Housing & slum upgrading

Rapid urbanization places remarkable strain on housing and serviced land. By 2030, about 3 billion people, or about 40 per cent of the world’s population, will need proper housing and access to basic infrastructure and services such as water and sanitation systems. This translates into the need to complete 96,150 housing units per day with serviced and documented land from now till 2030.

Unfortunately, especially in the developing world, supply is often limited by inadequate governance systems and human resource deficiencies, as well as by institutions and regulations which are either obsolete or lacking in capacity, or are poorly informed. So far, the failure of urban planning and the construction sector in matching demand for homes has resulted in a huge housing backlog that has led to the development of slums in a variety of contexts globally. Due to constraints in formal housing and land delivery systems, more and more people who would otherwise qualify for housing programmes are resorting to slum settlements.

In some cities, up to 80 per cent of the population lives in slums. Fifty-five million new slum dwellers have been added to the global population since 2000. Sub-Saharan Africa has a slum population of 199.5 million, South Asia 190.7 million, East Asia 189.6 million, Latin America and the Caribbean 110.7 million, Southeast Asia 88.9 million, West Asia 35 million and North Africa 11.8 million.

Slums are a clear manifestation of a poorly planned and managed urban sector and, in particular, a malfunctioning housing sector. Each day a further 120,000 people are added to the populations of Asian cities, requiring the construction of at least 20,000 new dwellings and supporting infrastructure. In Latin America and the Caribbean current housing needs are estimated at between 42 million and 52 million dwellings, respectively. Estimates concerning total housing needs in Africa have been set at around 4 million units per year with over 60 per cent of the demand required to accommodate urban residents.

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Housing is one of those basic social conditions that determine the quality of life and welfare of people and places. Where homes are located, how well designed and built, and how well they are weaved into the environmental, social, cultural and economic fabric of communities are factors that, in a very real way, influence the daily lives of people, their health, security and wellbeing, and which, given the long life of dwellings as physical structures, affect both the present and future generations. Housing is therefore central to sustainable development.

Housing is also part of the relationships between society and the environment. On the one hand, housing construction and operation consume large amounts of natural resources (land, energy, water, building materials), while producing waste, air and water pollution. On the other hand, housing itself is exposed to a variety of environmental impacts and hazards, including those associated with natural disasters and climate change. These aspects are also significant considerations for sustainable development.

This complex web of inter-relationships between sustainability and housing is addressed by the policies for sustainable housing. These policies consider a spectrum of underlying conditions to achieve sustainability in housing development (along the four dimensions of sustainability – environmental, social, cultural and economic), such as: impacts on the environment and climate change; durability and resilience of homes; economic activities in housing and their links with the wider economy; cultural and social fabric of communities and impacts of housing on poverty alleviation, social development, and the quality of life.

Although sustainable housing is often associated with wealth and affluence, it does not need to be so – genuinely sustainable houses are those that are inclusive and affordable for all. Addressing the issue of affordability is, therefore, a necessary condition for transformation towards sustainable housing. And yet affordability is not enough, because the so-called affordable homes cannot be considered sustainable if they create negative impacts on the environment or social life. The marriage of affordability with other sustainability conditions is a must. In this Guide, the link between sustainability and affordability is discussed in the unified notion of sustainable housing.

Furthermore, while sustainable housing is often considered from a resource-saving (green) perspective, this Guide advocates a more comprehensive approach – viewing sustainable housing not simply as units or clusters of self-sufficient “green buildings”, but as socially-enhancing and environmentally friendly residential practices integrated into the wider urban/settlement systems. This approach is necessitated by the holistic perspective of sustainable development and by the very multi-faceted nature of housing.

Sustainable affordable housing in this regard may be considered as extension of the adequate shelter for all strategy of the Habitat Agenda: Adequate shelter means more than a roof over one’s head. It also means adequate privacy; adequate space; physical accessibility; adequate security; security of tenure; structural stability and reliability; adequate lighting, heating and ventilation; adequate basic infrastructure, such as water supply, sanitation and waste-management facilities; suitable environmental quality and health-related factors; and adequate and accessible location with regard to work and basic facilities: all of which should be available at an affordable cost.


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The growing urgency to provide more homes to millions of households in the developing world, and the remarkable rate of illegal construction and housing production processes calls for a paradigm shift in housing policy, urban planning and building practices. This becomes more urgent when the phenomenon of climate change is considered, given that the building sector is responsible for nearly 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in cities. This problem compels national and city governments to attend to design, planning and technology standards and norms that affect the planning of residential areas, housing design and production, and the construction industry.

Sustainable housing is, however, yet to gain its due prominence in developing countries. It is rare that the social, cultural, environmental and economic facets of housing are addressed there in an integrated policy. In many developing contexts, the so-called pro-poor housing programmes often provide accommodation of poor standards, in remote locations, with little consideration to the residents’ lifestyle and livelihood strategies. In others, rapid housing developments create amplified carbon footprint and further negative impacts on the environment. Yet in most developing cities, decent and safe housing remains a dream for the majority of the population, while government considers affordable housing as merely a social burden.

In order to address their housing and informal settlements issues, governments need to set up a strong national housing policy to create an enabling environment that will increase the supply of affordable housing. This is a central requirement: only with strong political will, sound guidelines and adequate regulations will countries and cities be able to provide adequate shelter for all, reduce slum growth and ensure sustainable urban development.

Key stakeholders such as national and local government bodies, non-governmental organizations, financial institutions, as well as builders and private sector developers have to operate within clear, given frameworks. This will enable well-defined institutional and operational conditions in order to support the housing sector more effectively and, in doing so, contribute to the provision of affordable, adequate housing for all.

National housing policies need to be closely harmonized with other development aspects such as economic, social and environmental interests. For instance, beyond the mere provision of shelter, housing projects have to be understood as playing an active role in boosting employment and the economy, reducing poverty and improving human development. Likewise, housing policies have to include urban planning considerations, advocating for mixed urban uses and medium to high density, ensuring small urban footprints and rationalized mobility patterns.

National and local authorities need to be at the helm of housing projects, not only to create a conducive environment for investors, developers and builders – for instance in resolving land issues, but also to ensure housing affordability that is pro-poor oriented, and guarantee provision of basic services and infrastructure.


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The right to adequate housing (as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living) is enshrined in many international human rights instruments. Most notably among these are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 25.1) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (art. 11.1). During the 1990s, the right to adequate housing gained further increasing recognition among the human rights community, and many governments adopted or revised housing policies to include various dimensions of human rights.

The Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) in 1996 harnessed this momentum. The outcomes of the Conference, the Istanbul Declaration and the Habitat Agenda, constitutes a framework where human settlements development is linked with the process of realising human rights in general and housing rights in particular.

Subsequently, the Commission on Human Settlements (today the Governing Council of UN-Habitat) adopted resolution 16/7 on ‘the realization of the human right to adequate housing’ in May 1997. The resolution recommended that UN-HABITAT and OHCHR elaborate a joint programme to assist States with the implementation of their commitments to ensure the full and progressive realization of the right to adequate housing. 

More recently, the Commission on Human Rights in April 2001 adopted resolutions 2001/34 and 2001/28. The latter, on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, requested the two agencies to strengthen their cooperation and to consider developing a joint housing rights programme. These resolutions constitute the main mandate for the establishment of the United Nations Housing Rights Programme.

Therefore, the United Nations Housing Rights Programme (UNHRP) is a joint initiative of the United Nations Human Settlement Program (UN-Habitat) and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) mandated and endorsed by their respective governing bodies and the United Nations General Assembly, and launched in 2002 by the Executive Director of Habitat and the High Commissioner of Human Rights.

The initiative’s objective is to support the efforts by governments, civil society and national human rights institutions to realize the right to adequate housing as described in international human rights declarations and reaffirmed in the Habitat Agenda which states that “Within the overall context of an enabling approach, Governments should take appropriate action in order to promote, protect and ensure the full and progressive realization of the right to adequate housing” (paragraph 61).

To achieve this objective the UNHRP is involved in the following actions at the global level:

  • Development of standards and guidelines
  • Elaboration of existing international legal instruments and support for enhanced compliance by governments
  • Development of a system to monitor and evaluate progress in the realization of housing rights

See also Joint UN-OHCHR and UN-HABITAT Factsheet 21 on the Right to Adequate Housing


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UN-Habitat has gained solid experience from over three decades of continuous work on slum upgrading which it at the disposal of city authorities and national governments willing to implement participatory citywide slum upgrading.

UN-Habitat assists countries to develop and implement housing policies, strategies and programmes that increase access to adequate housing, improve living conditions of slum dwellers and curb the growth of new slums. It does this through a twin-track approach that focuses on improving the supply and affordability of serviced land and new housing opportunities at scale to curb the growth and creation of slums, while also undertaking slum upgrading programmes such as the Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme (PSUP) to improve housing and the quality of living conditions in existing slums.

Likewise, UN-Habitat assists citywide slum upgrading programmes, and helps strengthening institutional building as well as skills development of technical cadre from governments and other stakeholders involved in developing informal settlements. In this process, a number of participatory planning tools have been developed. These include tools for enumeration and mapping, programme management guidelines and general guides to support the implementation of complex slum upgrading programmes.

UN-Habitat provides technical aid to formulate and adopt sustainable housing building codes and revised regulations at country and city levels. It formulates national and cities strategies which synergistically provide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions attributable to housing across their life cycle, climate adaptive capacity through durability and resilience to changing climatic impacts. The strategy simultaneously provides social, cultural and economic benefits in the form of improved quality of life, poverty alleviation, environmental protection and improved health and safety.

Besides, UN-Habitat has a strong longstanding experience in accompanying local and national governments to partner with all the key actors in housing, slum upgrading, reconstruction and vulnerability reduction interventions. The interventions are made using a participatory approach whereby the slum dwellers themselves become key partners in the slum upgrading effort, nurtured and organized through an appropriate enabling environment.

UN-Habitat guides local and national governments in ensuring that such enabling environments support communities in identifying their problems and establishing their priorities. UN-Habitat also provides specific capacity-building and technical aid. Additionally, it supports the resource mobilization process and the establishment of a sound management framework for communities. Finally, building upon the best practices and the lessons learned, UN-Habitat supports the scaling up of those interventions, converting them into strategies, programmes and policies at broader local and national levels.


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  1. Inadequate access to safe water
  2. Inadequate access to sanitation and infrastructure
  3. Poor structural quality of housing
  4. Overcrowding
  5. Insecure residential status


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Better housing and slum upgrading will contribute to reducing social inequalities and also improving urban safety through their social and spatial impacts. Indeed, smart and productive cities of the future will be those in which slums are turned into vibrant neighbourhoods that are fully integrated into the city’s fabric and urban management systems, rather than remaining as vast islands of informality, social exclusion, poor housing and underdevelopment.

Physical upgrading of slums with street networks and improved infrastructure makes social and economic sense. Socially, upgraded slums improve the physical living conditions, quality of life, and access to services and opportunities in cities. Economically, upgraded slums trigger local economic development, improve urban mobility and bring in an enormous economically productive sphere into the physical and socioeconomic fabric of the wider city.

In consequence, cities need to improve the housing conditions in slums. To achieve this, local participation can be turned into a powerful instrument to mobilize low income communities around the planning, management and governance issues of their city neighbourhoods, provided that their participation is meaningful, empowers them and improves their daily lives. For this reason, participation is often most effective when initiated at the neighbourhood level through individual or community projects which are relatively limited in scale and developed progressively with outcomes which are achieved in the short, medium and long terms. The search for solutions should be done by participatory housing design, with a specific focus on the dwelling needs and aspirations of the urban poor and vulnerable groups, including women-headed households.

Likewise, there is an urgent need to develop practical tools, knowledge resources and expertise in designing environmentally sustainable and affordable green building solutions. If new housing stock fails to be sustainable and energy efficient, cities and countries will for decades be confronted with dangerous energy consumption patterns and predatory forms of urbanization. Housing is an opportune and strategic setting with which to achieve the mutually beneficial goals of climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as of sustainable urban development in general. The planning of residential areas, slum upgrading and urban renewal will help reduce the ecological and carbon footprint of cities and the greenhouse gasses of the national building sector.


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UN-Habitat supports Habitat Agenda partners and all levels of government in formulating and implementing progressive housing sector reforms and legislation that contributes to the creation of inclusive and sustainable cities, and which complies with international law related to the right to adequate housing. It provides expertise to support sound analysis of the housing sector and, in particular, the review of key legislation affecting affordable housing provision. Substantive technical advice on the content of new or revised progressive housing legislation will help national governments to create an enabling environment for the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing.

UN-Habitat assists governments to develop policies and strategies designed to maximize the role of lodging in national economic development and employment generation. It helps with in-depth local diagnosis of the state of a housing sector, and provides technical support to the formulation of a national housing policy, including an implementation strategy. UN-Habitat also provides tailor-made capacity development for all housing sector stakeholders.

One of the offered solutions is the Housing Profile Tool that has been successfully applied since 2008 in at least 10 countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. This tool enables governments and their national and local partners to better understand the constraints hindering access to adequate housing by various segments of society. It also facilitates the design of policy responses to boost housing delivery, improve land and infrastructure supply and mobilize private and public finance for housing and other measures specific to each country’s reality.

To improve national and local authorities’ understanding of housing issues and compliance with international law, UN-Habitat offers technical aid comprising a review and analysis of current local, regional and national legislation related to housing that cover laws, decrees, standards and building codes. It also provides a review and analysis of policy implications needed to achieve the right to adequate housing for all. Besides, it convenes national and local stakeholders to international expert meetings to discuss national and local analyses related to the right to adequate housing.

Furthermore, UN-Habitat is currently developing a Global Housing Strategy to the year 2025, taking into account the challenges of providing adequate and sustainable housing and basic infrastructure. The strategy will consider the need to integrate housing policies into broader urban planning strategies and governmental actions, aligning them with other social, economic and environmental policies.


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The unprecedented proliferation of slums and other informal settlements is the physical manifestation in cities of a chronic lack of adequate and affordable housing resulting from inadequate public urban policies. In 2013, over 860 million people were living in slums, up from 725 million in 2000. Thus, despite significant efforts, the net growth of slums continues to outpace the improvement.

The UN-Habitat Global Housing Strategy aims to assist member States in working towards the realization of the right to adequate housing. One of the main objectives of the Strategy is for member States to develop national housing strategies. A national housing strategy guides polices, planning and programming of investment, management and maintenance activities in the areas of housing, slum upgrading and slum prevention. These need to be formulated with the full participation of all relevant stakeholders.

Housing strategies, at national and city levels, are inseparable from land-use strategies, infrastructure strategies, including mobility and local economic development strategies, all integrated in the broad, participatory and inclusive urban planning and management process within a supportive legal and regulatory framework. The expected outcomes of the UN-Habitat Global Housing Strategy will (re)position housing within the global contemporary debate on economically viable, environmentally and culturally sustainable and socially inclusive cities. Furthermore, the Strategy will bring about several critical outcomes, such as:

  • a paradigm shift in thinking and practice in housing policy;
  • a contribution to the post-2015 sustainable development goals;
  • the promotion of systemic reforms to enable wider access to adequate housing with a variety of housing solutions matching effective demands;
  • strengthened linkages between housing and other parts of the economy;
  • decentralization of housing production;
  • increased use of sustainable building and neighborhood designs and technologies towards more cost-effective, flexible and energy-efficient solutions.



Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 18.05.58 Learn about the Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme   Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 18.06.15 Learn about Planned City Extensions