Families in the cities

Families at the cornerstone of the New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda has been finally agreed at the United Nations Headquarters during the Habitat III Informal Intergovernmental Meeting in early September. The outcome will be adopted in October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador, where Heads of State and Government, Ministers and High Representatives will be addressing the way cities and human settlements are planned, designed, financed, developed, governed and managed. The New Urban Agenda has the same goals agreed for the 2030 Agenda: contribute to reducing inequalities; promote sustainable and inclusive economic growth; end poverty and hunger; foster resilience; achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls; improve human health and well-being; and protect the environment[1].

There is a wide array of guidance and recommendations regarding the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Among the United Nations programmes and agencies, in which UN-Habitat have taken the lead with the upcoming conference, evidence-based and practical initiatives contribute along with relevant stakeholders in close collaboration with Member States, local authorities, major groups, civil society and the mobilization of experts. Within the United Nations system alone, we can find initiatives such as UN-Habitat’s ‘Global Network on Safer Cities’; Unicef’s ‘Child Friendly Cities’; and projects such as the World Health Organization’s ‘Healthy Cities’ and Unesco’s ‘Growing Up in Cities’. Other international and intergovernmental organizations, in cooperation with the United Nations, have promoted studies and programs closely related to urban areas, for example, ‘Urban Development’ from the World Bank and OECD’s publication on ‘Ageing in Cities’.

It is projected that the urban population will reach 5 billion people by 2030, compared with today’s 3.5 billion; that is two-thirds of the global population living in cities. Nowadays, more than 80% of global GDP is generated in cities, which means that urbanization can contribute to sustainable growth, if managed well, by increasing productivity, and allowing innovation and new ideas to emerge. graf1The most urgent task is for city leaders to move quickly to plan for growth and provide basic services, infrastructure, and housing for their expanding population’s needs. However, the speed and scale of urbanization brings challenges, including meeting accelerated demand for affordable, well-connected transport systems, and basic services, as well as jobs, particularly for the nearly 1 billion urban poor who live in informal settlements in order to be near any opportunities that may arise[2].

A strong reaction to these challenges is essential in order to ensure the safe growth of children, independent living and well-being for older persons, and equal access to society for people with disabilities. A problematic home environment, by contrast, can have detrimental effects on all members of the family. Building cities that ‘work’–in terms of being inclusive, safe, resilient, productive and liveable–requires intensive policy coordination and investment choices. National and local governments have an important role to play to take action now, to shape the future of their development, and to create opportunities for all, so that no one will be left behind.

In order to build cities that work, three core pillars must be taken into account. It is necessary to 1) improve living conditions for families: infrastructure services, tenure, housing, and neighbourhoods; 2) strengthen city finances, planning, and governance systems with a holistic approach of participation from families; and 3) support urban transformation from a family perspective to develop land-use planning, management, and implementation of integrated investments in infrastructure and service delivery for all family members. These pillars will require an action plan that includes social cohesion and equity, urban framework, spatial development, urban economy, urban ecology and environment, and urban housing and basic services.

Social cohesion and spatial development

The ‘New Urban Agenda’ envisages cities and human settlements that “are participatory; promote civic engagement; engender a sense of belonging and ownership among all their inhabitants; prioritize safe, inclusive, accessible, green, and quality public spaces; are friendly for families; and enhance social and intergenerational interactions”[3]. Within this framework, the first action for any social cohesion and cultural development within cities should be related to the inclusion of children. The most vulnerable group of any society is the key component to guide local governments in the achievement of their goals, policies, programmes and structures.

In order to be inclusive for children, these should ensure that they can participate in family, community and social life, receive basic services such as health care and education, access to proper sanitation, be safe, socialize, live in a healthy environment, participate in cultural and social events and be an equal citizen with access to every service, regardless of ethnic origin, religion, income, gender or disability[4].

Senior citizens are another vulnerable group in cities. In OECD countries, the number of people over 65 is growing quickly. Between 2001-11, ageing in cities rose from 12% to 14%, in contrast with the increase of total population in cities of just 8.8%. This trend raises awareness regarding the need for suitable infrastructure, labour market reform, increased supply of social housing, and higher spending on health and social care.

The new urban agenda is going to face complex challenges in cities with dense infrastructure while adjusting to the new reality. Some progress has been made to build accessible cities for people with disabilities, but senior citizens also have particular requirements, especially if the urbanization trend is added to the equation: 80% of senior citizens live in urban areas in developed countries. habitat-iiiFor example, in terms of housing, 25% of senior citizens do not own the homes they live in, whilst, in the USA, for example, 29% live alone. In the EU, the ratio of elderly to working-age people is currently nearly 20%, and may double by 2030. These facts alone have important implications for sustainable urban development in terms of spatial strategies: land market, mobility, transportation and housing policies[5].

The impact of ageing societies in cities is clear. In what way cities will mitigate the challenges and become more elderly-friendly is a matter of perspective and collective response. An initial approach is within the family, where more than one generation lives together in an inclusive environment. In families, the diversity of roles that the elder members of the family can carry out is as valuable as the array of care they may need while ageing. Therefore, public and private actors, including national and local governments, may work together to find ways to involve families to tackle, as a unit, the challenges to come.

Between the children and the elderly there is a segment of society with growing leadership and attention, the so-called ‘youth’. The outcome draft resolution of the New Urban Agenda has given “particular attention to the potential contributions from all segments of society, including men and women, children and youth […]”[6]. In the industrialized countries, a half to three-quarters of all children and youths live in urban areas; in the developing world, the majority of them will be urban in the next few decades.

Cities need young people as active participants in evaluating their communities, in determining priorities for change, and in helping make change really happen. A successful process in order to acquire these objectives may be a holistic approach through the family. We have seen in many countries how families have proved to be an essential component in tackling unemployment situations. Starting with their own families, young citizens improve the quality of their communities and develop greater awareness of the world around them. By appreciating the different generations represented in their own homes, they develop greater appreciation of their own value and skills, and develop self-confidence through involvement in improving public spaces in their local area: the same places where they will need to demonstrate social and environmental responsibility and the capacity for democratic action when they become adults.

Urban economy and environmental resilience

While most of the global population and capital goods are concentrated in cities, urban areas remain crucial to social development and economic prosperity. They drive most of the national economic growth and are a source of innovation, facing sanitation challenges and security matters while acting as cultural and creative centres.

Modern cities need to be resilient to develop the new urban agenda, so constant diagnoses of urban strength are needed. Only a holistic approach of the numerous variables within the cities can manage to give a complete picture of the city’s vigour, and dialogue among stakeholders is equally important. Any effort aimed at facilitating dialogue among stakeholders (for example, government, civil society, residents, and the private sector) about risks, resilience, and the performance of urban systems is a worthwhile cause. With an accurate diagnosis, priority actions and investments can be identified, as well as strengthening resilience for planned or aspirational projects. So, it seems clear that a holistic and integrated approach that encourages cross-sectorial collaboration is more efficient when tackling existing issues and unlocking opportunities within the city[8].

One of the hallmarks of a resilient city is the capacity to create jobs, successfully facilitating its firms and industries to be competitive, raise productivity, and increase the income of citizens over time. While, locally, a city contributes to national development, worldwide, competitive cities become a pathway to eliminating extreme poverty and to promoting shared prosperity among families. In previous years, the primary source of job creation has been the growth of private-sector firms, which have typically accounted for around 75% of job creation. Thus, city leaders need to be familiar with the factors that help to attract, to retain, and to expand the private sector and the well-being of families.[9]

Inclusive cities for sustainable families

The family unit has proven to be the main agent for development within societies and the cornerstone for sustainable cities. Therefore, its area of action must be of great concern in order to facilitate its role in generations to come. If families are these crucial development agents, an adequate environment is needed to facilitate their role.

Within a social dimension, a holistic approach to the family will definitely contribute in the three different aspects of sustainable development, and will make possible an accurate assessment of the needs for inclusive cities, especially in terms of investment in infrastructure. In order to achieve this objective, families may need to be provided with adequate tools for strengthening their ability to reach their potential as productive, engaged, and capable agents of sustainable development, contributing fully to their members and communities. Sustainable cities start and end with cohesive and inclusive families.


José Alejandro Vazquez is PhD Researcher and the International Federation for Family Development Representative to the United Nations, New York.

Extract from the original paper published by IFFD. http://www.familyperspective.org/ppr/IFFDPapers57EN.pdf

[1] A/RES/70/210.

[2] http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/urbandevelopment/overview#3

[3] HABITAT III, New Urban Agenda. Draft outcome document for adoption in Quito, October 2016, https://www.habitat3.org/file/535859/view/588897.

[4] UNICEF – Innocenti Research Center, Building Child Friendly Cities. A Framework for Action, 2004. UNICEF – Innocenti Research Center, Assessing and Monitoring Child Friendly Communities and Cities. Analyzing results and moving forward, 2010. UNICEF – Innocenti Research Center, Certification systems and other assessment mechanisms for child friendly cities: A study with a focus on Europe. 2011.

[5] OECD (2015), Ageing in Cities, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264231160-en

[6] HABITAT III, New Urban Agenda. Draft outcome document for adoption in Quito, October 2016, https://www.habitat3.org/file/535859/view/588897.

[7] Chawla, L. (Ed.), Growing Up in an Urbanising World. Paris / London: UNESCO Publishing / Earthscan, 2002.

[8] WORLD BANK, The CityStrength Diagnostic – Resilient Cities Program, 2015, http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/urbandevelopment/brief/citystrength

[9] KILROY, Austin Francis Louis; MUKIM, Megha; NEGRI, Stefano; “Competitive cities for jobs and growth: what, who, and how”, 2015/01/01

[10] Terminology for the European Conference on Health, Society and Alcohol: A glossary with equivalents in French, German and Russian. WHO (EURO), Copenhagen, 1995.

[11] Harpham et al. (2001). Healthy city projects in developing countries: The first evaluation. Health Promotion International. 16(2): 111-125. Khosh-Chashm, K. (1995) Healthy Cities and Healthy Villages. Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal. 1(2): 103-111. Kenzer M. (2000) Healthy Cities: A guide to the literature. Public Health Reports. 115: 279–289. Tsouros, A. (1995) The WHO Healthy Cities Project: state of the art and future plans. Health Promotion International. 10(2): 133-141.

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