Are Our Cities Built for the Youth?


The principles that underpin the cities we live in today were established decades ago with the hope of making them habitable for everyone. Cities have served as a hub for business and migration throughout history. The world has seen dramatic changes in how societies live, work and commute over the past decade.

Two demographic trends are evident in today’s urban fabric: high youth populations and rapid urbanization. Cities are becoming smaller, despite their increasing scale. Nearly four billion people under 30 live in urban areas. UN-Habitat predicts that 60% of urban population will be under 18 by 2030. It is clear that youth must be included in the discussion about urban planning and the future cities.

© Gianluca Stefani

How cities function is dependent on how many elements are combined: mobility, infrastructure, architecture, civic facilities and gathering spaces. Evaluations of how cities are suitable for youth often focus on three categories: “live”, work, and “play”. This allows youth to be actively engaged in society and encourages media attention to youth-centered issues.

Youth have been involved in the creation of cities for a long time. The UN’s World Youth Report states that evidence-based youth policies are tailored to local and national contexts and help address youth development challenges. This includes factors like providing political leadership, adequate financial resourcing, using accurate data about youth, and taking advantage of their knowledge, experience and expertise in designing, implementing, and evaluating youth policies.

Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

What Are Some of the Challenges Facing Youth in Cities Today?

Eurostat recently found that more than two thirds of European young adults still live with their parents due to inability to afford a home of their own. Home ownership among 25-34-year-olds has fallen from 55% to 35% in 1997, and has continued to decline since. Similar results can be found in the United States where houses are four times more expensive than they were in 1950 with only a 19% rise in wages. A new assessment by International Labour Organization (ILO) shows that the global labour market crisis resulting from the pandemic continues to be severe. The ‘job gap’ reached 75 million in 2021. This will likely increase to at least 2023. This could have catastrophic consequences for the future workforce.

Courtesy of UN Habitat

The youth face another challenge: violence. This includes bullying, physical altercations and sexual and physical assaults. A WHO report estimates that between 10 and 29 years old, there are approximately 200, 000 homicides each year. Unsupervised districts, easy access alcohol, firearms and drugs, economic inequality and/or the city’s protection laws and safety laws and how they are going to strengthen them all contribute to this.

Although cities are intended to be accessible for all and youth are moving towards a gender neutral society, most of them are planned and designed by men. UN-Habitat’s Guide for Cities to Sustainable and Inclusionary Urban Planning and Design with Girls explains that “from eight years old, 80 percent of public spaces can be dominated” and girls feel more isolated and insecure. This leads to an increase in the gender gap and marginalization of vulnerable populations in urban development.

Courtesy of UN Habitat

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 can cities create safe and inclusive spaces for youth?

UN-Habitat Vietnam focused its efforts on improving safety and inclusion of community playgrounds. It promoted physical activities and social connections through a mobile playground that was built from recycled and natural materials and requires minimal maintenance. This intervention can be used in small-scale public spaces located in dense urban areas where children have easy access to the playground and parents can watch from close by.

Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform, which focuses on urban marginalized communities, launched the Human City project. This is a community-driven architectural, urban planning, and human rights initiative in Nigeria. It allows young people to share and collect information about their neighborhoods as a way of working with urban planners. The International Organization for Migration and the Leading Youth, Sport & Development LYSD used sport to promote migrant integration. They created basketball courts in Togo and Cote d’Ivoire that allow people of different ethnicities to learn and play in a public space.

Xinsha Primary School / 11ARCHITECTURE. Image © Chao Zhang

UN-Habitat and Global Utmaning (a Swedish independent think-tank) launched HerCity on Women’s Day 2021. This platform puts girls in a position of expertise to build more inclusive, equal and sustainable communities and cities. This initiative provides tools and methods for urban actors worldwide to help cities integrate girls into their long-term plans.

Courtesy of UN-Habitat, Global Public Space Programme

You can find more projects on youth and cities in this publication: Lessons from 13 Innovative Projects Funded By the Cities Alliance Catalytic Fund. We also have extensive coverage with UN Habitat which focuses primarily on the planning and management of sustainable urbanization in fast-growing communities.