Building better, safer, healthier cities for children and young people

by Peter Kraftl, Sophie Hadfield-Hill and Susanne Börner

It is estimated that by 2050, ‘two-thirds of all humanity – 6.5 billion people – will be urban’ and that before then, in the next decade, 60% of those in cities will be children and young people (Arup, 2017).  A recent report in the Lancet argues that investment is needed to ‘address the greatest threats to child health and wellbeing.’ Children aged 0-17 bear the brunt of the negative environmental impacts associated with increased urbanisation, with ‘1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 attributed to unhealthy environments’ (WHO, 2017). Air pollution, energy insecurity, food shortages and water vulnerabilities are critical threats which face young lives in cities and which are complicated by cross-cutting social factors like gender, income, disability and ethnicity. The environmental challenges facing urban children – now and in the future – are far more complex than we often think and are compounded by challenges associated with climate change. Creating better, safer, healthier cities for children and young people, now and in the future, should be a priority for governments, researchers, communities, NGOs, businesses and others.

Sharing evidence

Let us be clear on why addressing the environments of cities - and especially challenges associated with air, water and energy - matters for children and young people. According to the World Health Organization, ‘93% of all children live in environments with air pollution above WHO guidelines.’ We know that children are more vulnerable to air pollutants than adults (WHO, 2018)and as a result this is one of the primary causes of death and damage to their health and wellbeing(UNICEF 2017). The first 1,000 days of human life is critical for development – for those children exposed to high levels of pollutants, this can have serious developmental and health implications (UNICEF 2017).

In terms of water, ‘the quality and quantity of water that children rely on for survival is under threat… by 2040, 1 in 4 children will live in areas with extremely high-water stress’ (UNICEF, 2020). International policy frames water as something to be ‘accessed, used and controlled’(Hadfield-Hill and Zara 2019). However, research has shown that children’s experiences of water go beyond simple questions of resource access. Children interact with water (and its absence) in a range of ways that may compound existing inequalities and that are structured by the values they learn from adults and their understandings of climatic events, such as drought or monsoon. (Hadfield-Hill and Zara 2019).

Children’s lives should also be at the centre of discussions about sustainable and equitable energy. Energy is critical to children’s development and wellbeing (UNICEF, 2015) and equitable access to energy has a direct impact on poverty reduction. It has been proven, for instance, that more reliable street lighting can make urban spaces safer for girls, allowing them to access schools and therefore the education that can make a difference to their lives. Where that access is unreliable - for instance where it is controlled by criminal gangs in informal settlements - girls’ education and their livelihoods may be at risk.

Critically, discussion about building ‘child-friendly cities’ has, so far, tended to focus on less overtly ‘environmental’ factors - looking instead at other important issues, such as children’s access to education, or their ability to move around or play in urban places. However, it is time to pay greater attention to the environmental challenges that affect, and even underpin, children’s experiences of cities - and especially the impacts of pollution, climate change and access to resources like water and energy. The case studies below bring some of these issues and complexities to life.

Case Study: Children living with the monsoon (Hadfield-Hill and Zara, 2019)  (Hadfield-Hill and Zara, 2019)

Kraftl figure1

Here the authors show how researchers and international agencies need to think beyond current water discourses, which are often framed around access, use and control. Of course, these are vital, but so too are a whole host of water challenges which impact young lives. This research from India showed how young people lived with water: how it shaped what they do, where they go and how it intersected with their play, belonging and ultimately lived experiences of inequality.

On the one hand, the monsoon brings with it relief from the heat and of course, for children, opportunities to play (see the photograph above), as one participant commented ‘we sometimes drink good water of rivers. I and my friends swim… we wash our cows… we go to swim’ (Male, 11). However, the research shows that the intensity of the monsoon rains soon ‘infiltrates… their routines, homes, minds and bodies’ perpetuating existing inequalities.  Roads wash away, infrastructures are cut off, children cannot go to school. The homes people lived in impacted on their everyday experience of the monsoon - rain seeped into homes, mould grew up walls and young bodies were the most vulnerable - with fungal infections common among participants living in environments which buckle under the pressure of the rains. This research argues for a re-thinking of watery inequalities and urges us to ‘think with the weather in uncovering the complexities of young people’s entanglements with water.’


Case study: Living with and adapting to socio-environmental challenges in Sao Paulo’s periphery (Börner et al., 2020; Börner et al., 2019; Science Magazine, 2021)

Research conducted with young people in the urban periphery of Sao Paulo has shown that the socio-environmental challenges facing young people are complex and often interconnected, impacting on various areas of their lives). On top of that, the impacts of climate change with more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as flooding, storms, and heatwaves exacerbate resource insecurity and produce so-called “wicked challenges”, particularly affecting families in precarious housing conditions.

Research however has also shown that youth in the urban periphery of Sao Paulo possess important everyday knowledge about living with resource (in)security. Their stories reflect manifold realities which cannot be reduced to a single “one size fits all” portrait of their situation. Whereas some youth may point to issues around flooding, access to clean drinking water or to healthy food, others named concerns such as air pollution or lack of access to greenspace. At the same time, young people have developed ways of dialoguing with and adapting to resource scarcity through everyday adaptive actions, although these knowledge(s) and actions may not be immediately visible at a first glance, and therefore remain “hidden”. They  shared stories about practices of saving water, unplugging electronic devices before storms to avoid lightning strikes, creating support networks with family or neighbours, or engaging with local food production initiatives. And, despite all the challenges they are facing, youth also introduced another view of the periphery - a perspective which is one of hope, where nature is (re-)claiming its space in the midst of precarious urban settlements, with secret views, birds and butterflies, and where young people care about creating safer and healthy futures for themselves and their families.

Kraftl figure2 Multiple realities in one: between resource scarcity, adaptive action, and the unexpected beauty of (peri)urban spaces (source: male, 12 years old)


Moving the public debate forward

It is essential that we address these challenges head-on in planning and designing, safer, more inclusive urban environments. As well as academics, governments, international agencies and civil society have an important role to play in addressing these critical challenges of our time. Indeed, this is the ‘decade of action’ for cities (World Cities Report, 2020). It is time to think differently about children and young people’s relationship with cities, and to initiate a debate that focuses on the environmental and infrastructural conditions of cities as well as more detailed questions about the planning of urban public spaces. We have the evidence about the impacts of poor-quality urban environments on children and young people’s lives - but action is needed.

Critically, children have a fundamental right to a safe and environmentally just city. We need to scale up from neighbourhood- or city-level debates - and academic research - to initiate a global debate about what makes a city not only child-friendly, but better, safer and healthier for children to live and grow up in. We also need to recognise that building better cities for children will make cities better for all urban residents - now and in the future. This debate needs to be genuinely inclusive and to take place in a variety of formats and media to answer some difficult questions, as follows.

  • How can governments, policy-makers, academics, businesses, NGOs and communities work together to get a grasp of the complex, intersecting environmental challenges and threats facing children?
  • What areas should we prioritise in addressing these complex challenges in creating child-friendly cities for children, now and in the future?
  • How can priorities for creating a safe and environmentally just city for children be agreed and shared at a global level but also be sensitive to local conditions and concerns?
  • How can cities (and the children who live in them) not only genuinely mitigate against but live well with the effects of threats to climate, air, energy, food and water?

Placing children at the centre of these debates - listening not only to their experiences and worries but their aspirations and the solutions they propose - is imperative if we are serious about addressing these challenges. Engaging children and young people in debates about the potentials of urban space is also key to overcoming the stigmatization of urban peripheries and to creating dialogues of hope rather than shame. At the same time, while taking youth seriously, youth engagement also needs to be ‘playful’ to incentivize meaningful youth participation (Science Magazine, 2021; Bright Surf Science News, 2021).


Steps towards solutions

The next step is, then, to initiate an inclusive, global debate about how we can build better, safer, healthier cities for children. Below we suggest a range of starting points to for those debates, for gathering the knowledge we need, and, resulting from those debates for actually addressing the challenges which face children’s lives in cities:

There is a need for more systematic co-production of research, consultation, policy-making with children (for instance through community-based mapping of relevant issues such as areas of environmental risk, access to food, provision of greenspaces). There is also a need, however, to create a platform to share that research within and between countries. 

There could be further and more systematic consideration of the technologies to facilitate children’s participation and meaningful interaction with policy-makers and other stakeholders (practitioners, researchers, youth-to-youth dialogue between activists and other young people). These could include bespoke mobile phone apps, social media, websites, and other media platforms as well as more ‘traditional’ forums for interaction such as workshops and conferences. These approaches could also include more experimental formats outside of ‘formal’ spaces, such as neighbourhood and city walks led by young people themselves to engage practitioners and decision-makers into their everyday realities first-hand.

The debate could be moved on by drawing on ways of thinking about and visualising the complex interactions of environmental and social challenges that urban children face (e.g. ‘nexus approaches’) as well as threats posed to resource security by environmental hazards.  For instance, extreme weather events such as floods can have an impact on food security when food items become destroyed by the floods generally affecting families living in vulnerable conditions. Moreover, storms can negatively impact energy security as power cuts occur more frequently during or as a result of these events.

The debate and any proposed solutions need to seriously address the ways children adapt to and dialogue with resource insecurities and disaster risk. Yet, the overall approach should be one that helps children see not only the challenges and limitations but also the potentials of urban spaces and solutions to the environmental challenges they face. An approach that empowers children to perceive themselves as having ownership and being able to engage with their local environment is vital. Being able to engage also means being hopeful that change is possible; hence, engaging with the potentials as well as the limitations of urban space is crucial.

We know much about how children experience urban spaces and what they want to see. There are also global conventions - such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet those knowledges and laws do not always translate into real, systematic action for child-friendly cities - whether in terms of planning or infrastructural solutions, or enshrining children’s needs and voices into local or national laws.

We need to radically re-think city infrastructures to create better, safer, healthier environments for children and young people to grow up in.  How can we reduce the number of childhood deaths attributed to unhealthy environments? How can we ensure that the air children are breathing in cities is cleaner and less damaging? How can we address the threats associated with air pollution, energy insecurity, food shortages and water vulnerabilities?  It is not easy, our action and infrastructures need to be scaled up.  Above all, we need interdisciplinary teams of engineers, city planners, architects, government officials and children’s geographers (to name but a few stakeholders) to work together - we need to think and act big to address these critical challenges of our time. This also means addressing the impacts of climate change before it is too late, if we want to create safe and liveable futures for today’s young generations.

Dr Susanne Börner's research was financed by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation Programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No. 833401 [NEXUS-DRR].