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Housing versus Habitat

CAMBRIDGE – Peter Drucker, the influential management guru, famously said, “What does not get measured, does not get done.” He might have added that what gets measured poorly gets done poorly.

Consider low-income housing. Most developing countries, and many rich ones, define their housing deficit according to the number of families living in units deemed socially unacceptable. But what is meant by unacceptable varies greatly from country to country. Piped water, sewerage, and electricity are seen as essential in the Americas, but not in India.

The problem is that people do not demand houses; they demand habitats. A house is an object; a habitat is a node in a multiplicity of overlapping networks – physical (power, water and sanitation, roads), economic (urban transport, labor markets, distribution and retail, entertainment) and social (education, health, security, family, friends). The ability to connect to all of these networks makes a habitat valuable.

Cities, for example, can be highly productive spaces, because they allow people to combine their different skills to make things that none of them could make individually. People can exchange their knowhow, learn from each other, and trade. Jane Jacobs’s insights on this, published more that 40 years ago, have been confirmed by more recent studies summarized in books by Edward Glaeser and Enrico Moretti.