In 1978, when Habitat was established, after a meeting in Vancouver known as Habitat I, urbanisation and its impacts were less significant on the agenda of United Nations that had been created over three decades earlier, when two-thirds of humanity was still rural. From 1978 to 1997, with meagre support and an unfocused mandate, Habitat struggled almost alone among multi-lateral organizations to prevent and ameliorate problems stemming from massive urban growth, especially among cities of the developing world. From 1997 to 2002, by which time half the world had become urban, UN-HABITAT – guided by the Habitat Agenda and the Millennium Declaration – underwent a major revitalisation, using its experience to identify emerging priorities for sustainable urban development and to make needed course corrections.
In 1996, the United Nations held a second conference on cities, Habitat II, in Istanbul, Turkey to assess two decades of progress since Vancouver and set fresh goals for the new millennium. Adopted by 171 countries, the political document that came out of this “City Summit” is known as the Habitat Agenda and contains over 100 commitments and 600 recommendations.
On 1 January 2002, the agency’s mandate was strengthened and its status elevated to that of a fully fledged programme of the UN system in UN General Assembly Resolution A/56/206. Key recommendations and fine tuning of the agenda are now underway as strategy clusters for achieving the urban development and shelter goals and targets of the Millennium Declaration - the United Nations’ development agenda for the next 15 to 20 years. The revitalisation has placed UN-HABITAT squarely in the mainstream of the UN’s development agenda for poverty reduction with a more streamlined and effective structure and staff, and more relevant and focused set of programmes and priorities.
It is through this agenda that UN-HABITAT contributes to the overall objective of the United Nations system to reduce poverty and promote sustainable development. Its partners range from governments and local authorities to a wide international cross-section of Non-Governmental Organisations and civil society groups.