Written by Dima Stouhi
Cities we live in today have been built on principles designed decades ago, with prospects of ensuring that they are habitable by everyone. Throughout history, cities have been catalysts of economic growth, serving as focal points for businesses and migration. However, in the last decade, particularly during the last couple of years, the world has witnessed drastic reconfigurations in the way societies work, live, and commute.
Today’s urban fabric highlights two demographic patterns: rapid urbanization and large youth populations. Cities, although growing in scale, have in fact become younger, with nearly four billion of the world’s population under the age of 30 living in urban areas, and by 2030, UN-Habitat expects 60% of urban populations to be under the age of 18. So when it comes to urban planning and the future of cities, it is evident that the youth should be part of the conversation.
How our cities operate is a result of how numerous elements come together: infrastructure, mobility, architecture, civic facilities, gathering spaces, etc, and evaluating how adequate cities are for the youth is often based on three categories: “live”, “work”, and “play”, “to stimulate media and public awareness of youth-centred issues while encouraging a competitive spirit to improve cities for youth.” The active engagement of youth in societies allows for sustainable, inclusive, and safe environments, which highlights the necessity of implementing youth-driven development efforts, to avoid threats and challenges that could hinder sustainable development and improve global living standards.
The youth have long been active architects in the development of cities. According to the UN’s World Youth Report, “evidence-based youth policies, tailored and adapted to national and local contexts, help ensure that youth development challenges are addressed”, which takes into consideration factors such as: providing political leadership, providing adequate financial resourcing, relying on accurate data concerning young people, taking advantage of the knowledge, experience, and expertise of the youth in the design, implementation and evaluation of the youth policy, and integrating youth policies across sectors, among others.
What are Some of the Challenges Faced by the Youth in Cities Today?
In a recent survey conducted by Eurostat, more than two-thirds of young European adults still live with their parents, simply because they can’t afford to have a place of their own; Home ownership for 25- to 34-year-olds fell from 55% in 1997 to 35% in 2017, and has been decreasing since. A similar situation is observed in the United States, where houses cost four times what they did in 1950, with only a 19% increase in wages. According to a new assessment by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the global labour market crisis caused by the pandemic is far from over, with ‘job gaps’ reaching 75 million in 2021, and will most likely continue until at least 2023, leading to catastrophic consequences for the upcoming workforce.
Another critical challenge faced by the youth is violence, from bullying and physical altercations, to sexual and physical assaults. According to a report by WHO, an estimated 200, 000 homicides occur among youth 10-29 years of age each year. This is due to unsupervised districts, easy access to alcohol, firearms, and drugs, economical inequality, and/or a city’s protection and safety laws, and how far they’re going to reinforce them.
Although cities are meant to be built for everyone and the youth is growing into an inclusive, gender neutral society, they are in most cases, planned and designed by men. As explained in UN-Habitat’s guide for cities to sustainable and inclusive urban planning and design together with girls, “from the age of eight, 80 percent of the public spaces can be dominated by boys, and girls express that they feel significantly more insecure and excluded”. This lack of gender consideration contributes to widening the gender gap and to the marginalization of vulnerable groups in urban development processes.
Compiled together, along with the fear and anxiety generated by the conflicts between an environmentally-conscious generation and environmentally-imprudent governments, these factors have led to an increase in mental health challenges, which in return has changed the “demographic identity” of cities, and in some extreme cases, slowed the life expectancy rates.
How are Cities Creating Safe and Inclusive Spaces for Youth?
Urbanization plays a crucial role in promoting growth, social inclusion, equality, and engagement in cities around the globe. In terms of public spaces and the challenges of COVID-19, UN-Habitat and Block by Block Foundation have been supporting ten cities with the help of local governments by “covid-proofing” open urban entities, especially in poor neighborhoods with few shared and green spaces. In Vietnam, UN-Habitat focused on increasing the safety and inclusivity of community playgrounds by promoting physical activities and social connections through a mobile pop-up playground built with recycled and natural materials that require minimum maintenance. The intervention is suitable for small-scale public spaces nestled in highly dense cities, where children can easily access and enjoy while parents watch from proximity.
The Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform (CMAP), which focuses on marginalised urban communities, has launched the Human City project – a community-driven architecture, urban planning and human rights initiative in Nigeria that allows a network of young people to collect and share information about their neighbourhoods as a means of collaborating with urban planners. In addition, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Leading Youth, Sport & Development (LYSD) used sports to foster migrant integration and social interaction by creating basketball courts in Côte d’Ivoire and Togo that bring together different ethnicities to play and learn together in a safe public space.
On Women’s Day 2021, UN-Habitat and Global Utmaning, a Swedish independent think tank, launched HerCity, a platform that puts girls in the expert position to create more inclusive, equal, and sustainable cities and communities. The initiative makes methods and tools available to urban actors globally, in order to support cities in integrating girls’ participation in their long-term strategies.
More projects related to youth and the city can be found in this publication titled: Lessons From 13 Innovative Projects Funded by the Cities Alliance Catalytic Fund and the UN-Habitat Youth Fund, and in our extensive coverage with UN Habitat, which focuses on planning and managing sustainable urbanization in fast-growing cities.