Urban habitat -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Urban habitat

By Jonathan Reckford

For the first time in history more people are now living in urban areas than in rural ones. Something I find particularly compelling is that 95 percent of urban migration over the next few decades will occur in developing countries where public services already are stretched thin.

Some 1 million people each week flock to the cities of the world, and they’re all competing for jobs, public services, sanitation and transportation — and, yes, for decent shelter, too.

We cannot neglect the growing, urgent need for decent, low-cost housing in urban areas. Yet what does this mean for us as an organization? How does our model fit within an urban environment? How can we adapt it without compromising our core principles? How does a lack of land impact our commitment to reach more families in need of housing?

An urban setting is inherently complex, and it will take a great deal of flexibility and creativity in order for Habitat to continue growing our mission in the cities. However, the reason for our doing so is abundantly simple: because God calls us to. Psalm 33:5 tells us, “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” God’s love, of course, extends to all corners of the world, whether grassy plains and desolate mountains or bustling city streets and noisy traffic jams. His “unfailing love” is what we’re called to manifest all across the globe in the house-building, hope-building work that we’re doing in relationship with Him, with one another and with the families we’re trying so hard to reach.

If we view our work in urban areas through this lens, it’s all really very simple. The various means through which we fulfill our mission in a city setting may vary, but the reasons for which we employ those means do not. We’re called to serve our neighbors, whether in a city alley or along a meandering dirt path. Simple as that. Historically, Habitat’s model has worked particularly well in — and was designed more for — a rural environment. Because buildable land, for example, might not be as scarce in rural areas as in urban ones, detached, single-family dwellings have become most closely associated with Habitat’s results.

As we strive to reach more families in cities around the world, however, that model is beginning to look very different. For example, I have twice visited Manila and seen Habitat effectively negotiating the housing challenges in an urban environment. While there, I helped make compressed earth bricks that were being used to build medium-rise multi-family housing. Influenced by a lack of land, we were building upward.

I’ve been in other urban environments where Habitat is focusing on repairs and on rehabbing existing homes, where Habitat is flexing in new ways to meet some of the challenges a city setting brings. It is important to note that as we evolve to meet various challenges around us, our mission principles are firm and unwavering.

Whatever the location, I am inspired by the commitment of Habitat staff and volunteers working in rural and urban areas alike, by their resolve to build and to plan and to innovate. Because while their respective housing solutions may look physically different, the reason — and mission — driving them does not.

Jonathan Reckford is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity International.