Skip to main content

Dissecting ISO 37120: Gimme shelter, please! The homeless challenge cities face

Submitted by scc staff on September 19, 2014

By George Karayannis, LEED AP

We continue our series on the new ISO 37120 Smart City standard with a look at the 11th of 17 themes defined in the standard – shelter indicators.  As previously described, ISO 37120 includes 46 ‘Core’ (must report) and 54 ‘Supporting’ (should report) indicators.  The shelter theme has 1 Core and 2 Supporting indicators.

Image removed.The Rolling Stones’ iconic hit Gimme Shelter, from their 1969 album ‘Let it Bleed,’ was written during turbulent times and, according to Mick Jagger, reflected the “world closing in on you a bit.”  This sentiment certainly still applies for the estimated 100 million homeless and 1.6 billion people with inadequate shelter globally.  The ISO 37120 shelter theme measures the level of a city’s homeless and under-sheltered population, which is a particular concern in certain urban centers and many developing countries.  

Urban planners and smart city professionals understand the enormous growth projected for cities worldwide -- with over 75% of the populationexpected to live in urban settings by 2050 and 180,000 people moving into cities each day.  According to the International Business Times, even before the economic crisis of 2008 about one third of all city dwellers lived in slums, slums that will balloon by one billion more people within the next 20 years.  Proper city planning and investment are essential to, at a minimum, keeping slums and homeless populations from overwhelming city resources and turning the shining ‘cities of the future’ envisioned by many into dark, dystopian urban landscapes.

Let's consider how the smart city standard views shelter indicators.

Image removed.

Core Indicators

1.    Percentage of city population living in slums.

Currently, there are about 200,000 ‘informal’ housing communities across the world, according to the United Nation's Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing.  These slums, favelas and shanty towns are densely populated settlements characterized by substandard housing and squalor, poor sanitation and a lack of clean water, reliable electricity and timely law enforcement.  While large slums exist in many countries, the world’s largest slum is Neza-Chalco-Itza in Mexico City, which houses roughly four million people.  As with many slums, most Neza-Chalco-Itza residents live illegally on unauthorized land. However, unlike in most areas, some of Mexico City's slum dwellers also live in vecindades, former mansions abandoned by wealthy families that have been converted into low-income rental apartments.

Supporting Indicators

1.    Number of homeless per 100,000 population.

The homeless are generally characterized by extreme poverty, insecurity in meeting basic needs, vulnerability to crime, violence and disease, a lack of privacy and an inability to make decisions about their living conditions.  Homelessness is caused by a myriad of factors both personal (mental illness, divorce, lack of education, etc.) and societal (economic globalization, war, ill-planned urban developments, etc.). Systemic roots of homelessness in the U.S. include a lack of affordable housing, cutbacks in welfare and social programs and the dearth of jobs that pay a living wage.

Image removed.A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that since 2011 cities in the U.S. have increasingly criminalized the homeless, by making sleeping in parks or on sidewalks illegal.  However, without a constructive strategy to support the basic needs of the homeless, many of these efforts have been found to be ineffective and unconstitutional as they deprive the homeless of ‘life-sustaining’ activities such as sleep

2.    Percentage of households that exist without registered legal titles.

This indicator is related to the slum indicator in that many residents of informal settlements lack legal title to the property.  One third of the people in Rio de Janeiro’s slums, nearly five million people, don't have title to their homes.  Formalizing land title can give millions a secure hold on what is often a family's most valuable asset. Titling also creates a  healthier, safer urban environment, according to Walter Borges Tavares, a public defender specializing in land tenure. As slums are brought into the city, municipalities can enforce building codes and prevent the disordered construction.  However, the process of clearing titlecan be expensive, fraught with risks, and perhaps impossible to complete for either the current occupants or the owners of record.   


George Karayannis  has over 25 years of emerging technology and complex solutions sales, business development and marketing experience. He is currently Director Utility Sales, Trimble Energy and has held leadership positions at Schneider Electric, Lockheed Martin Energy Solutions, AT&T and wireless sensor startups.  He has also served as a city councilman and is restoring a 100-year old opera house to LEED Gold status. @gkarayannis

Next in the series: Solid waste  indicators for smart cities

Previously in our Dissecting ISO 37120 series: