The open space of Vancouver – reviewing 1976, challenging 2006

From May 31 to June 11, 1976 the first UN-Conference on Human Settlements, Habitat I, was held in Vancouver, Canada. The essential themes of the meeting were housing issues, the ongoing urbanisation processes and the increase of slums at a global scale. Delegates from 136 governments participated in the Summit.

Parallel to the UN-Conference, Non-Governmental Organizations, other interested groups and individuals from the community were meeting at an open Forum, to debate on the same themes the governmental delegates were discussing; to exchange knowledge and experience to search for solutions. The estimated number of attendants and visitors was over 6,000. The Forum, organised by an ad hoc Habitat Committee, proposed to increase public awareness of human settlement problems and to disseminate peoples view and concerns to the governmental conference.

At the World Urban Forum III in 2006, this will be different. The Conference -defined as a closed meeting of experts on a definite area of interest- and the Forum -defined as an open space for debate– has turned into one single meeting, named Forum: open for public registration but being partially closed in the definition of themes, events and speakers, and held under the umbrella of UN-Habitat Programme and the Government of Canada.

By assembling the Habitat – Conference in 1976, the issues addressed were treated as a priority for the first time. Many people, who have been affected by bad housing conditions or problems related to their settlements, as well as NGOs working in this area, had been waiting for a meeting like this for a long time.

For the first time it was realized and recognised by a broad international spectrum that there is a crisis within human settlements and housing, that the living conditions of mankind are unacceptable, that problems are spreading and – finally – that something has to be done to avert possible catastrophic consequences of a worldwide urbanisation and the increase of slum areas.

The frameworks and statistical data on the main issues of the Conference and the Forum differ now in 2006 than when the summit took place in 1976.

In the 1970s the world did not move as fast as it does today. Transportation and communication have become easier now. Networks were not that big and widespread as they are in the 21st century. The number of people inhabiting this planet has doubled during the last thirty years. In 2000, world population reached 6.1 billion, and is growing at an annual rate of 1.2 per cent. By 1950, only 30% of the world population was urban, in 2000 it was already 47%. And more than half of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2008. It is estimated that there are almost a billion of poor people in the world. Today’s problems have different dimensions – but the problems already existed thirty years ago. An example is the problems related to housing and settlement issues that still call the international community for action.

In 1976 a third of the world’s population lived in slums, in places without electricity and no access to water facilities. Since then slum settlement population has been increasing. In the 21st century over 750 million people live in urban areas without adequate shelter and basic services. In the developing countries, slum and squatter settlement population constitutes over 50% of urban population.

The question is: what has been done since Habitat I to face these problems? And more: did the efforts to reduce poverty and bad housing conditions have any effect on the reality of the people? Target 11 of the Millennium Development Goals fixed in 2000, for example, aims to achieve by 2020 a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers. But first let’s go back to 1976…

To understand what really happened in Vancouver in 1976, it is very helpful and worthy to review the Jericho newspaper. Jericho was an independent daily publication covering both, the Conference and the NGO Forum. Each edition consisted of eight pages, including articles, comments, calendar of events and figures and was printed on recycled paper. Its name comes from the Jericho Beach in Vancouver, a former naval airbase and a place where in past times Indians traditionally gathered, where in 1976 the Forum site was built. The publication helped the participants to speak out, gave them a voice and asked them to participate and be part of the process. It shows the development of the single debates on the different focused themes and moods that were predominant.

Han van Putten, Chairman of the Habitat Committee, stated at the beginning of the Forum, that it was the Forums job to “let people speak“, to give them a voice. Some of the voices of the Forums participants made heard by Jericho, described the Forum as an “extremely lively area of debate“, as a “marvellous educational experience“. On the other hand some found it too chaotic and too little focused on and housing issues, the focal areas of interest.settlement

One reason for this was that some other fields were closely connected with the area of human settlements – and by trying to find adequate solutions for the addressed problems – these had to be part of the debates as well. This was for example claimed again and again by women groups, opponents to atomic energy and by NGOs dealing with the Israel-Palestine Conflict. Another big topic was the rights of indigenous people, whose delegates from the north and the south joined the Forum and organized various demonstrations during the days of the conferences in Vancouver.

After the Conference of Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 and the Bucharest Population Conference in 1974, where also parallel meetings of non-governmental groups and individuals took place, the Habitat Forum was the first one of that size and on its own site. During the building of the Forum site at Jericho Beach Park the participants and the many volunteers from all over the world had already communicated their message to the Conference: “No extra material will be needed. We have the human and material sources to do what has to be done. We don’t need new resources, new technologies or new bureaucracies. We have everything we need. You just have to know how to use it“. In relation to this issue the northern and southern positions differed. The “northern view” was as quoted earlier: they thought to have the abilities and the sources of income to do what had to be done. It just had to start. On the other hand “southern groups” focused on the lack of financial support, not of ideas, capacities and initiatives to change things. The third world groups were also afraid that fundamental issues, such as a structure of international relations based on the dependence of the developing world on the developed, were being ignored. Due to this situation, some heated debates between “north” and “south” accompanied the days in Vancouver.

Daily changing thematic focal points – the Committee had selected nine central themes which constituted the subjects of the plenary sessions – determined the dynamic of the Forum. The themes went from the man-made and the natural environment, national settlement policies, land use and ownership, sharing and managing the world’s resources, social justice and the question of differing values and cultures, people’s participation in planning and implementation.

A photo of some editions of Jericho taken in the HIC Office in 2006

community action for a better habitat to rural development and appropriate technology. For example while talking about rural development, the meeting agreed on a clause urging governments to emphasize improving rural conditions so that no one would be compelled to leave a village, if he or she wished to remain. This is a way of facing the problems, which does not prevail today. In today’s rapidly globalising world it is recognized that urbanization on a large scale is inevitable.

Accompanying the Conference a variety of side events enriched the City of Vancouver with life. There were exhibitions, films and concerts, which helped the participants to relax and inspire after long days of debating and discussing. Taken all discussions, lectures, sessions, excursions, films etc. together the people who joined the Forum could choose among more than 700 items.

All in all the participants of the Forum judged the events as very inspiring and a great experience, a success on a personal level, but as being a bit disappointing as a learning experience and a global exchange of views. Issues had been left open for the future, to be worked on in the years to come. Nevertheless, all the collective reflection and discussions fostered the encounter of groups from the South and the North, groups and persons from the habitat and housing field, struggling for a better world, who had the chance to exchange their experiences and who began to establish links during the days of Habitat I. Some new groups and networks had been launched, who wanted to build on the experiences of the Forum and to continue working in the area of human settlements and housing rights.

One outcome of the official Habitat Conference was the creation of a new UN body, the UN-Centre for Human Settlements, whose main office is still seated in Nairobi. Also, a Habitat-Charter was agreed upon, which contained some main proposals for a sustainable policy on human settlement issues. Many countries adopted them to their governmental programmes. Follow-up mini-conferences had been planned to give the governments the opportunity to report on what they had accomplished in the areas of food, water, shelter and energy. A second Habitat Conference was scheduled ten years later – but implemented 20 years later! – to monitor the governments´ activities to improve the conditions of land tenure, the security of tenure for the poor, self-help housing, water supply and sanitation.

Unfortunately, today it is hard to realize, that any essential positive changes of the former status quo had become reality. It is not that nothing has been done, but little, considering the problems and issues were noticed and discussed in 1976. The same problems still exist today on an increased and larger scale than we were able to foresee. Worldwide gaps between poor and rich are increasing with the neoliberal globalization, slums and housing demand is growing in the continuing urbanization of the world. Therefore the challenge of giving people a voice to speak out and address their problems to the decision-making parts of the world still exists today. This same challenge had been recognized during the Habitat Forum in 1976, and made NGOs continuously work hard in the area of human settlement and housing issues. The need for taking action is still urgent due to the rapid and wide changes in urbanization and the poverty growth.

In this context, it is worthwhile to mention HIC. The launch of the Habitat International Coalition – HIC (former named Habitat International Council) was another outcome of Vancouver 1976. It was an offspring of the dynamic and the recognition of the importance of the topics debated on at the Forum, a coalition of people being encouraged to work together in the field of housing and land rights. The groups and people organized in this worldwide network are still trying to convince governments of the importance of the right to adequate housing for all; they organize networks to support people’s processes, carrying the conviction, that it is the people who should have a voice – and a choice of how to live their life.

In one edition of the Jericho newspaper their columnist James Barber, worrying about the outcome of the Conference, quotes Barbara Wood: “Go home, and sink your teeth into the leg of your local politician. Don’t let go. Stay with it until he does something”. HIC, for example, has stayed with its teeth in their leg, for thirty years.

Maybe this is one of the reasons, why the current Conference and the Forum will be one in 2006: that it’s not easy to part teeth and legs…But, the question is, whether this closure of the Forum is an advantage or an obstacle for social movements and organizations trying to express the people’s voices, for the finding of adequate solutions for the problems of the slum dwellers and inadequately housed.

About one issue there is no doubt: It is very important to insist that all people, everywhere, have the right to adequate shelter – and, until no structural changes have been made to give people the right for more self-determination, it remains an important task to support and defend people’s assets and rights to live in peace and dignity – and to improve their habitat situation of the poor and inadequately housed – by integrating the people and their needs, – now!


Baharoglu, Deniz: Public Housing in an Era of Privatization, Vienna, October 2003:

Groups of developing countries participating in the Plenary meeting of Habitat Forum: Carta Declaración del tercer mundo acerca de las políticas nacionales sobre asentamientos humanos, 3 June 1976

Jericho, The Habitat Newspaper No. 1 – 10, 31 May to 11 June 1976


University of South Africa (UNISA), Midrand, South Africa: International Short Course in Squatter and Slum Upgrading Planning, November 12 – December 7, 2007,

Van Putten, J.G.: Report on the Habitat Forum, Vancouver, 27 May – 11 June 1976


Jericho, 3 June 1976, page 3: “A packed session at the Forum when Maurice Strong gave his lunchtime lecture yesterday”

Jericho, 31 May 1976, page 4/5: “Unless progress is made…the elites will be swept away” – Enrique Penalosa