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

Such a role for children and the youth traditionally has gone unrecognized. The New Urban Agenda will fail if we don’t reverse this trend.

Traditionally, the role of children in shaping our cities has been unrecognized. But when given the appropriate space and tools, children and youths have proven that they are able to play multiple important roles. (World Vision)

How can cities of the future promote healthy, economically vibrant and inclusive environments for children and youths?

When over 60 percent of urban dwellers are projected to be under 18 years old by 2030, we cannot deny these groups’ right to the city. But what kind of city do we need for the young, particularly to create an urban area that is healthy and just?

At a recent Urban Thinkers Campus organized by World Vision, participants offered a range of specifics on this question. A healthy city is one that promotes the sustainable management of water and waste, for instance, ensuring that children and youths have access to clean and safe physical environments. A just city is also one that sees children stay in school instead of working in informal labour, and one that gives youths access to safe and dignified work.

To attain this, cities will need to be equitable, inclusive and transparent. This means that processes of designing and monitoring urban policies and services take place at all levels of the city. Transparent cities also support innovative governance approaches such as participatory budgeting and community contracting, reflecting meaningful multi-stakeholder engagement.

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

The Urban Thinkers Campus, held in Geneva at the end of October, was one of more than two-dozen global stakeholder events being organized as part of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign in the run-up to next year’s Habitat III conference on urbanization. The Geneva campus was built around three issues affecting children and youth: water, waste and work. These issues were discussed by experts from UN-Habitat, the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, the Stockholm International Water Institute, Eawag, WasteAID and other groups.

One major focus of the sessions was on public space, in recognition of the theme of this year’s World Habitat Day. Public space is a vital component of a prosperous city, and the state of public space is directly related to city residents’ quality of life. Yet many children today live in overcrowded spaces in cities of the developing world, where streets are contaminated with hazardous waste, leading to inadequate safe spaces to play. Wasted space is a wasted asset of the city.

Another major focus was on urban environmental hygiene. Uncollected solid waste, poor water quality, and unreliable and inadequate facilities for dignified sanitation are growing problems within informal settlements. These concerns are also critical determinants of a child’s well-being. Access to clean and reliable water alone significantly influences the probability of whether a child survives his or her first year of life.

Finally, the campus focused on urban livelihoods. Child labour is a fundamental violation of human rights, known to affect a child’s mental and physical well-being. Estimates suggest that tens of millions of children, some as young as five years old, live or work on the streets of today’s towns and cities. Children growing up in families that do not have access to decent work opportunities are often at higher risk of leaving school early and being exploited within the informal labour workforce. Child labour is rampant in the water and waste sector.

“With less than a year until Habitat III, the question we need to keep asking is: What is the role of children and the youth in identifying and designing solutions to key issues that will shape our future cities?”

[See: All of Citiscope’s coverage on the Urban Thinkers Campuses]

If cities are really meant to be “designed to live together”, as the World Cities Day motto suggests, children and youths must be counted in local, national and global decision-making processes that shape our future cities.

A strengthened role

Children are typically the first casualties of urban poverty — often living on the streets, engaged in hazardous child labour and trafficked to the city. More than a billion children reside in cities today, and millions of these are living in slum conditions.

With less than a year until Habitat III, the question we need to keep asking is: What is the role of children and the youth in identifying and designing solutions to key issues that will shape our future cities?

[See: Bridging the GAP: Urban advocacy for children and youths]

Traditionally, the role of children in shaping our cities has been unrecognized. But we have seen that when given the appropriate space and tools, children and youths are able to play multiple important roles.

They can impact policy by bringing information about their experiences, needs and solutions to governing bodies. They can hold decision-makers accountable by fulfilling a monitoring role to ensure good governance and accountability in cities. They can be transformational agents, and influence peers and communities to be responsible citizens.

For example, at the first Children’s Assembly — led by World Vision at World Urban Forum 7 last year in Medellín — over 200 children from Colombia, Bolivia, El Salvador and Honduras gathered to demonstrate their role as knowledge experts of their cities. Carolina Jaramillo, 13, also addressed delegates, stating, “We are the present, we will be here tomorrow, and adults need to listen to us.”

At that event, children and youths explored issues and solutions to attaining the city they feel they need. This resulted in a formal Children’s Charter that was presented to Joan Clos, the secretary-general of Habitat III. “We need to break gaps: education and health for all, where cities do not develop themselves but we develop them,” said Cecilia Condor, 13, from Bolivia. Guadalupe Castillo, 12, from El Salvador, said, “I want a healthy, educated, safe, clean city, without violence and with real leaders who can defend child rights.”

In April in Bangladesh, children and youths raised key issues they faced in the city to nominated candidates for the mayor of Dhaka City Corporation, the first such elections in over a decade. Children and youths called upon mayoral candidates to demonstrate their commitment to young people’s participation in processes to develop city planning, including establishing a strategy on child rights and allocating greater funding to budgets for these constituencies.

[See: In Dhaka, Habitat III forum confronts staggering population forecast]

At the Geneva Urban Thinkers Campus, participants explored two case studies that underscored the role that youth groups are already playing in the provision of basic urban social services — specifically, waste management in informal settlements and low-income areas of Nairobi. While addressing the inadequate supply of basic services, youth groups in these areas are contributing to safer public spaces and broader community development outcomes, including income-generation opportunities.

‘Cities for children’

Together, the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goal 11 — the urban SDG, aiming to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” — and Habitat III present an important new opportunity. The global community can formally recognize children and youths, who are the present and future, as valued contributors to urban policy, including in the formulation and measurement of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

This is also an opportunity for child- and youth-focused organizations such as World Vision to promote this new vision. We want to see “cities for children” that are healthy, safe, resilient and prosperous, where children and youths thrive, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized. We want to see healthy and just cities where there is safe and sustainable access to water, waste and sanitation services, and where children are in school, not forced into unjust labour. We want to see cities where youths have access to decent work, and where transparency and participatory city planning is widely promoted.

“Participation isn’t enough for cities; engagement is the real goal,” Clos stated earlier this year in Tel Aviv. Indeed, U. N. member states need to commit to framing policies that are equitable and inclusive, where children, youths and their representative community organizations are key stakeholders in the decision-making of strategies and programmes related to human settlements.

These policies must balance economic development and the building of social capital. Doing so holds out the opportunity to transform cities into inclusive centres of growth, where all citizens of the city, including children and youths, receive their fair share of returns.

The New Urban Agenda will not succeed if we fail to recognize the diverse needs and perspectives of children and youths in the development of local, national and global urban policy.

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Joyati Das

Joyati Das is senior director of World Vision International’s Urban Programmes Initiative, a multi-country action research project. Since 2008, its success has led to the scaling up of World Vision’s Global Urban Programme, which continues to develop measurable, scalable and effective programmes that are locally led and respond to urban dynamism. Joyati also represents World Vision as co-chair of the General Assembly of Partners’ Children and Youth Constituent Group. She is a steering-committee member of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign and is on the advisory board of the U. N. Global Cities Institute.