Commentary

How to ensure children everywhere enjoy the ‘urban advantage’

Through the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda, countries have committed to ending children’s unequal access to basic services. Yet delivering on this pledge will require a deep shift in how we plan and govern cities.

A boy hangs out at Dhobi Ghat, a large area for washing clothes in Mumbai, 2011. (Narit Jindajamorn/Shutterstock)

Over a billion children today live in cities and towns, a number set to rise as the world continues to urbanize. Increasingly, children will be born, grow, learn and play in cities, and the quality of their urban childhoods will determine their futures — and ours.

For too many of these children, however, cities are a place of inequality. In Latin American cities, for instance, 1 in 3 children grows up in a precarious household. In New York City, a similar proportion lives below the poverty line. They do not enjoy the “urban advantage” that comes with access to health, education and recreation. They are more likely to live in neighbourhoods cut off from city services and infrastructure, areas marked by insecurity and vulnerability to natural hazards.

At the recent Habitat III conference on sustainable urbanization, countries agreed to the principle of equal rights and opportunities for people of all ages — and committed to ending children’s unequal access to basic services. The New Urban Agenda, the 20-year strategy adopted at Habitat III, echoes the pledge made by world leaders when they agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. The urban-focused SDG 11 calls for cities to be safe and inclusive by 2030, and includes special attention to child-friendly transit and safe spaces.

[See: Present and future: Habitat III must acknowledge young people’s role in shaping our cities]

In short, countries have promised a future in which all children enjoy the urban advantage. Fulfilling this promise, however, requires a deep shift in how we plan and govern cities. It also requires a rethink on how we approach children’s urban issues. A new report from Equity for Children highlights how a child-inclusive approach can guide implementation of the New Urban Agenda and the SDGs.

Reframing urban agendas

Too often, cities are planned and managed as if children and their families, along with the elderly and the disabled, do not exist. In New York City, for example, a new bike-share system has been rolled out — but without child seats or child-sized bikes. Even if such facilities were made available, the majority of the city’s bike lanes are unprotected and not safe for children to use. Thus, the network is largely unusable for working parents who need to take children to school or day care, or for older children traveling on their own.

“Too often, cities are planned and managed as if children and their families, along with the elderly and the disabled, do not exist.”

By 2030, children under 18 will make up the majority of urban residents around the world. Reaching an understanding of the city as home to a diverse and young population with real needs won’t happen without reframing — or rethinking — urban agendas.

[See: The SDGs are missing an important opportunity on education]

To do this, we need to consider how critical urban issues — from infrastructure to the economy, transport to sustainability — interact with children’s well-being. An example is early-childhood care, widely seen as a critical investment in children’s development. As noted by Florencia Lopez Boo, a senior economist with the Inter-American Development Bank, well-planned childcare services that are affordable and close to public transport can improve a family’s employment stability and reduce the use of informal, low-quality care, providing real benefits to both employers and families.

Reframing also is needed for child advocacy, which often is focused on specific agendas for children without considering the many problems city mayors contend with. The Child Friendly City model exemplifies an approach that focus on children’s well-being and participation but, at the same time, fails to make linkages to other urban constituencies’ interests. The goal shouldn’t be to create an agenda for children but rather to put children in the broader city agenda.

What would this look like in practice? In Tel Aviv, the mayor noticed much of the middle class was leaving the city, citing its high cost of living. Working with the Bernard van Leer Foundation to analyze the data, it turns out that many of those leaving had children under the age of 8 requiring childcare. As a result, the mayor’s office now is focusing on providing low-cost, high-quality childcare to city residents, benefitting parents at all income levels.

Data gap

So how do we undertake this rethink? And how can we place stronger emphasis on children as countries begin to implement the New Urban Agenda?

“The goal shouldn’t be to create an agenda for children but rather to put children in the broader city agenda.”

One key issue is around data. Reliable data supports effective policy in any city, identifying where inequities exist and providing a way to monitor progress. Yet currently there is a void in terms of data about children in cities around the world. To track progress on commitments made at the last Habitat conference — Habitat II, held in 1996 — the Global Urban Futures project undertook an exhaustive review of worldwide data sets. Only one child-focused indicator, the Infant Mortality Rate, had sufficient data to track progress in urban areas around the world.

[See: Can we actually agree on indicators to measure urban development?]

When data does exist, it is often “siloed” in different municipal agencies, or it does not capture the varying access to quality services. The Citizens Committee for the Children of New York has done pioneering work to overcome these hurdles and make information on children available for every neighbourhood in the city. As a result, they have been able to pinpoint the neighbourhoods, such as Hunts Point in the Bronx, where children experience the highest level of risk.

Likewise in Colombia, Como Vamos in partnership with Equity for Children has created bottom-up social-accountability mechanisms that facilitate advocacy with city authorities. This has been done by collecting data on living conditions for children age 0 to 5, tracking the policies that affect them and analyzing these together with local groups and government agencies.

The participatory monitoring project, Informe Primera Infancia Como Vamos, covered a third of all young children in Colombia and has drawn back the curtain on issues that were previously invisible. For example, 60 percent of child deaths in cities could have been prevented through simple measures such as vaccinations and treatment of infections. In Bogotá, young children living in the underserved periphery community of Sumapaz were five times more likely to die than those living in the central neighbourhood of La Candelaria.

Thinking, acting politically

Politics also is fundamental to addressing inequities experienced by urban children. High-level champions for children — mayors and city leaders — need to lead cross-sectoral reforms and invest in children beyond election cycles.

Creating this political will is going to require new and “multi-directional” relationships between a range of urban actors. This means connecting child advocates with city leaders, real estate developers, urban planners, architects and other stakeholders. Most child-focused initiatives target the usual suspects — government agencies already providing services to children. Some extend to the police or parks, such as New York City’s recently created Children’s Cabinet. But when major urban planning is underway, children’s advocates usually are not present.

[See: How Boston gives youth control over part of the city budget]

A case in point is the USD 6 billion Rebuild by Design initiative to make the New York area more storm resilient. Despite children being a vulnerable group, their interests are not addressed in these plans. As noted, Hunts Point is the riskiest place in the city to grow up, but a major investment in making the community less vulnerable makes no connections with children’s health, education or protection. Until children’s advocates are at the table when major planning is done, the needs of children will continue to be neglected.

For urban actors, an alliance with child advocates can help to highlight the multiple benefits of sustainable urban development. For example, underscoring the disproportionate number of children killed and injured in traffic accidents can make an important difference in gaining support for pedestrian-friendly cities. Likewise, investments in sewers and sanitation in the burgeoning cities of Asia and Africa help keep children healthy and businesses open.

Finally, urban activists and child advocates can foster partnerships between governments and communities to ensure that the voices of the vulnerable are heard on high. For instance, Young Citizens Score Cards, developed by the Children’s Environments Research Group, provide a way for children, caregivers and community-level service providers to participate in urban decision-making. By scoring their cities on a range of indicators and discussing ways the cities can be improved, families provide city governments with data and actions to take. The tool has been used in 27 countries, leading to real improvements in cities.

As more and more children grow up in cities, facing rising inequality and climate change, it’s time their needs were placed at the centre of implementing the New Urban Agenda.

Alberto Minujin, Veronica Bagnoli Fernandez, Annel Cabrera and Beatrice Mauger contributed to this commentary.

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Samantha Cocco-Klein

Samantha Cocco-Klein is senior adviser at Equity for Children, an initiative of the New School University in New York, as well as a Global Urban Futures fellow and PhD student at the Milano School for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy. For over 15 years, she has worked with UNICEF, the United Nations and civil society organizations around the world to improve the lives of children.