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Urbanization and Human Rights

Urbanization can only be a force for positive transformation if it respects and promotes human rights.

Urbanization is one of the most important global trends of the 21st century. Today more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and by 2030 this is expected to rise to 60 percent. In the same period 90 percent of the world’s population growth will take place in cities, particularly in Africa and Asia.

In many places this trend towards rapid urbanization goes hand in hand with the creation of more slums, more people in inadequate living conditions and lacking secure tenure of their housing and land, and greater disparities, inequalities and discrimination. 

Yet urbanization processes wherein human rights are respected and promoted have the potential to transform this phenomenon from one in which people’s rights are too often ignored or denied into a force that contributes positively to the lives of the majority of the world’s population.

This is the vision captured in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which governments commit to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ (Goal 11). They further commit to leave no-one behind, envisaging “a world of universal respect for equality and non-discrimination”, including gender equality, and reaffirm the responsibilities of all States to “respect, protect and promote human rights, without discrimination or distinction of any kind”.

Sustainable and fair urbanization models consistent with this vision would be guided by human rights principles, ensuring:

  • The free, active and meaningful participation of all inhabitants, in particular the most marginalized. Urban and spatial development should be done with and for all of a city’s inhabitants, with the priority being to protect and improve the living conditions of the most vulnerable.
  • That duty-bearers are accountable for respecting and promoting the rights of all inhabitants. Decisions and processes in cities that could affect people’s rights - such as the right to adequate housing and the right to an adequate standard of living - need to be transparent, subject to public scrutiny, and must include free and fair dispute and complaint mechanisms.
  • That the root causes of violations of the principles of non-discrimination and equality are addressed - not only on the basis of gender and geography, but also on the basis of race, culture, religion, age, disability and social and economic status. Too often the voices of the poor, people living in slums and informal settlements, women, children, minorities, migrants, refugees, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, older persons and others, are not heard in urban development processes, resulting in development that further marginalizes and discriminates against those most in need.
  • That all urban development activities embrace strategies for the political, social and economic empowerment of people. In practice this requires upholding fundamental rights and freedoms, in particular freedom of speech and assembly, the right to information, consultation and participation in decision-making processes, and the right to vote, among others.

Human rights are key to advancing and developing an urbanization that is sustainable and socially inclusive, that promotes equality, combats discrimination in all its forms and empowers individuals and communities. A human rights approach is vital to make cities work for people as places of equal opportunity for all, where people can live in security, peace and dignity.

Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda

Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, took place in Quito, Ecuador from 17 – 20 October 2016. Following the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development‘, the outcome document of the Conference – the New Urban Agenda – calls to “leave no one behind” and sets the roadmap of urbanization for the next 20 years.

Housing and related infrastructure represent a large portion of urban areas. Yet in many places, the majority of people in cities worldwide suffer gross inequality, many living in deplorable or unaffordable housing conditions, vulnerable to forced evictions and homelessness and constantly fearing for their safety and security. That is why the  Special Rapporteur on adequate housing issued a number of recommendations on urbanization processes and for the Habitat III Conference. See the report of the Special Rapporteur (A/70/270), and a summary available in English / French / Spanish.

The Human Rights Council itself called on States “to give due consideration to integrating the human right to adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living in the negotiation process and the implementation of the outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) and the New Urban Agenda” (OP4, A/HRC/31/L.11).

The New Urban Agenda offers a unique opportunity to advance and implement the human rights of all, including those rights reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals at national and local level.

Text of the New Urban Agenda (adopted by the General Assembly In December 2016).

Further information on the Conference including the issues papers can be found on the Habitat III website.

For OHCHR’s participation to the Conference, see the "Latest news" and the "Videos" sections.

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Deputy High Commissioner on Habitat III.

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UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Leilani Farha warns of widespread homelessness.

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Navi Pillay, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Remarks on human rights and urbanization

Joan Clos, the executive director UN-Habitat, remarks for Human Rights Day ​​