The debate on environmental protection vs. human development is nothing new, but it has been re-emerging for some decades given the growing urbanization: issues that had already come up as conflict-prone in rural areas turn out to be even more burning issues in cities where the actors are more numerous and interests more substantial, and where the political, social and economic stakes are even higher. One central issue, which forms the core of this chapter, is the level and modalities of integration of public policies. Generally speaking, public policies are too sector-based and treat environmental and housing issues separately, without taking either the consequences of one sectoral policy on another sector into account, or even more fundamentally, the existing interrelationships between housing and environment prior to the design and implementation of policies. Hence, the matter is crucial in terms of policy definition, as much of the diagnosis must be conducted before the policies are defined.

A traditional approach in understanding public policies is to envisage them as a problem-solving mechanism. They comprise a set of laws, norms, rules and institutions, but they are also anchored in a set of cultural and social representations. In the last decades, research in social sciences has moved away from analyses based merely on institutions and laws. It has started to assess the processes leading to the “construction of a problem”, as described in Lascoumes and Le Galès (2007), in terms of the passage from social facts to public issues, which can then turn into political issues that lead to public action.

In this chapter, the proposal is to look at public policies in two areas affecting material life in cities — specifically, housing and environmental preservation — within the framework of a comparative approach, highlighting differences and similarities. The ambition is to understand the main contents of these policies as well as their (lack of) articulation, on the one hand, and to assess their role in framing a sustainable urban agenda, on the other. In other words, can public policies related to the urban environment and housing be based on a holistic approach or are they confined to a sector-based approach? What is their place as compared to other factors affecting urban transformation? Are public policies able to establish a coherent and accepted framework to ensure the development of sustainable and inclusive cities in the long run?