and households across the world. It not only provides shelter; it provides security; allows basic access to energy and water services; supports members of the workforce; and promotes education, independence and identity.

Housing has formed the core of the UN-Habitat’s work and is central to both the New Urban Agenda and to many of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Specifically, it is essential to:

  • Reduce inequality and building inclusive, safe and sustainable cities (SDGs 10 and 11)
  • Address sustainable consumption and climate change, since 40% of global GHG emissions are from buildings (SDG 12 and 13).

Sustainable inclusive housing also enables:

  • Pathways out of poverty (SDG 1)
  • Food security and health (SDGs 2 and 3)
  • Access to energy and water, education and security from oppression (SDGs 4 and 8)
  • The regularisation of informal housing, which is also a key challenge in achieving peaceful and inclusive societies and the rule of law (SDG 16).

The global challenge

Housing is a basic right, and sustainable housing is part of the solution in addressing long-term health, wellbeing and poverty amongst disadvantaged populations. Yet, despite significant efforts by governments, NGOs and UN agencies, the global housing problem continues to worsen rapidly. By 2030 an additional 3 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population, will need access to housing. Of those who do have housing, some 1-5-2 billion live in substandard conditions and informal settlements, often in unsanitary and tenuous conditions. Even in ‘rich’ cities, increasing numbers of people are unable to afford housing rent and are therefore marginalised and face homelessness. It follows that new models are needed, or existing models scaled up, if this urgent problem is to be addressed. There is a need to “Strengthen and enhance the means of implementation and global partnership for sustainable development” (SDG17).

Actions and responses

Urbanisation – Addressing affordability and sustainability in housing

Housing affordability and sustainability is a growing and longstanding ‘wicked’ problem. It manifests differently in rich and poor cities, but has alarmingly similar characteristics in each. Firstly, it arises from an inverse bell-curve distribution of wealth – in other words, housing affordability crises are a symptom of wealth inequality. Those who are disproportionally affected are the already disadvantaged, including invariable combinations of aged, unemployed, poor, immigrant, women and children. Secondly, there is an overall shortage of housing (hence overcrowding and homelessness). Thirdly, there is a major global problem with housing conditions and substandard housing. These three ‘mega-trends’ in housing are prevalent in both developed and developing world cities, which interact to entrench disadvantage and exacerbate social problems in cities.

The housing problem is no single individual or organisation’s responsibility. In each city, addressing the need for affordable sustainable housing requires co-operation across multiple agencies and sectors. The UN Global Compact – Cities Programme promotes dialogue, research and innovative projects involving city officials, the private sector and civil society across the following themes.

Lifetime affordable sustainable housing

Lack of lifetime affordable and sustainable housing is a critical and worsening problem in both rich and poor cities. The baseline for standard calculations of affordable housing is mortgage and rent payments that do not exceed 30 percent of household income. However, much of the unaffordable housing is also in poor condition or is poorly designed, which results in an inefficient use of energy and water, making habitation costly. We therefore prefer to use the term ‘lifetime affordable housing’: housing that costs less than 30% of the household income, including mobility, energy and water costs and rent or mortgage. A house that is cheap to build (and therefore ‘affordable’ under the standard definition) can be very expensive for low-income households over the lifetime of the property. Lifetime affordable housing has low bills and is located near to cheap public transport or employment and services, so it is sustainable as well as affordable to build. Lifetime affordable housing differs across cities and contexts. Specific studies are needed to optimise housing design, location and provision in each locale. The collaborative project with partners TECHO, led by Sandra Moye on Sustainable Housing in Chile is worth reading.

Retrofitting housing for climate change

Retrofits to housing is already a global phenomenon; everyone—rich and poor, in cities all over the world—changes their homes to suit their needs as much as their resources allow. If resources are lacking or if retrofits are done badly, poor outcomes result for both the household and the environment. About 330 million households (roughly 1.2 billion people) now struggle with substandard housing, a number that may increase to 440 million in 11 years, McKinsey forecasts.

In order to improve the existing culture of house building and maintenance, regulators, private sector and civil society organisations must make significant movements. This way, new industries will be created that can upscale current retrofitting efforts across cities, leading to more climate proof housing.

Retrofit is required to fix poor design; repair poorly maintained stock; and/or upgrade housing using current energy-efficient or renewable technologies so that housing meets the needs of a changing climate and household.

The key challenges are:
a) To optimise specific retrofit plans and actions for each house, locale and setting, while also;
b) Experimenting with different technologies and designs, and;
c) Finding ways to upscale appropriate actions across cities.

This requires technical and policy commitment and expertise, and a set of social, cultural and multi-stakeholder engagements.

Innovative models for housing design, delivery and tenure

With cities across the world accelerating in growth, it is clear that the global housing problem stems from the fact that, in many jurisdictions, housing provision is left to a market where it is assumed that forces of supply and demand ensure that housing is delivered on time in a quality and cost-efficient manner.

However, for many reasons, housing markets do not operate well in delivering adequate affordable housing to disadvantaged, marginal, or homeless households. Innovative models are therefore needed to fund, design, deliver, build and maintain housing. There are many novel building materials and construction options available; as well as tried and tested vernacular design that, even with climate change, may still be fit for purpose. Systematic assessment of options and collaborative approaches are required, including innovative forms of self-build, cooperative, mixed tenure, social-mixed and co-managed models.

Formalising informal settlements

This is mainly regarded as a problem for new world, emerging and developing world cities, where rapid urbanisation has far outpaced the actions and resources of the city in anticipating housing demand and building infrastructure and affordable housing to meet it. Urbanisation in such cases results in transfer of poverty from rural to urban environments, worsening household conditions in the process. However, informal settlements are nevertheless home to millions of people in hundreds of cities across the world, and they are therefore places where citizens’ rights and needs must be respected. The process of formalising informal settlements may be well meaning, but in all cases is complex and requires sensitivity to the needs of the disadvantaged occupants of informal settlements. Notwithstanding the need to attend to design, delivery and lifetime affordable sustainable housing as indicated above, there are additional requirements for engagement and for initiatives to empower and enable communities undergoing formalisation to escape poverty in the long term, rather than simply being provided with an ultimatum to move and take up a new dwelling. The Social Inclusion project that accompanied the Vila Chocolatao Resettlement in Porto Alegre, Brazil is an excellent example of a holistic approach to formalisation and housing here livelihoods, early childhood education and health are also considered and are key objectives of the development process.

Author: Ralph Horne

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