Do you remember what it was like in your neighborhood as a child? Do you have vivid memories of the buildings, the roads, the people, or the empty spaces around you, if there were any? Making children an integral part of the wider community, including public policies and programs, is the basic idea behind building child-friendly cities.

A recent report published by UNICEF examined the effects of modern-day urbanization on urban children – which is mainly characterized by inequality and insecurity. Based on 10 indicators of child survival and well-being across 77 low- and middle-income countries, sanitation and access to water were found to be the highest contributors to the urban income gap – at 44% and 18% respectively.

Additionally, in comparison to their rural peers, the poorest urban children have a 44% stunting prevalence and 38% higher mortality rate in under-fives.

With projections putting 60% of the global population in cities by 2050, policy-makers around the world are increasingly looking at how cities affect the well-being of their citizens. This means that the planning systems, which, according to author Tim Gill, are mostly centered on cars, house building, and the economy, rather than enhancement of quality of life, need to be addressed.

Investing in Child-Friendly Cities

The poorest urban children are in the lowest 20% when it comes to wealth distribution. Over 1 billion children – more than half the children in developing countries – suffer from at least one form of deprivation. UNICEF identifies that 13.4 million poor urban children are less likely to complete primary school than their rural counterparts.

As part of the Child Friendly City Framework, Ars86care Foundation proposes providing child-friendly spaces in the form of educational opportunities for children to develop their full potential. The program provides access to quality kindergarten, especially to unprivileged children. The main aim is to diminish disparities among urban-rural linkages and strengthen the urban periphery.

After being voted as the least attractive city to grow up in 2006, Rotterdam was named the European Youth Capital in 2009. Dutch politician Hugo de Jonge notes that Rotterdam has a growing population in the under-27 age group. In 2010, the city published a booklet where it outlined four practical building blocks for a child-friendly city: 1) Child-Friendly Housing, 2) Public Space, 3) Facilities, and 4) Safe Traffic Routes.

Since 2006, Rotterdam has spent a total of EUR 15 million (a little over USD 17 million) on improvements in public space in lower income neighborhoods. Natuurspeeltuin de Speeldernis – once a city park forest, has now been transformed into a nature playground – draws around 35,000 visitors each year.

Last year, UNICEF launched the Child-Friendly Cities and Communities Initiative (CFCI) toolkit – “a powerful and strategic tool to strengthen awareness and implementation of children’s rights and, most importantly, to enable children’s voices to be heard,” claims Gerard Bocquenet, UNICEF’s director of private fundraising and partnerships.

Child-friendly city initiatives are active in 31 countries, spanning across seven focus areas: education, environment, health, inclusion, participation, leisure, and protection.

SDGs And The Rights Of Children

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development commits to providing children and youth with a nurturing environment for them to realize their full rights and capabilities. As a complementary move, UNICEF produced an interactive document that explores the links between the SDGs and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 2018, the Indonesian government pledged to establish itself as a child-friendly nation. As a result, family study centers and children’s creativity centers have been built in the country’s 34 provinces.

In Belfast, where nearly one fifth of children are under the age of 13, the Belfast Healthy Cities initiative put in action an action plan in 2016. 7,000 children were asked about their neighborhoods and the kind of changes they would like to see.

Albania’s capital Tirana has made huge leaps in making children agents of social change in the city under the leadership of its 37-year-old mayor Erion Veliaj. The city now hosts a children’s local council, allowing schools to visit the mayor and city directors, as well as a program for high-schoolers that allows them to take over the city administration. The city has built 15 playgrounds in neighborhoods across the city, which, according to Veliaj, has given both elders and youth a sense of ownership of the space, reducing vandalism as well as providing a space for young people to play.

Some cities have opted for simpler interventions that require no to little infrastructure changes. In car-dominant Bristol, a mother-led organization called Playing Out successfully lobbied with the city council to close off the streets to cars in neighborhoods once a week to allow children to “play out.” Today, 661 streets across the U.K. host playing out sessions.

It is expected that 70% of the world’s population will be under 18 by 2030. “If children are not designed into our cities, they are designed out,” says urbanist George Monbiot.