Habitat Dictionary

This reference work with Key Habitat Terms from A to Z is the result of deliberation and debate across multiple specializations, regions and cultures within the membership of HIC.

The purpose of that debate—and this reference work—have been to consolidate and harmonize understanding of the various terms of art confronted in the work of HIC and its Members in the fields of habitat (i.e., housing, land, natural resources, governance and sustainable development).

This valuable resource has been drafted by the HIC-HLRN team and is available in


This term, in its original Latin, derives from the verb “it inhabits,” 3rd singular present indicative of habitāre, frequentative of habēre, meaning to have, or to hold. Habitat is the natural environment of any organism, the place that is natural for the sustainable life and growth of an organism and a place where a living thing lives and can find food, shelter, protection and mates for reproduction. It also has come to mean the place where a personor thing is usually found.

In the context of development, planning and governance, the Habitat II Agenda defines habitat as a “regional and cross-sectoral approach to human settlements [that] places emphasis on rural/urban linkages and treats villages and cities as two ends [points] of a human settlements continuum in a common ecosystem” (para. 104).

Right to the city

A slogan and claim of urban social movements to guide policies to be more equitable and inclusive, as an alternative to current policies and planning practices that lead to segregation, privatization and inequitable distribution of public goods and services. The French sociologist Henri Lefebvre is generally attributed as having developed the notion of a “right to the city” in his book, Le droit à la ville (Paris: Anthropos, 1968).

Currently, the “right to the city” argument rests on a bundle of existing human rights, in addition to specific claims of right to access land, water, sanitation, transport and public space, as well as the concept of the “social function” of land, housing and related infrastructure and public goods and services. The “right to the city” is elaborated in the draft “Charter on the Right to the City,” which developed out of the urban social movements in Latin America and spread through the World Social Forum.


The act or process of evicting; or state of being evicted; the recovery of lands, tenements, etc., from another’s possession by due course of law; dispossession by paramount title or claim of such title; ejection; ouster. Removal of a tenant from rental property by a law enforcement officer following the landlord’s successful lawsuit, also known as an “unlawful detainer.”

Forced eviction

Defined in international law as “the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land [that] they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection.”

Social function

In theory, a social function is “the contribution made by any phenomenon to a larger system of which the phenomenon is a part” (Thomas Ford Hoult, Dictionary of Modern Sociology). In practice, the social function of a thing is its use or application to the benefit of the greater society, in particular, prioritizing those with the greatest need. Thus, the social function of a property, good, resource or service is realized when it is applied to satisfy a general social need or the unmet need of a segment of society. Regardless of the type of tenure, holders of housing or land bear a corresponding social duty to use and/or dispose of them accordingly.

Customary international, including and human rights law, guarantees everyone’s “right to own property alone as well as in association with others” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property” (UDHR, Article 17). However, no universal type or definition of property rights exists, while property rights derive from the contexts of culture and community. A property right is the authority and entitlement to determine how a resource is used, regardless of the party holding that right. Nonetheless, a property right, even a private property right, is not absolute. One of the limits to a property right is the inherent social function of that property, subject to the norms and standards that the society determines.

Urban-rural continuum

As the separation and distinctions between urban and rural are increasingly difficult to make, the urban-rural continuum is a term used to emphasize that there are no distinct breaking points between urban and rural. By definition, a continuum is “a coherent whole characterized as a collection, sequence, or progression of values or elements varying by minute degrees.” Thus, the urban-rural continuum supposes a gradation between cities and rural communities, with many varieties of community sizes, lifestyles, cultures and settlements in between. This term has become increasingly important in international forums as policy makers, development agencies, organizations and civil society strive to address spatial, social and economic realities to achieve complimentary development between rural and urban rural areas and social integration.

In this sense, it is important this the rural-urban continuum is not conceptualized as a linear construction, or as a simple gradation or fading from megapolis to rural farm, for example. In reality, human settlements are complex with traditional elements of “urban” and “rural” intermixing and constantly interacting. In reclaiming this term, civil society and proponents of integrated development insist that the rural-urban continuum should denote the relationships between and among city-regions, urban centers, agricultural zones, and all other forms of human habitat, and to emphasize the need to approach regions in their actual complexity, entirety, rather conveying the sense of rural-urban symbiosis, than paring out artificial and unsustainable divisions.

Social production of habitat

All nonmarket processes carried out under inhabitants’ initiative, management and control that generate and/or improve adequate living spaces, housing and other elements of physical and social development, preferably without—and often despite—impediments posed by the State or other formal structure or authority.