UN concern with the problems of human settlements, particularly with the deteriorating quality of living conditions in developing countries and the need to link urban and regional development programs with national development plans, led to the convening of the first international conference on the question in Vancouver, Canada, in May–June 1976. The declaration and plan of action adopted by Habitat: UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I) represented an important commitment on the part of governments and the international community to improve the quality of life for all people through human settlements development. The plan of action contained 64 recommendations for national action concerning settlement policies and planning; provision of shelter, infrastructure, and services; land use and land tenure; the role of popular participation; and effective institutions and management.
Habitat I also recommended the strengthening and consolidation of UN activities in a single organization concerned exclusively with human settlements. Acting on this recommendation, the General Assembly established in 1978 the UN Center for Human Settlements (Habitat, also UNCHS), with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, to serve as a focal point for human settlements action and to coordinate human settlements activities within the UN system.
The center provides technical assistance to governments; organizes expert meetings, workshops, and training seminars; issues print, audio visual, and electronic publications; and disseminates information worldwide. In 1993 the center had under execution 257 technical cooperation programs and projects in over 90 countries, with an overall budget in excess of US$ 42 million for the year.
In 1982, the General Assembly proclaimed 1987 as the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. The objectives were to improve the shelter situation of the poor and disadvantaged at both individual and community levels, particularly in developing countries, and to demonstrate means of continuing those efforts as ongoing national programs beyond 1987.
Beginning in 1986, the tenth anniversary of Habitat I, World Habitat Day has been observed each year on the first Monday in October. As lead agency in the UN system for coordinating activities related to the Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000, the center continues to work toward its goal of facilitating adequate shelter for all by that date.
The Habitat II Conference met in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1996, 20 years after Habitat I. Subtitled "A Summit for Cities," the UN Conference on the Future of Cities has as its goal making the world's cities, towns, and villages healthy, safe, just, and sustainable. The two central themes were "sustainable human settlements in an urbanizing world" and "adequate shelter for all."
The follow-up conference took place from 6–8 June 2001; "Istanbul+5: Reviewing and Appraising Progress Five Years after Habitat II" was a special session of the UN General Assembly. At the special session, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Cities and Other Human Settlements in the New Millennium, which reaffirmed the Istanbul declaration, undertook a review and assessment of the Habitat Agenda, and proposed further actions for attaining the goals of adequate shelter for all and sustainable development of human settlements.