Origins, Preparations, Proceedings & Outcomes


A separate conference organized by and for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and ordinary citizens took place from May 27 to June 6, 1976 in parallel to the UN Conference. The sixteen-day Habitat Forum drew over 6000 participants from over 85 countries to Jericho Beach, Vancouver, including notable figures such as the humanitarian Mother Teresa, architect Buckminster Fuller and architect Hassan Fathy. All meetings and events at the Forum were free and open to the public.

Because decisions at the Habitat I Conference could only be made by the 136 participating governments, the Habitat Forum would address and enable “the concerns, proposals and expertise” (1) of representatives of NGOs, voluntary bodies and interested individuals to be “transmitted collectively to the policy makers meeting in their official session”, as stated by Conference Secretary-General Enrique Peñalosa (2).

According to Peñalosa, “the active participation of non-governmental organizations is not only important but essential if we are to achieve the impact and follow-through on which the success of the Conference depends.” (3) At the Forum’s opening session, Conference President Barney Danson stated that he expected “the Forum to act as the conscience of the governments… [and] to prod them if necessary, to act in accordance with this conscience.” (3) The format of the Forum was based on the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm which was the first time an unofficial, parallel NGO Forum was held at a large UN conference (4).

In 1976 over 650 NGOs had been granted consultative status with the UN (5). The Association in Canada Serving Organizations for Human Settlements (ACSOH) was the local host organization for the Forum’s NGO participants. ACSOH was formed in 1974 in Vancouver by several Canadian NGOs in anticipation of the Conference. In addition, an International NGO Committee for Habitat was formed out of the NGO Working Group created for the Stockholm Forum; it was chaired by Edgardo Martinez, an architect-planner from Uruguay. (6) The Committee would handle programme development and policy matters while ACSOH would organize the Forum’s physical arrangements including coordinating meetings rooms and arranging accommodation. (7)

(1) Van Putten, Jan, “Report on the Habitat Forum”, September 1976, p. 3.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid. 10
(5) Habitat Guide, HomeTown Communications, Issue No. 3, April 1976, p. 6.
(6) Van Putten, Jan. “Report on the Habitat Forum”, p. 3.
(7) Ibid. 6.
(8) Ibid. 4-5.

The International NGO Committee met three times: in New York in January 1975, in Geneva in September 1975, and in Vancouver in January 1976. Following intensive consultation, the Committee established nine central themes for the Forum’s core programme: The Man-Made and Natural Environment; Social Justice and the Question of Differing Values and Cultures; Sharing and Managing the World’s Resources; National Settlement Policies; People’s Participation in Planning and Implementation; Land Use and Ownership; Community Action for a Better Habitat; Rural Development; and Appropriate Technology. Three to four experts on each theme were invited to speak at the Forum. NGOs were also encouraged to contribute papers, panel discussion topics, exhibits and films pertaining to each theme (9).

Han van Putten, the Chairman of the NGO Committee for Habitat, was invited to give a short report on the progress of the Forum at all three meetings of the Conference’s Preparatory Committee (10).

To publicize the Forum, a Habitat Forum newsletter was created and three issues were produced. Thousands of leaflets containing practical information for Forum participants were also mailed out (11).

The Forum was the first time that facilities were built specifically for an NGO meeting taking place during a UN Conference (12). The location selected for the Forum was Jericho Beach Park, a scenic stretch of land located along the waterfront of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet. The area housed a former naval air base which was converted into the Forum’s conference and exhibition site. Five airplane hangers were renovated using recycled materials to house a wide range of facilities including: the main Plenary Hall which could seat over 2000 people and also included a press centre; an Exhibit Hall with three film theatres, a library, a daycare and an Exposition on Appropriate Technology; two workshop/film theatres, one capable of seating up to 800 people, the other up to 400 people; a Social Centre which included a food village, post office and general store; assorted meeting rooms for use by Working Groups; and an outdoor exhibition area which featured demonstrations of low cost shelter techniques. Al Clapp, Habitat Forum Site Manager, kicked off construction on October 21, 1975 with a workforce that at times totaled over 160 people. Special consideration was given to the installation of artwork created by First Nations artists in different areas throughout the venue (13).

The Canadian Government financed the cost of the renovation, pre-Conference newsletters, the production of the daily Jericho newspaper, and local staff costs in Vancouver. ACSOH provided approximately $55,000 for programme activities and administrative expenses. In addition the Netherlands and the Norwegian governments donated $40,000 and $10,000 respectively to enable participation from representatives from developing countries (14).

(9) Ibid. 5.
(10) Ibid. 9.
(11) Ibid. 5.
(12) Ibid. 6.
(13) Association in Canada Serving Organizations for Human Settlements, Habitat Forum Guide, 21 May 1976, p. 5.
(14) Van Putten, Jan. “Report on the Habitat Forum”, p. 8.

The Forum opened two days before the Conference in order to enable participants to become familiar with the issues that the Conference would be addressing, and to create joint statements to present to the Conference outlining what the Forum saw as the most pressing areas of concern. An extensive programme featuring lectures, discussions, film screening and excursions gave participants over 700 activities to choose from. The Forum schedule was publicized each morning in Jericho, the Forum newspaper, which was widely distributed in Vancouver and at the Conference taking place 7 km away in the city’s downtown (15).

The Forum’s first two days also featured The Vancouver Symposium which brought together 25 experts to discuss the “most urgent human settlements issues” (16); the Report generated by the Symposium greatly stimulated Forum discussions. The Symposium was convened by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and several NGOs. The British economist and IIED founder Dr. Barbara Ward (Lady Jackson) was the principal organizer of the Symposium, as well as the rapporteur. The Symposium co-chairmen were Maurice Strong (President of Petro Canada and the former Secretary-General of the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm) and Ambassador Soedjatmoko of Indonesia. Notable speakers at the Symposium included Buckminster Fuller, architect Dr. Jorge Hardoy, and the anthropologist Dr. Margaret Mead (17).

Five extended sessions were held during the Forum in order to prepare two joint statements to submit to the Conference, one at the beginning of the Forum and one at the end. Hundreds of participants attended these sessions and a total of 800 signatures were collected for the first statement, which was read at the Conference plenary session. The second statement was distributed in writing only because “no time was allotted” (18). Both statements “placed emphasis on the causes and origins of existing human settlement problems and advocated a global and integrated approach towards their solution” (19).

During the Forum, half-day and full-day workshops took place daily on topics ranging from Aboriginal Land Claims, to Metropolitan Growth Management, to Women and Human Settlements (20). Daily briefings on Conference proceedings were organized with the help of the UN’s Department of Public Information. A two-way closed circuit television also connected the Forum to the Conference and many of the films and slideshows prepared by governments for the UN Conference were shown at the Forum. The Committee also established an NGO headquarters in the Georgia Hotel near the Conference where a small group of staff “helped to arrange informal meetings among governmental delegates and NGOs” (21). They also strategically monitored Conference sessions in order to help the NGOs’ plan their approaches as effectively as possible.

From May 31 to June 11 a series of lectures by “leading thinkers and scholars on fundamental human settlement issues” (22) took place each afternoon featuring the following speakers: Mother Teresa on ‘Working for the Most Disadvantaged’, Barbara Ward on ‘The Home of Man’, Maurice Strong on ‘Human Needs and Natural Limits’, Dr. Jorge Hardoy on ‘Housing for the Poorest’, Dr. Margaret Mead on ‘The Human Element in Settlements Planning’, Jack Mundy on ‘Trade Unions and the New International Economic Order’, and Ivan Illichon on ‘Density and Dignity’ (23).

(15) Ibid. 7.
(16) Ibid. 6.
(17) Association in Canada Serving Organizations for Human Settlements. Habitat Forum Guide. p. 5.
(18) Van Putten, Jan. “Report on the Habitat Forum”, p. 7.
(19) United Nations, Report of the Habitat Conference: United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, A/CONF.70/15 (1976), p. 185.
(20) Ibid. 5-7.
(21) Ibid. 7.
(22) Association in Canada Serving Organizations for Human Settlements. Habitat Forum Guide. p. 9.
(23) Ibid.

According to Jan van Putten, Forum Chairman, the Forum was considered particularly successful for providing a “meeting ground for persons or groups who had been working on the same problem but up to then in isolation from each other.” (24) Van Putten also stated that a “general impression [of the Forum] is that those dealing with new developments (such as environmental problems and resource management) and problems of a general social or political nature drew more atten­tion than those addressing themselves to more traditional subjects or the members of one particular profession or a NGO.” (25) According to van Putten, “There is no doubt… that the wording of the Habitat documents on such subjects as land policy, popular participation, the supply of clean water… and the problems of eco­nomic and social development, was changed because of non-govern­mental action.” (26)

Another outcome of the Forum was the establishment of the Habitat International Coalition, a global network for the right to habitat and social justice, still in existence today. Van Putten was the HIC’s first President, from 1978 until 1982 (27).

To read the Statement of the Habitat Forum to the UN Conference on Human Settlements, dated June 1 1976, see The Report on the Habitat Forum, page 15-18, available in this website’s Habitat I Forum Document Archive.

(24) Van Putten, Jan. “Report on the Habitat Forum”, p. 7.
(25) Ibid. 8.
(26) Ibid. 10.
(27) Habitat International Coalition, “Hans van Putten”, last accessed February 5 2018,