Sustainable Cities and Communities

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Access to Basic Services: From Public Benefit Practice to a Sustainable Development Approach

  • Jairo Agustín Reyes PlataEmail author
  • Mateo Carlos Galindo Pérez
Living reference work entry


Access to basic services entails the right to housing, education, energy, and health, among other benefits of public interest which are essential to satisfy human needs and to guarantee a worthy life. Basic services ensure social justice and contribute to the equal treatment of all citizens. Such is the importance of access to basic services that it constitutes a key aspect to promote economic, social, and territorial cohesion and as a consequence sustainable development.

Access to basic services is based on the principles of universal access to goods and essential services as well as fundamental rights. Therefore, the state is obliged to regulate and assure the provision of quality services in the interest of promoting and reaching social well-being and the social protection of its population.

The Concept of Access to Basic Services

Access to basic services is a composite concept due to the two nouns it includes: (1) access and (2) services with the latter being complemented by an adjective, basic. Given this structure, a revision of each concept will ensue in order to subsequently synthesize the ideas.

In its beginnings, access was not properly recognized as a concept but as an idea or a general expression which led to its inaccurate use and, consequently, to the term being utilized as a synonym of accessibility and availability. Another constant characteristic of the use of the term access was its immediate link to health services, which aids in explaining why the majority of contributions to the concept derive mainly from the health-care field.

Aday and Andersen (1974) point out that imprecision in the use of the term access can be explained partly due to a lack of operational measuring. These authors laid some of the foundations of the concept by proposing that access (to medical care) had to count on a framework which would include the following aspects: (1) the elements that define policy [among these, financing and organization], (2) system characteristics [e.g., resource, volume, and distribution], (3) population characteristics which influence the use of the service [income], (4) the manner in which the service is used [type, place, purpose, frequency], and (5) consumer satisfaction starting from the quantity and quality of the service provided.

From this framework, a study which aided in refining and consolidating the definition was Penchansky and Thomas (1981) whom after reviewing Aday and Andersen’s (1974) proposal defined access as the degree of adjustment between clients and a system (in this case health). Moreover, they contend that access compiles a combination of specific dimensions that characterize the relation between user and system: (1) availability, (2) accessibility, (3) accommodation, (4) affordability, and (5) acceptability. Each one of these dimensions contains intrinsic characteristics.

For example, availability characterizes the relation that is established between the volume of resources and existing services and the volume and type of client necessities. Accessibility refers to the link between supply location and user location according to the availability of transportation means, the separation distance, and the time and cost of displacement (trip). Accommodation refers to the correlation between the ways in which services are organized to cater to users (the system and schedule of the operation and/or the ease of reaching it is included). Affordability is the relation that is established according to the price of the services and the income of the user. Acceptability is reached when compatibility of the characteristics of the service and the characteristics of the user is reached (Penchansky and Thomas 1981). This combination of dimensions aided in building a conceptual base and a methodology to define and estimate access and in this way to begin to apply terminology such as equity and equality in access.

Now, to address the concept of basic services, the first thing that needs to be specified is the type of existing services and which of these are considered basic and why. To do so, it is necessary to review the terminology since social services became public, and subsequently urban, to finally emerge as basic services.

Firstly, services refer to a combination of satisfiers which are provided to the population in order to achieve their well-being without caring for their concentration or territorial dispersal. Starting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 1948) and concretely on article 25, it signals that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

Necessary social services can be understood as those satisfiers provided by the government or the private sector to reach and enjoy an adequate standard of living and to promote more equitable societies. Education, food subsidies, health care, security, job training, civil registry, and subsidized housing were included among social services. As can be seen, social services include satisfiers from different areas.

With the advance of the industrial society, social services were transformed into public services. Given this public connotation (for everyone, for every person), contrary to that which is private, public services were conceived as indispensable to the good functioning of cities, and the only actor with the capacity to equip and guarantee the functioning of these types of services was the government in its different levels (federal, state, and municipal). Within the services that were considered public, the supply of energy, health, education, and security were included.

Subsequently, the growth of cities conditioned the denomination from public services to urban services. The urban/rural difference leads to a question: Are services solely urban, or are there rural services? The answer to this disjunctive has to do with the administrative model of the services. If what is sought after is that with the equipment of public services, rural communities move to an urban model; the reason why the denomination of urban services was chosen will be understood later in this article.

To overcome the dilemma of the urban rural dichotomy and for health reasons, some of the urban services were considered obligatory which gave rise to the term basic services. Drinking water availability, residue recollection and disposal (liquid and solid), as well as the mobility matter were among the basic services included. These were considered essential for the functioning of any human settlement independent of its rural or urban category.

Broadly speaking, the provision of basic services aims to guarantee that a home includes the conditions for minimum and dignified habitability. Given this condition, basic services are oriented toward a person. Table 1 presents a classification of urban services. It has been mentioned that basic services are conceived at a home scale.
Table 1

List of urban services


Required basic support material (equipment/infrastructure)


Drinking water supply

Pumping stations and substations; duct networks-canals; wells

Evacuation of liquid residues

Sewer network (drainage); sewage treatment plant

Evacuation of solid residues

Recollection system; recycled residue separation plants; landfill

Supply of electric/gas energy

Generating stations; distribution network (cabling, ducts)

Basic complementary


Communication and transportation (land, maritime, air, and electronic/digital)

Stations and boarding places; roadways; means of transportation; signals receiving-distributing antennas

Supply and commerce

Places for the reception and trade of perishable and nonperishable products


Health and social assistance

Medical units of different hierarchies

Educational and cultural

Facilities for different levels and educational, artistic, and cultural activities

Recreational and sports

Facilities to do physical, ludic, leisure, and relaxation activities

Public administration

Attention centers (offices) and executive, legislative, and judicial actions


Places for religious or cult purposes

Own production

A second category of services could be denominated as basic complements which in turn can be classified into direct and indirect. Direct are those that are given to a city to meet the daily necessities of people. Indirect complementary services seek to satisfy necessities but not daily and also on a city scale.

Current typologies such as the one designed by the UN-Habitat for a better urban future program (UN – Habitat 2018) refer to urban basic services as the following: (1) water and sanitation, (2) urban residue management, (3) urban mobility, and (4) urban energy. This program points out that in order to improve urban basic services, policy and institutional frameworks need to be strengthened to reach equitable access, especially for the poor.

As can be seen, mobility was not considered a basic service that had to be addressed immediately given the daily needs of the people to mobilize in the city. New classifications incorporated it within urban basic services.

After the aforementioned separated revision, it is time to join access and basic services in order to obtain a conceptual category that includes various dimensions. Starting from the previous contents, the first to highlight from access to basic services is that in the concept there is an implicit condition of production/generation of satisfiers and its collective distribution under the equity criteria.

Given this condition, for the European Union (Social Platform 2018), access to essential services (or basic) and its benefits must be regulated under the following principles: quality, accessibility, and affordability. In this sense, the European Commission utilizes the term Services of General Interest to refer to “the basic services that are essential to the lives of the majority of the general public and where the state has an obligation to ensure public standards” (European Commission 2011). From this perspective, access to services constitutes a key pillar to promote social, economic, and territorial cohesion and sustainable development.

The importance of having access to basic services to sustainable development was made apparent in 1987. The World Commission on Environment and Development, in its report Our Common Future, expressed that sustainable development was a type of development which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations 1987). A central aspect of this declaration alluded to a satisfaction of basic necessities as a condition to end poverty and, with it, provide the opportunity for the equitable development of everyone.

From the perspective of the World Commission, access to essential services had to be assured for social justice and environmental protection reasons. Deficiency in the provision of services was a consequence of environmental deterioration of planetary systems as well as an indispensable factor for environmental improvement and conservation.

Since then, different agendas for sustainable development have addressed basic services. In 2015, member countries from the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Its objectives are to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure the prosperity of men and women of all ages and conditions.

The 2030 Agenda includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets (United Nations 2018a). Seven of these SDGs implicitly and explicitly address access to basic services:
  • Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

  • Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

  • Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all.

  • Goal 6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all.

  • Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.

  • Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.

  • Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

In 2016, the New Urban Agenda is defined within the framework of the United Nations’ Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), which took place in Quito, Ecuador. This instrument lays out a new perspective on urbanization and development starting from the existence of an interdependence between both processes. According to the agenda, respect for human dignity constitutes a fundamental principle that demands that access to essential services be guaranteed to fight social exclusion and poverty (United Nations 2016a).

Access to Drinking Water and Sanitation

From the group of basic services, two are vital: drinking water and its counterpart drainage. No basic services are as fundamental for living as drinking water and waste disposal. A population conglomerate cannot obtain drinking water by itself and they can neither eliminate that liquid nor solid waste. These two components are essential both for city life (habitat, recreation, education, health) and also to keep active the economic cycle active. Drinking water and drainage are key services to guarantee the fight against social exclusion and extreme poverty.

The growth of cities (area and population) increase the demand of both drinking water and sewage. This increased demand resulted in the exclusion of most of the population in the cities from basic services. The exclusion from basic services can be absolute or relative. Absolute exclusion occurrs when people live in areas which are not covered by the equipment or infrastructure that supply or distribute services. In this case, localization in the city is the explicative variable for understanding the lack of access to basic services. On the other hand, relative exclusion is explained based on economic or institutional conditions; for instance, low income impedes paying for services; or the informality condition prevents from reaching the service (Pírez 2000).

The World Health Organization estimated that 884 million people in 2015 do not have access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation, 40% of the world’s population (WHO 2018). Additionally, 1.1 billion practice  open defecation. In 2015, it was expected to reduce to 2.4 billion people who still do not use an improved sanitation facility (WHO 2012).

Such is the importance of access to these basic services that water and sanitation have reached the category of human rights. The United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs (United Nations, OHCHR, UN-HABITAT, WHO 2010) recognizes the following specific dimensions that characterize the human right to water:
  • Sufficient. The water supply for every individual and household must be adequate and permanent. These utilizations customarily incorporate drinking, individual sanitation, washing of garments, sustenance planning, individual and family unit cleanliness. As per the World Health Organization (WHO), between 50 and 100 l of water for every individual every day are expected to guarantee that the most fundamental needs are met, and few wellbeing concerns emerge.

  • Safe. The water required for individual and domestic use must be guaranteed to be free from smaller scale life forms, concoction substances and radiological dangers that pose a risk to a man’s wellbeing. The World Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines for drinking-water quality provide a reason for the advancement of national models that, if appropriately executed, will guarantee the security of drinking-water.

  • Acceptable. Water ought to be of a worthy shading, scent and taste for home or residential use. All water offices and administrations must be culturally appropriate and delicate to gender, lifecycle and privacy requirements.

  • Physically accessible. Access to water and sanitation service must be guaranteed to everybody. Both goods have to be physically close to the household, educational institution, workplace or health institution. As indicated by WHO, the water source must be within 1,000 m from home and accumulation time ought not to exceed 30 min.

  • Affordable. Water must be moderate for all. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) recommends that water expenses ought not to exceed 3% of family pay.

The increasing concentration of population in cities and metropolitan areas in the world requires prior attention to access to drinking water and sanitation. The Commission on Sustainable Development pointed out (2004) that “safe drinking water and adequate sanitation are crucial for poverty reduction, crucial for sustainable development and crucial for achieving any and every one of the Millennium Development Goals.”

Access to Energy

In 2000, the world population without electricity was 1.7 billion. This figure reduced to 1.1 billion in 2016, a year that, for the first time, demonstrated a positive tendency due to a decrease in the number of people who lacked electricity (United Nations 2018b). Major progress in electrification occurred in the regions of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa where 95% of the world population without access to this service is located. In Asia, 870 million have been able to access electricity since 2000 reaching 89% of the population with this service in 2017 (United Nations 2018b). However, outcomes have been mixed. Access to services is unequal. Policies have benefited the rich more than the poor (Wang and Francisco 2010).

In the world, 2.8 billion people still utilize wood, dung, coal, and charcoal for cooking and heating. The dependency on this kind of energy causes more than four million premature deaths a year due to indoor air pollution. Additionally, the energy sector contributes for around 60% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. From this perspective, access to energy must consider not only the access to this service but also the reduction of negative effects on the environment.

Undoubtedly, dealing with access to energy for all is essential for developmental issues today (UN-Habitat 2009; United Nations 2018b). From the industry to daily life, it is a key aspect for jobs, security, food production, or climate change. However, the cost of energy has constantly increased in several countries where the energy sector (oil, natural gas, and electricity) is already privatized or in the process of being privatized. Additionally, the elimination of state subsidies has compromised the access to energy (as a basic service).

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, specifically Goal 7 (SDG 7): Affordable and Clean Energy, mentions that energy is central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity (United Nations 2018a). Two key pillars of SDG 7 include fostering renewable energy and improving energy efficiency. Renewable energy implies the generation of energy from natural resources (e.g., wind, water, solar, biomass, and geothermal) that are virtually replenished on a human time scale.

Access to alternative energies (e.g., wind and solar energies) can be fostered by programs to supply houses with the proper technology and infrastructure (aerogenerators, biodigesters, and solar cells) in order to contribute to sustainability, through the reduction of wastes and the generation of clean energy. This may reduce the dependency on environmentally high impact energies such as the kerosene, charcoal, or wood materials, and consequently, it may help to meet other global goals, including poverty eradication, gender equality, adaptation to climate change, and sustainable cities.

Global energy demand continues growing every year; meanwhile the overall share of renewable energy has increased only modestly. This rise was 5.4% for modern renewables in the 2005–2015 period. The heating and cooling sector consumed renewable energy the most (48%). It included thermal applications for climate control, heat for industrial use, agricultural drying, etc. The second place was for transportation (32%), followed by electricity consumption (20%) (REN 21 2018).

The Human Development Report (UNDP 2016) indicated that more than 80% of world energy supply was made up of fossil fuels in 2015. That percentage decreased to 55% in 2015 which represented an increase in the use of renewable energies. Apparently, an increase in electrical energy supply coincided with a technological change regarding energy.

In this sense, the Renewables 2018 Global Status Report by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN 21 2018) points out that an estimated 18.2% of global total energy consumption came from renewable resources in 2016. Modern renewables (not including traditional biomass) represented 10.4% (1.7% wind/solar/biomass/geothermal/ocean power, 0.9% biofuels for transport, 3.7% hydropower, and 4.1% biomass/solar/geothermal heat). An estimated 7.8% of the total final energy consumption came from traditional biomass. This energy source continues being important in many developing countries where it is used for cooking and heating. Still, 79.5% of energy consumption was of fossil fuel in origin.

The new annual investment in renewable power and fuels in 2017 were 279.8 billion USD. Compared to 2016, it had an increase of 2.11%. Nearly all of the investment was in solar photovoltaic (PV) installations; increasing the capacity to nearly double that of wind power and more than the net additions of coal, gas, and nuclear combined.

Growth in renewable energy has been possible thanks to subnational governments who are becoming leaders in renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives. Additionally, the cost of renewable technologies has fallen rapidly, increasing the energy capacity installations. In this sense, developing and emerging economies accounted for 63% of total renewable energy investment in 2017. China accounted for 45% of global investment. Latin American countries also held steady or tended to increase. In contrast, European countries have decreased in global investment since 2010 (REN 21 2018).

With respect to energy efficiency, it is a key aspect to foster economic growth and improve the environment and well-being. Energy efficacy implies that the same or more energy services are delivered for the same or less energy input. That can be achieved by reducing energy losses that occur during the conversion, transmission, distribution, and final use of energy. For example, implementing energy-efficient technologies can offer benefits to reduce energy costs, improve energy security, reduce local air pollution, or mitigate climate change.

Energy efficiency can support renewable energy performance and vice versa. According to REN 21 (2018), it can be in two ways: (i) the reduction of energy consumption through efficacy improvements means that the quantity of renewables can meet a larger share of energy use, and (ii) renewable energy production reduces the use of primary energy and conversion losses. Despite these synergies, energy efficiency and renewable energy are not considered yet as a part of unified energy policy to ensure access energy for all.

Not all of the countries have been successful in reducing energy consumption. According to Sustainable Energy for All (United Nations and The World Bank 2018), primary energy intensity improved 2.1% a year in the 2012–2014 period. Twenty countries concentrate 75% of global total primary energy supply (TPES). From these, China, the United States, India, and Russia account for nearly 50% of global TPES. Twenty-two percent is attributed to China. In contrast, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, China, Italy, Australia, Russia, and Mexico have reduced their intensity by more than 2% annually in the same period.

Access to Housing

Access to housing constitutes an issue of human rights that is recognized in International Human Rights Law (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 25 (1)) as part of the right to an adequate standard of living (UNHCR 2014). It is seen as one of the most basic human needs (as a basic service) and a precondition for the enjoyment of several human rights, among them, the right to work, health, or education. Adequate housing has implications for human dignity and quality of life and basic freedoms of privacy and movement.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR 2014), adequacy of housing includes security of tenure; availability of services, materials, facilities, and infrastructure; affordability; habitability; accessibility; locations; and cultural adequacy.

To begin with, security of tenure means to guarantee legal protection against force evictions, harassments, and other threats. Availability of services, materials, facilities, and infrastructure points out the provision of adequate sanitation; energy for cooking, heating, and lighting; or safe drinking water. The term affordability considers whether housing does not impose a threat or compromises the occupants’ right to enjoy other human rights. Habitability guarantees physical safety, adequate space, and protection against natural threats or structural hazards. Accessibility means that housing covers needs of disadvantaged or marginalized groups. Location is related to the housing placement and be adequate to support employment opportunities or the access to social facilities. Adequate housing enables the access to other essential facilities for health, security, and nutrition. Finally, housing is culturally adequate if the expression of cultural identity is considered.

Access to adequate housing does not necessarily require from the government to provide housing for the entire population. Rather, it demands that the state establishes the proper measures to prevent homelessness, prohibit forced evictions, or address discrimination (UNHCR 2014). It may require government intervention to establish laws, policies, or actions to guarantee housing for all, especially for vulnerable and marginalized groups.

On the other hand, access to housing does not prohibit the development or modernization projects where people can be displaced. A need for redevelopment in growing cities sometimes may demand from public planning agencies to acquire land for public use. In this case, interventions must attempt to minimize the scale of eviction and maximize the benefits for all.

Several international conferences, declarations, or plans of action offer guidelines and principles related to the access to adequate housing. Some of them are the Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements (1976), Agenda 21 (1992), the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements (1996), the Habitat Agenda (1996), the Millennium Declaration and Millennium Development Goals (2000), and the New Urban Agenda (2016).

The New Urban Agenda’s (United Nations 2016a) principle 14 (a) establishes that the provision of adequate and affordable housing is a key aspect to end poverty. To achieve this, national, subnational, and local governments must foster housing policies that support the progressive realization of the right to have an adequate housing, including the provision of adequate, affordable, accessible, resource-efficient, safe, resilient, well-connected, and well-located housing. In this sense, principle 46 mentions that access to housing contributes to a sustainable and inclusive urban prosperity and opportunities for all, including recognizing that housing enhances capital formation, income, employment generation, and savings and can contribute to driving sustainable and inclusive economic transformation at the national, subnational, and local levels.

United Nations’ (2016a) estimates signalled that at least two billion more people would require housing in rural and urban areas in 2030. The world report Habitat III (United Nations 2016b) reported that 800 million people lacked adequate conditions for housing in 2016. Compared to 1995, the number of people who lived in slums had increased to 130 million. The proportion of slum dwellers is greater in Africa (61.7%), followed by Asia (30%), Latin America (24%), and the Arab states (13.3%).

An influential factor in the increase of housing demands is migration to cities. The urban world population has multiplied fivefold since 1950, from 746 million to 3.9 billion in 2014. This increase will continue in the next years. It is estimated that an additional 1.18 billion people will live in cities in 2030. According to estimates from the United Nations, at least 2 billion more people will require housing in rural and urban areas in 2030 (United Nations 2016b).

Notwithstanding, the number of people who can acquire a decent house is limited. It is estimated that 330 million households are currently financially stretched by housing costs. This figure could increase to 440 million in 2025 (King et al. 2017). This situation affects developed as well as developing countries. For example, in the United States, 20% of the population spends more than 50% of their income on costs related to housing (UN-Habitat 2018a).

Additionally, a key factor to provide appropriate housing is the strengthening of the spatial relationship of housing with the rest of the urban fabric and the surrounding functional areas. From this perspective, adequate housing is part of a social construction process of the city. Urban planning and design can support appropriate measures in cities and human settlements which in time facilitate access to housing and other facilities and public services, in both urban and rural areas.

Worldwide Differences in the Distribution of Basic Services, Housing, and Energy

Geographical, political, and administrative conditions have produced a heterogeneous distribution in the quantity and quality of services among and within countries, both in rural and urban areas. Regional differences are often evident when giving financial support with distinct effects in development results (Parienté 2017). Population growth is another fact related to basic service access. In 1990, the world population had reached 5 billion. This figure reached 7.3 billion people in 2015, and it is estimated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 (United Nations 2018a). The latter implies an enormous pressure in the provision of urban services.

For example, it is common to observe in some parts of the world, particularly in developing countries, a contrast between demand and availability of a service. The installation of an electricity source does not guarantee full access to electrical energy since this service needs to be available at the right time, at an accessible cost, and appropriate technology is needed for its optimal harnessing. Housing or urban equipment that includes electrical installations could, in fact, lack a real access to the service if the correct conditions for it do not exist.

Moreover, the ecological interdependence between the elements that make up basic services is stronger every day. Scarcity of natural resources and environmental challenges which humanity faces have placed their own limitations (UN-Habitat 2014). This is due to two aspects. The first concerns the abundance of an essential natural asset for the functioning of the service which, under determined circumstances, can be limited in this availability. The second concerns service operation or logistics in the distribution of the service and management of environmental consequences which the service includes.

The aforementioned can be illustrated with the following instance. Water supply and wastewater management require energy. Nowadays, the biggest energy sources come from fossil fuels, and optimizing such services implies managing demand, finding energy alternatives, and reducing waste. Solving these aspects could depend on energy conservation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The world panorama on the distribution of basic services shows an unequal access to drinking water, housing, and energy, among other services which are fundamental for physical and financial security, economic productivity, community health, and social well-being (UNDP 2016). The answer to satisfy the demand of basic services goes further than the respective sectors. It supposes changes in urban development policy of local and national governments who would have to assume a more decided role to guarantee access to all basic services in order to achieve sustainable development.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jairo Agustín Reyes Plata
    • 1
    Email author
  • Mateo Carlos Galindo Pérez
    • 2
  1. 1.Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores, Unidad LeónUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de MéxicoLeónMexico
  2. 2.Instituto de GeografíaUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de MéxicoCiudad de MéxicoMexico

Section editors and affiliations

  • Elisa Conticelli
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BolognaBolognaItaly