How UNICEF could engage with urban planning to address issues of the environment and unplanned urban growth

Sudeshna Chatterjee
Chatterjee, S., Cocco-Klein, S., Oranga, B., Sera, D. and Jobin, D. 2020. Evaluation of UNICEF work for children in urban settings. New York: UNICEF. .
Publication Year:
  • SDG 1 - No Poverty
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation
  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Why should UNICEF focus on environment, urbanization and planning?

Every second person on earth lives in a city. By mid-century, two out of three people will live in cities. However, most of the urban growth is taking place in cities in the global South, in countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, in a messy and mostly unplanned manner. Today, just under one in three people in urban areas globally lives in a slum[i]. But in low-income countries more than 60 percent of the population lives in slums and informal settlements, and globally the slum dwelling population adds up to over a billion[ii]. Informal settlements and slums are unplanned, lack adequate housing and are underserved by municipal infrastructure such as clean water, sanitation, reliable transport. This in turn compromises access to employment, healthcare, education and other opportunities available in cities that promise a better and more prosperous life. Slum populations are typically not counted for planning purposes and little data is available on their environmental conditions, masking deep inequities in relation to infrastructure and service provisions. Any equity-focused urban programming (for a detailed discussion see my blog on Why Equity and Inclusion Should Be at The Core of UNICEF’s Urban Programming in Unequal Cities) has to address the needs of vulnerable urban children, especially in slums and informal settlements, in countries with widespread urban informality and weak urban planning capacity.

In some of the fastest growing cities in the global South governments lack authority, resources, or technical capacity for urban planning, which contributes to inadequate land use allocations for housing, transport networks, public open spaces, and public facilities among others as well as little control over how and where growth happens[iii]. Neo-liberal restructuring in the 1990s led to a retreat of the state from the urban planning function in many countries, relegating the task to market forces and ignoring wider issues of equity[iv]. This has led to splintered urbanisms in many developing cities with the middle class and the elite choosing private enclaves in the best locations, and the residual, fragmented, risky and underserved spaces left for the poor to occupy[v].  Inadequate investment in urban planning and infrastructure heightens the environmental risks experienced by children. Deficits in the availability, access, and quality of infrastructure are at the core of many of the urban challenges in developing countries and are linked to growing exposure to natural hazards, environmental degradation and pollution – compounded in many cases by climate change. These conditions contribute to increased risks and hazards for children in urban areas and perpetuates structural inequality, which in turn fosters conditions of conflict, crime and violence. Despite the spatial correlates of violence in poor, underserved neighbourhoods such as in cities in many Latin American countries, linking with spatial aspects of planning and design are missing in current UNICEF programming[vi]. Integrated spatial planning can improve access to services, housing and opportunities that currently bypass too many disadvantaged urban poor and their children.

The recent formative evaluation of UNICEF Work on Children in Urban Settings considered unplanned rapid urban growth as a driver of inequality in cities[vii]. One of the key recommendations of the evaluation, that has been accepted by UNICEF in its management response, is as follows: "In partnership with sister United Nations agencies, strengthen advocacy for child-responsive urban planning, participatory slum upgrading, safe public spaces for children and child-friendly transportation systems, and issues around urban waste and environmental degradation."

This opens a whole new frontier of work for UNICEF and calls for a need to consolidate the work around these issues happening mostly in project mode in many country offices, to more strategic urban programming for environment, urbanization and planning. 

UNICEF’s conceptualization of Child Responsive Urban Planning

Too often urban planning has been presented as a legal and technical matter, with complex land use plans and regulatory frameworks managed by national and subnational governments, which are static and only adaptable through long and costly procedures. But inequality has an important spatial dimension (nature of settlement, quality of access to services among others) that could be addressed through planning[viii]. When inequity is mapped out spatially, urban planning can be a critical tool for achieving human rights-based sustainable development. It can help to connect the infrastructural and spatial characteristics of the built environment and spotlight the vulnerability of disadvantaged children and their community. UNICEF believes that without advocating for a child perspective in urban planning, local authorities, planners, infrastructure developers, and the private sector are highly unlikely to consider children’s rights in shaping cities[ix]. With this belief, UNICEF developed a framework on Child Responsive Urban Planning (CRUP) with ten underlying principles. However, as the evaluation of UNICEF work for children in cities found, only a handful of countries are engaging with issues of rapid urban growth and environmental degradation and the only evidence of urban planning work is through the lens of road safety. So far UNICEF has developed only two training modules focused on transportation planning for planners and local governments to explain the principles and for taking into consideration in urban programmes. To adequately fulfil its role as a technical advisor and key advocate of child responsive planning, UNICEF needs to operationalize all the ten principles of CRUP.

Ten principles of child responsive urban planning (UNICEF 2018).

  1. Investments in child-responsive urban planning that ensures a safe and clean environment for children
  2. Housing and Land Tenure to enhance security of children and families and reduce their vulnerability
  3. Public Amenities for health, education and social services for children and the community, which they have access to, in order to thrive and to develop life skills
  4. Public Spaces that are safe, inclusive and green for gathering and engaging in outdoor activities by children and the community
  5. Transportation Systems to ensure independent mobility for children and the community, so they have equal and safe access to all services and opportunities in their city
  6. Integrated Urban Water and Sanitation Management Systems so children and the community have universal and equitable access to safe and affordable water and hygiene
  7. Food System with farms, markets and vendors, so children and the community have permanent access to healthy, affordable and sustainably-produced food and nutrition
  8. Waste Cycle Systems that are zero waste with sustainable resource management, so children and the community can thrive in a safe and clean environment
  9. Energy Networks that are clean with reliable access to power, so children and the community have access to all urban services day and night
  10. Data and ICT Networks to ensure digital connectivity for children and the community to universally accessible, affordable, safe and reliable information and communication.

How could UNICEF support child responsive urban planning in programme countries?

In the era of the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda, urban planning has evolved into a more process-oriented practice that helps in promoting locally relevant and demand-driven urban transformation and emphasising the built environment as a common good.  Urban planning has the ability to coalesce local stakeholders around a shared vision, create a meaningful participatory process, implement plans and urban policy reforms, enable the city’s access to capital and resources and enforce regulations in a manner that is transparent, accountable and responsive to residents including children. At an outcome level, better planned cities are able to provide access to essential services, critical infrastructure and safe and affordable housing, create sustainable transport options, improve air quality, manage waste, and promote healthier lifestyles through citywide walking, cycling and public open space networks.

Given this new mandate of reinforcing child-responsive urban planning, UNICEF needs to leverage its competitive advantage and identify areas of joint work with other UN agencies and other partners. It is expensive and difficult to correct the mistakes of unplanned developments and the environmental problems posed by them. In this regard, UNICEF has included in its new strategic plan an indicator on child responsiveness of the national urban policies and planning standards and is partnering with UN Habitat for developing a programme to make the national urban policies and planning standards child responsive. Also, in collaboration with UN Habitat and WHO, UNICEF is developing guidance for creating safe and accessible public spaces for children.

To catalyse transformative change in urban settings, UNICEF should invest in child responsive urban planning in countries with rapid and exclusionary urban growth within the country programme going beyond pilots on road safety to address broader concerns of safe and adequate public spaces and public amenities, city-wide mobility, inclusion and access to adequate housing, zero waste systems, sustainable resource management and sustainable food systems in cities. Table 1 below conceptualizes key entry points in child responsive urban planning for UNICEF to reduce disparities for children living in urban settings.



[i] The World Bank. (2021). data. Retrieved from; Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) - "Urbanization". Published online at Retrieved from:  [Online Resource]

[ii] UN-Habitat. (2020). World Cities Report 2020: The Value of Sustainable Urbanization. Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).

[iii] Mahendra, A., King, R., Du, J., Dasgupta, A., Beard, V. A., Kallergis, A. and Schalch, K. (2021). “Seven Transformations for More Equitable and Sustainable Cities.” World Resources Report, Towards a More Equal City. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

[iv] Sager, T. (2011). Neo-Liberal Urban Planning Policies: A literature survey 1990–2010, Progress in Planning, vol. 76, no. 4, pp. 147-199

[v] Graham, S. and Marvin, S. (2001). Splintering Urbanism: Networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition, Routledge, London and New York.

[vi] Chatterjee, S., Cocco-Klein, S., Oranga, B., Sera, D. and Jobin, D.  (2020). Evaluation of UNICEF work for children in urban settings. New York: UNICEF. Retrieved from:

[vii] ibid

[viii] Aerts, J. (2018). Shaping urbanization for children: a handbook on child-responsive urban planning. New York: UNICEF. Retrieved from:

[ix] UNICEF (2017). Strategic Note on UNICEF’s Work for Children in Urban Settings.


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