It was in 1986 that the United Nations first celebrated World Habitat Day. The host city was Nairobi and the chosen theme for the year was "Shelter is My Right".
The UN General Assembly decided that this should be an annual event and the first Monday of October was chosen. The day is celebrated in many countries around the world and various activities are organised to examine the problems of rapid urbanisation and its impact on the environment and human poverty.
Annual themes for World Habitat Day have been diverse and have included "Shelter for the Homeless", "Our Neighbourhood", "Safer Cities", "Women in Urban Government", Cities without Slums" and "Water and Sanitation for Cities".
UN Habitat's chosen theme for 2012 was "Changing Cities, Building Opportunities".
UN Habitat makes plain the need to plan cities in order to avoid the chaotic development of urban sprawls and all the associated problems that are created as a result.
Cities after all are engines of growth. Many people from rural areas in the world long to move to cities in order to realise their dreams for a better life. Often this dream is not realised, but people continue to flock to cities for no other reason than a vague promise of a better future and prosperity.
A well-planned city can bring just that. Cities can be centres for economic activities and urban challenges can be addressed and opportunities can continue to be afforded to both current and future residents. Those who are successful succeed in getting jobs or starting their own businesses, which in turn creates more employment opportunities.
On the other hand, cities can also become a setting in which marginalisation, inequality and social exclusion can abound. Access to adequate housing is a prime factor in ensuring that this is avoided.
Another important factor is that as the world's climate continues to change, there is an ever-increasing risk of natural disasters. This risk is particularly significant in the Caribbean region and Central America, where countries such as Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Bolivia have higher levels of poverty and where their cities are exceptionally vulnerable due to their population density and diversity.
High levels of population density, coupled with poor building techniques have given rise to shantytowns that have no proper infrastructure, no community organisation and no security of tenure. In the event of a disaster of any kind, a complete breakdown can result in a chaotic situation and enormous loss of life.
This year's celebrations were held at Embu in Kenya and Dr Joan Clos, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Habitat opened the event. Dovetailing with World Habitat Day is UN Habitat's campaign "I am a City Changer". This seeks to involve everyone in making their cities better places to live in.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in his message for World Habitat Day 2012 said that better planned and better functioning cities can help to lead us to the future that we all want. We need cities where everyone has adequate shelter, water, sanitation, health and other basic services. Coupled with this are good education and job prospects. Cities must also be constructed with energy-efficient buildings and efficient public transport systems where everyone feels that they belong.