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Urbanization and human rights

OHCHR and land and human rights

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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. 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 when human rights are respected and promoted, urbanization has the potential to positively transform the lives of the majority of the world’s population.

Equitable, resilient, green and sustainable urbanization

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.

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 and guided by human rights principles would ensure:

  • the free, active and meaningful participation of all inhabitants, in particular the most marginalized;
  • 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 would 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; and
  • that all urban development activities embrace strategies for the political, social and economic empowerment of people.

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

In 2016, Habitat III, the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development took place in Quito, Ecuador. The conference resulted in a New Urban Agenda which calls to “leave no one behind” and sets the roadmap of urbanization for the next 20 years.

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 levels.

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 Special Rapporteur on adequate housing offers a number of recommendations on urbanization processes. See the full report (A/70/270) and a summary in English | French | Spanish.

Latest reports, publications and resources

UN High Commissioner’s report on urbanization and human rights
This 2018 report focuses on the link between urbanization and human rights—particularly economic, social and cultural rights—and their contribution to the human rights-based implementation of the New Urban Agenda and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
View document E/2018/57

Adequate housing and urbanization


Consultation and participation in urbanization processes


Habitat III: Recommendations by Special Rapporteur on adequate housing


Human rights and urbanization


Municipal finance and human rights



UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Leilani Farha warns of widespread homelessness
3 March 2016

‘Stop Forced Evictions’ – UN Human Rights Office
15 December 2015

Navi Pillay, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Remarks on human rights and urbanization
22 March 2016