Future settlements

As the climate warms, and as behavior and practices shift to mitigate and adapt, what changes will there be to the nature and location of human settlements?


Children walking to school in Kibera, a climate-vulnerable informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. UN Habitat's Nairobi River Life Project is designed to use nature-based solutions to provide protection for vulnerable communities like Kibera living adjacent to the river. © Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

Today 4.2 billion people live in cities, and this number is growing by 1.5 million people every week. This increases the challenges faced by city managers. Lack of affordable housing, inadequate green and open public spaces, climate disasters, and conflicts are threatening our urban future. If we do not rethink the way we plan, build, and manage our living environments, we risk a future with no settlements – and ultimately no people.

According to UN-Habitat’s 2022 World Cities Report, current projections indicate that a 2°C increase in global temperature in 2050 will expose 2.7 billion people to moderate or high climate-related risks. Urban areas are at the frontline of this climate disaster. Today, some 530 cities are reporting the devastating effects of climate change, leaving over 500 million people without a stable income, and limiting their access to basic services, infrastructure, and commodities. 

Urban areas are also key emitters and contributors to climate change, responsible for almost 70% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Despite global political commitments and targets, these numbers are continuously rising, highlighting the significant role of cities as drivers of climate mitigation and adaptation. 

Sustainable urbanization

The climate battle will be lost or won in cities. UN-Habitat strongly believes that sustainable urbanization – the way we adapt urban areas and infrastructure to withstand extreme climate events through integrated planning – will give human settlements a fighting chance to survive the coming climate breakdown. Here are four ways cities can get the job done. 

Firstly, build more connected and compact human settlements. Urban sprawl alone accounts for 30% of GHG emissions, highlighting the need for different models of planning our urban development and growth. Doubling the average neighborhood density can lead to a 20% to 40% decrease in vehicle use per household, thus lowering emissions, according to UN-Habitat’s Global Report on Human Settlements.

Second, make use of nature-based solutions. These include the expansion of vegetative cover, improved infrastructure, prioritization of green public spaces, and provision of long-term options for climate change mitigation and adaptation in urban areas. In addition to their adaptive capacity, nature-based solutions are suitable to address challenges related to the disruption of basic services due to extreme weather conditions. These solutions are the core of our Nairobi River Life Project, which aims to restore the river’s riparian corridor (the vegetation growing near to the river). This will reduce floods and other risks for the most vulnerable communities living in settlements adjacent to the river in the Kenyan capital. 

Third, assessments and participatory planning tools are essential. Assessments at both site and city levels, combined with public participation in planning and governance, will result in better and more inclusive (and therefore more sustainable) cities. Our public interactive tool, Block by Block, has been supporting cities to develop urban settlements that are inclusive, sustainable, and resilient to the changing climatic conditions.

Fourth, improvements must be made to our transport systems. These are the “blood vessels” of human settlements, connecting living spaces with basic services and commodities. Even though cars are the main carbon contributors, they are also affected by climate change. Extreme temperatures result in storms and typhoons that disrupt our transport infrastructure. Future cities should adapt their transport systems to climate change by prioritizing non-motorized transport, like biking and walking, to minimize carbon emissions. This not only helps to reduce carbon emissions but also contributes to improving living conditions, health, and well-being in urban centers.

Financial considerations

Even though there is a growing global need for the development of climate-resilient urban infrastructure, there is a wide financing gap for such investments, which is more problematic in developing cities. As of today, only around 10% of climate investments reach the local level. Hence, cities need support to unlock financial resources. We also need to ensure that no one is excluded from financial incentives. As highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, innovative governance and financing approaches are needed to implement and manage the complex and interconnected nature of the challenges faced in cities.

I have prioritized climate adaptation and mitigation as one of UN-Habitat’s four priorities for the years 2020 to 2023. As we move forward, the way cities and human settlements are planned and designed will undoubtedly have to change. However, putting the burden solely on cities will not work, as most local governments are overstretched and underfunded. 

As we move towards COP27, national governments are increasingly understanding the need for urban and multilevel climate action. I have high hopes that global leaders will develop and support climate change policy frameworks that help accelerate climate action at the local level. 

Such a policy shift must come with the will to finance local climate action and the capacity to deliver innovations at all governance levels, ranging from local to regional and national. 

It is not too late. We can still make an informed and strategic transition towards a brighter, better, and greener urban future.

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