Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Towards Future Child Friendly Cities in Asia

Last week, researchers and practitioners, from think-tanks, academia, civil society organisations and various South Asian offices of UNICEF came together at a jointly hosted event by Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and UNICEF to think through the challenges of a rapidly pacing urbanisation in Asia, its impact on children and what can be done to make it happen better. 

The avenues of urbanisation

Since 2007, more than half of the World’s population live in cities. In 1960, according to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, it was one third. In South Asia, the growth has almost doubled from low 17% to 31%, in half a century. The average growth rate of the South Asian urban population has consistently outpaced the World’s suggesting that the 50% milestone will be reached in much less time. Noticeably, it was already reached by China in 2010.

According to estimates 60% of the area to be urban in 2030 has still not been built. We are, therefore in a juncture where there is an opportunity to think about how to build these new urban territories in a sustainable and more equitable way. To do it, we need to understand why and how cities are growing.

Urban – the “close unknown”

In the conference we faced a hard to admit truth. Some of our research instruments, tailored to work so well in the structured spaces of formal urban neighbourhoods or in the relatively stable rural spaces, fail in the organic space of fluid, hidden and many times deemed as illegal residence of urban slums. Politicians themselves fail to acknowledge this reality. After all, rural areas are far, urban areas, namely the ones in the capital are just there, close!

However, we heard how easy it is for poor urban children to be unseen. We heard about street children, deemed as outlaws to be controlled by police forces. We heard about working children, also outlawed themselves, hidden and underserved, for the policy cannot risk to ease the life of those whose cares chose to engage in a banned activity. Finally, we heard about slum children, unreached and therefore “invisible”. Yet, probably, children are the measure of a capacity of a city to sustain a dignified and aspirational human existence.

Urban children – the measure of human friendly cities

In the context of a UNICEF conference, nothing would make more sense than to place the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) as the benchmark of what a city has to meet to be, not only a child friendly city but one that properly responds to all of those most vulnerable. Andrea Rossi, UNICEF Social Policy Adviser, encouraged us to build cities as if it were for our daughter, son, nephew or  niece… (someone we care) and think: as s/he is living here, what does the city need to allow or provide so that s/he has the wellbeing s/he deserves?

In identifying the answer to these needs, we would build not only a child-friendly city, but an accessible city for all. It would be a city that would require us to address and look into the power structures surrounding the cities in all their territories and components. 

Power to exclude, power to transform

So how can we provide for the children of these growing cities? Well, the resources exist. If cities are spaces of opportunities, it became clear throughout the conference, that proximity isn’t a direct precursor of access. The decision of planners (or the lack of planning, a political decision in itself), the power of local authorities, the powers inside the slums (sometime illegal powers, such as drug-lords capable of command the organic map of a slum so as to assure that only one entry exists to it), mediate and (sometimes purposefully) exclude the access to otherwise close services.

Those same powers hold, however, the key of transformation. We were reminded of how in the first municipality the Brazilian Worker’s Party was elected to administer, a radical project endowed the residents of a favela (the common name for a slum in Brazil) the property of the tiny plots of land where they each had their residence. It then called and mobilised them to, collectively, renew not only the public spaces but their own private spaces so that electricity, water and sanitation became accessible to each of them.

Another power was fought and probably conquered, at that moment: the power of an idea that constructed those living in the favela as outlaws or irrational, as “lesser people” in need to be convinced or forced to leave those spaces. The moment they were acknowledged as equals, with personal aspirations and desire to contribute to a better living space, both private and public, some good change happened.

In the conference we were called to look at the legitimate aspirations we, off almost all the countries in the world (safe the USA and Somalia), bestow in our children through the CRC. In the Asian cities of today and the urban territories to plan in the future, these can be the benchmarks for better cities. The resources, the powers, the opportunities and perhaps the capabilities to plan, with those that live there, already exist in the urban settings. It is time to learn how to tap into these and transform the cities. As they say: “the future starts now”. So I can only repeat the question posed by Andrea at the start of conference – what’s our idea for Asian cities?

By Ricardo Santos (IDS PhD student and conference rapporteur)