Progress of human settlements and sustainable development over the last 50 years

The number of people living on the planet has increased rapidly over the last 50 years. In 1960, there were just over three billion people; 50 years later, this was 6.8 billion. Not only are there more people, they are also increasingly concentrated into urban agglomerations, with over 50 per cent of the population now living in urban areas compared to 35 per cent in 1960. In 2050, it is anticipated that the population will exceed nine billion and almost 70 per cent will be living in urban areas. Although there has been an increase in the number of number of megacities (more than 10 million) and hypercities (over 20 million) over the last fifty years, most of the population growth is taking place in smaller cities in the developing world, primarily in the informal and slum settlements within these cities. Urban sprawl continues to lead unsustainable living patterns in cities around the world, while in some areas shrinking cities are a recently emerging phenomenon.

Widespread understanding of climate change is only recent

Fifty years ago, there was very little understanding of how human activity had an impact on the climate. Environmental concerns focussed more on the overuse and exhaustion of natural resources and their inability to support a growing global population. Since then however, there has been a gradual realisation of the need to protect the planetary environmental system. Only in the last decade, has there been any serious recognition of the fact that climate mitigation efforts have not been sufficiently successful and that there is now an urgent need for the adaptation of the physical and social infrastructures of our human settlements, to withstand the challenges brought about by the changing climate.

Urbanisation pushes the poor into danger

Current forms of urbanisation are pushing the poorest into areas that are prone to natural hazards and it is currently estimated that four out of every ten non-permanent houses in the developing world are now in precarious areas, threatened by floods, landslides and other natural disasters. In addition, increasing parts of the world are threatened by encroaching deserts or constant flooding and becoming increasing impossible places to live. The flow of environmental refugees is yet scarcely visible, but will, before long, become a major source of migration and social tension. 

International efforts to improve human settlements

In the 1970s, the need to address the appalling quality of human settlements in large parts of the world lead to a series of international meetings, identifying people’s rights to decent housing, clean water and sanitation and the establishment of a UN agency – UN Habitat – to address this. Recognition that the urbanisation trend was not going to reverse led to the City Summit (Habitat II) in 1996 and the development of the Habitat Agenda, which addressed social and economic issues as well as environmental ones being faced by urban areas. The Agenda 21 frameworks, which emerged from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, introduced the concept of sustainable development into the planning and management of human settlements and have been instrumental, particularly in the developed world, of bringing about change. In many cities of the developed world, energy consumption is a major concern and many urban areas are being redeveloped with an emphasis on denser neighbourhoods, low-energy housing, public transportation and green technologies.

A complex sprawl of inter-related issues

Sustainable development in terms of human settlements does not relate simply to the sustainability of the physical environment, important as this is, but also to the need for social and economic sustainability. For many cities, the major challenges in implementing long-term plans for sustainability are poverty reduction, environmental degradation, social injustice and exclusion and failures of governance. One sixth of the world’s population still live in slums, many without access to clean water or sanitation. Growing poverty and inequality are two of the factors that have led to an increase in urban crime and violence, contributing to a decline in social cohesion and an increase in conflict and insecurity in many cities, and the growing prevalence of living in gated communities, where wealthier households seek to protect themselves against the poor.

Urban areas are a key opportunity for sustainability

Urban areas with their concentrated population, use of resources and generation of waste represent both a major challenge and opportunity for sustainable development. Per capita, urban dwellers take up less space, use less energy and have less impact on natural ecosystems than those living in rural or suburban areas. They generate most of a nation’s wealth and are a source of innovation and creativity. Cities offer great potential for reducing the use of the private car through efficient public transportation systems and the concentration of production and consumption in cities offer a range of possibilities to use resources efficiently.

We have the solutions but don’t apply them

There is no shortage of knowledge as to what needs to be done in order to improve the sustainability of human settlements. Endless reports, international meetings and demonstration projects have shown a way forward. Although there are some leading examples of genuine engagement with the principles of sustainable development on a citywide scale, such as Malmö in Sweden or Curitiba in Brazil, these are exceptions. Major barriers still exist in the fact that there is little political will to implement these changes or the budgets to deliver them. Nor is there yet any widespread recognition that in future, progress may need to be understood in terms other than continuous economic growth.

Authorities, populations and the private sector need to get involved

If future action to address environmental concerns in human settlements is to become more effective, there needs to be greater integration of the various stakeholders involved, with greater involvement of the private sector in bringing about positive change. The participation of populations, particularly the urban poor, in a city’s decision-making process is vital. Improved data gathering Information will enable policy to be made and monitored on a more informed basis and a determined focus on scaling up of positive policy and practice already identified would serve to bring about significant change in the next 50 years.

August 2012


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About the author


Diane Diacon is an independent researcher, focussing on scaling of successful housing practices. She is former Director of the Building and... (Read more)

Diane Diacon | Timeline for 'Progress of human settlements and sustainable development over the last 50 years'