The future of cities depends on the future of young people. In particular, it depends on what policy makers can do to equip young people to break the cycle of poverty. This in turn depends on involving young people in the decisions that affect them.
Over half the global population now live in towns and cities. Cities with over 10 million people are becoming commonplace. Elsewhere smaller settlements are exploding with rural migrants.
Cities are young places. Young adults are the most likely to move to the cities and make their new homes there. The children you find in cities are most likely to be the children or grandchildren of these migrants, growing with a different set of expectations and cultural experiences. Urban life exposes young people to new worldviews, technologies, lifestyles. It also exposes them to frequent reminders of the inequalities of the society where they live, as bicycles jostle with luxury cars, shanty towns are over-looked by new gated communities, children in pristine school uniforms walk past those unable to pay school fees. Archbishop Oscar Romero once said ‘It is the poor who tell us what the city is’.
In many countries, the majority of children will live in urban slums. Increasingly the urban dream is vanishing. The possibility of moving beyond one’s parents’ poverty disappears. Exclusion and frustration can lead to crime and violence. Those who grow up in slums are increasingly likely to stay there. Despite slum eradication being a key Millennium Development Goal, the projected rises in slum populations continue.
Families are faced with many pressures and dilemmas – which children to educate, which to send to live and work with relatives, decisions often made on the basis of gender. In Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea only half the school-age girls are registered in urban schools. In Ethiopia 30 per cent of urban girls aged 10 to 14 do not live with their parents. HIV/AIDs and other health problems mean the mortality rates in poorer areas are higher than suburban and rural areas. Many children are forced to grow up quickly when they are left as the sole family organiser.
Families in other regions also face increasing strains. In London, for example, gentrification and a lack of affordable housing lead to a struggle to find family accommodation near work; over half the children in some central neighbourhoods live below the national poverty line. The city is increasingly important in global networks of survival as immigrants, often in low-paid work, make significant remittances to families in Africa and Asia.
The UN Population Fund’s recent report emphasises the need for greater support for children – to stay in school and to access their right to health. It also calls on governments, local and national, to attract new investment to create jobs that will give young people economic security and encourage them to develop leadership and participation in the lives of their settlements.
In the midst of our cities are stories of hope, of risks taken in faith. When we work with families, children and young people we work with the cities of the future, with them we often glimpse a different city – one of possibility, of energy and safe spaces. We need to make those visions central to our presence and witness in the cities of the 21st century. We cannot be content with anything less than the glorious liberty of the children of God enjoying urban life in all its fullness.
 Growing up Urban: Youth supplement, UNFPA state of world population 2007:
available on http://www.unfpa.org/swp/swpmain.htm