UN-Habitat, the urban agency of the United Nations, started as a consequence of the destruction of towns and cities across Europe and Asia in World War II. The first effective UN-led shelter programme was the distribution of blankets to those huddling in the ruins.
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 well aware that rapid urbanisation was becoming a problem around the world in human settlements – the official UN parlance for towns and cities.
The Habitat 1 conference was held in Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre which was converted to resemble the UN General Assembly. At the same time, Vancouver also hosted a parallel meeting of non-governmental organizations, the Habitat Forum.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and his wife Margaret met not only with the high government officials from many countries in the Queen Elizabeth theatre, but they also led a "walk for water" of more than 10,000 people.
Joining hands with figures like Barbara Ward, the author and thinker who popularised the term, Spaceship Earth, the renowned anthropologist Margaret Meade, and Mother Theresa, they marched to push for clean drinking water for the world's urban poor. Their actions made headline news around the world and served to galvanize public opinion.
And today their quest has become an official target of the Millennium Development Goals that falls under UN-HABITAT's urban basic services mandate.
Many of them campaigned hard during the late 1960s for better environmental conservation, and warned of the impact, or "footprint", of cities on the natural environment.
Twenty years later in Istanbul at the Habitat II Summit, the formal and informal debates in 1976 underscored that no-one can solve human settlement problems alone; that it required strong and continuing partnerships between all orders of government, all components of NGOs – especially local authorities – and the energetic commitment of the private sector, together with full engagement of all relevant UN agencies.
The prophetic words of Barbara Ward in 1976 look as if they could have been written today: "In the world at large, the millions will be born. The settlements will grow – in squalor and violence, or in work and hope. The whole world – linked by its communications, its airlines, its hijackers and its terrorists – has really only one choice: to become a place worth living in or face 'the way to dusty death'. And where else do people live save in their settlements? So where else is the salvation to begin?"