a photo of young kids living in an informal settlement outside Nairobi
In an informal settlement outside Nairobi, neighborhood kids helped design a new playground. Courtesy Kounkuey Design Initiative

New UNICEF reports explore the ultimate design challenge: How to provide spaces to play and prosper for children living in urban poverty.

It’s called the “urban advantage.”As the world has urbanized and the share of rural population has declined since at least 1950, many have touted this massive public-health success story: On average, city households earn higher incomes, enjoy better infrastructure, and live closer to essential services. So the kids who grow up there have better access to health care, education, and sanitation than their rural counterparts.

But those numbers are calculated from data that often excludes a city’s poorest residents. A significant percentage of children—comprising hundreds of millions of kids worldwide—don’t reap the rewards of life in the metropolis. Poverty—previously a mainly rural phenomenon—is becoming more and more prevalent in cities. And the kids growing up in urban poverty can be worse off than those in the countryside. This is what’s called the “urban paradox.”

In one of four countries, for example, the poorest urban children are more likely to die before the age of five than the poorest children in rural areas. In one in six countries, the poorest urban children are less likely to complete primary school than their rural counterparts.

As a recent UNICEF report explains, such poverty largely stems from unplanned, low-rise, and sprawling urbanization in the Global South, particularly in Africa and Asia. The number of displaced people across the globe is at its highest in history; refugee camps and other informal areas have emerged on the outskirts of megacities like Lagos or Cairo. These ad-hoc suburbs typically lack proximity to services and opportunities that more central neighborhoods enjoy.

And even when poorer areas are denser, such as in cities like Dubai or Shenzhen, their high-rise blocks generally lack child-friendly amenities like green spaces or mixed-use streetscapes geared for pedestrians and small businesses.

Jens Aerts, an urban planning expert at UNICEF, notes that while urbanization in the developed world has generally occurred simultaneously with planned densification, improved infrastructure, and an increase in financial capacity, this has not been the case in the Global South. “Rural residents in Sub-Saharan Africa generally feel a push, rather than a pull, toward cities,” he says. “Though they come with the hope of finding a better life, the labor market, the investment climate, and local government capacities are often weak. The economic trap is also physical, with a lack of connectivity, spatial fragmentation, and unclear land rights.”

In another recent UNICEF publication, “Shaping Urbanization for Children: A Handbook on Child-Responsive Urban Planning,”Aerts offers a blueprint for how to design cities for children and future generations across the globe. The handbook highlights 10 principles to which urban stakeholders should commit, including investment in planning, housing, public amenities, public spaces, transportation systems, water and sanitation management, food systems, waste systems, energy networks, and data and ICT networks.

One key takeaway from the handbook: Local organizations and communities have the power to bring about positive change, often with very few resources. And the principles can be applied anywhere. While the Global South has the most urgent need for kid-friendly design as their cities swell and spread, urban poverty is hardly limited to developing countries.

To provide a safe play area for kids growing up in Anderlecht, a low-income area in Brussels, the NGO Cultureghem converts a former slaughterhouse into a giant indoor playground for one day a week. (Cultureghem)

Look, for example, at Brussels, Belgium: The stately European capital may be laden with museums and chocolatiers and Baroque architecture, but it’s also a modern metropolis of more than a million people, with pockets of severe deprivation. Many of the children living in the Anderlecht neighborhood come from immigrant and refugee families who arrived in the European capital with very little, whether decades ago or more recently. As a result, the area remains one of the poorest in the city and lacks safe play spaces and easy access to nutritious food.

“Shaping Urbanization for Children” chronicles how Belgian NGO Cultureghem identified the neighborhood’s vast old slaughterhouse-turned-food-market as a place to encourage healthy eating among the area’s residents. On Wednesdays and Fridays, volunteers gather around mobile kitchens and, together with kids and their families, cook food with fresh ingredients from the market to make three-course meals that cost just over a dollar. Moreover, when the volunteers spoke with local parents, they found how much they wished for a safe public space—away from cars—for their children to play. Cultureghem responded by turning the market into a playground on Wednesdays, supplying boxes full of things for kids to build, play, and make music with.

“Every week we welcome an average of 100 children,” says Eva De Baerdemaeker, head of Cultureghem. “They play like in any regular park, and make the space their own.”

Kids take over the market space every week in the Anderlecht district in Brussels, which has a large population of immigrants and refugees. (Cultureghem)

While Anderlecht serves as an urban home to immigrants and refugees within an old city in a developed country, many displaced people are living in very different circumstances—informal tented cities that continue to spring up across the globe, such as in Bar Elias, Lebanon, about an hour’s drive from Beirut, which houses 30,000 to 45,000 Syrians who have fled the war. In these vast encampments, families and children are growing up in desperate need of places to play and call their own.

For these children, the UK-based design firm CatalyticAction created a playground that appears permanent, but can be easily broken down and moved. To design the play space, Firm co-founder Riccardo Luca Conti and his team worked directly with the kids of Bar Elias in drawing and collage exercises and guided brainstorming sessions.

“Through the activities children remember and envision play and play spaces,” Conti says. “We get ideas and at the same time the children develop a sense of ownership toward the project.” One five-year-old boy told the team, “I am here to build the playground with you, so when I go back to Syria, I can build one myself.”

Up to 45,000 Syrian refugees live in Bar Elias in Lebanon. Kids helped design this temporary playground structure, which can be disassembled and moved to a new location. (CatalyticAction)

The chance for play in slum conditions is another concern covered in the UNICEF handbook. Kenya’s largest informal settlement, Kibera, located in Nairobi, had no formal play areas before the California and Kenya-based Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) partnered with residents to create 11 public spaces (and counting), each with a playground and areas that offer services like clean water, showers and toilets, a greenhouse, a community gathering hall, and a kiosk where people can sell vegetables, water, and other small items.

KDI works with the Kibera community to clear areas by the river that runs through the slum, areas that had previously been used as dumping grounds. The organization and residents have thus worked to ensure better waste management while at the same time building play spaces and other basic facilities, which are then managed by the community and financed through the income-generating activities rather than via continued donations.

The public places in this Kibera neighborhood in Nairobi include meeting areas and markets, along with a playground that local kids helped design. (Kounkuey Design Initiative)

Chelina Odbert, KDI’s executive director, emphasizes the importance of the participatory aspects of the design process. For the playground, she and her team, in an approach similar to that of CatalyticAction in Lebanon, ask children to use art—clay, collage, drawing, coloring—to show what they would like in the space.

“We then use those visions to create a conceptual design and bring it back to the parents and children,” she says. “We’ll ask them, ‘Is this what you were thinking? Are these still priorities?’” This is when the team might discover, for instance, that the community is more partial to tire swings than the regular swings shown in the conceptual design, and adjust accordingly.  

Clean water and sanitation facilities are part of the public spaces that KDI built for families in Kibera. (Kounkuey Design Initiative)

Odbert says that children are drivers of a project like the one in Kibera, as their use of a playground can spur adults’ use of other services. “Kids will always find their way to a play space immediately,” she says. “The parents come looking for them and find ways to employ other parts of the site, such as using the community gathering hall as a place to start a weaving cooperative, or to convene their savings and loaning group on the weekends.”

Aerts hopes that the handbook, with its directives as well as examples like those in Anderlecht, Bar Elias, and Kibera, will motivate a variety of stakeholders—urban planners, the private sector, civil society, and city governments—to invest in city planning as a way to empower young people in their communities. “The handbook is meant as an inspiration to show that change is possible through investment in spatial planning that’s not top down, but participatory,” he says, adding that ultimately such practice should become institutionalized in a city’s government.

“At the end of the day, community-based planning has to be embedded in structural relations,” Aerts says. “It has to become something permanent.”

Funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation was provided to support our project "The Kids’ Zone."

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