Introduction Introduction Chapter 5 Chapter 5
Chapter 1 Chapter 1 Chapter 6 Chapter 6
Chapter 2 Chapter 2 Notes for Indicators Notes
Chapter 3 Chapter 3 Notes for boxes Notes for boxes
Chapter 4 Chapter 4 Indicators Indicators
CHAPTER 2 Printer Friendly printer friendly version
Chapter 1 People In Cities: Hope
Countering Desolation

The Unseen Dramas of the Urban Poor

Slums: Unparalleled Concentration of Poverty

The Persistent Disparities

Women's Empowerment and Well-being: The Pillars of Sustainable Cities

Social Contradictions in Growing Cities: Dialogue and Discord

The Changing Demographics of Growing Cities

Improving Urban Governance and Involving the Poor: The Right Thing to Do

The Changing Demographics of Growing Cities


A clear youth bulge marks the demographic profile of cities in developing countries; this bulge is particularly large in slum populations. The individual successes and failures of young people as they ride the wave of urban growth will be decisive for future development since these drastic demographic changes, combined with persistent poverty and unemployment, are a source of conflict in cities across developing countries. Yet political processes rarely reflect the priorities of youth, especially the hundreds of millions of urban children who live in poverty and in conditions that threaten their health, safety, education and prospects.

Young people are typically dynamic, resourceful and receptive to change: But if they are uncared for, unschooled, unguided and unemployed, their energy can turn in destructive, often self-destructive, directions. Investing in urban children and youth, helping them to integrate themselves fully into society, is a matter of human rights and social justice. It is also the key to releasing potential economic benefits and ensuring urban security.

It is estimated that as many as 60 per cent of all urban dwellers will be under the age of 18 by 2030.(75)If urgent measures are not taken in terms of basic services, employment and housing, the youth bulge will grow up in poverty. The number of children born into slums in the developing world is increasing rapidly. Figure 6 shows that slums generally have a much higher proportion of children. The health problems associated with such environments have already been described.

A particular concern is the proliferation of street children and homeless orphans. In villages, the extended family or the community will normally adopt or foster orphaned or homeless children. Urban children and youth who have lost their parents to AIDS lack extended families who could take them in or keep a watchful eye on them. They are vulnerable to abduction and trafficking for sexual purposes. STIs, including HIV/AIDS, and the risk of being involved in or victimized by crime are high among these marginalized groups.

Figure 5: Estimated Global Homicide and Suicide Rates, by Age: World, 2000

Click here to enlarge image

Source: WHO. 2002. World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva: WHO.


Young people need literacy, numeracy and an adequate level of formal schooling in order to function in complex urban settings and take full advantage of urban opportunities. School enrolment may be higher in cities because schools are closer to where people live, but again, the poor and, in particular, poor girls, have fewer opportunities. The transition from primary to secondary school is especially problematic since, at this stage, many young people have to start working to help support their families. Girls are often taken out of school to help with household work or to be married off, a practice still prevalent in many cities of sub-Saharan Africa. Schools may refuse to register slum children because their settlements have no official status. Many families cannot afford the indirect costs of “free” education, such as uniforms, textbooks and other supplies. Finally, the quality of education in slum schools is, with few exceptions, significantly inferior, thereby negating the urban advantage.

Not surprisingly, hazards related to the school system are much higher for girls. Factors such as the risks of travel to and from school, inadequate toilet facilities, overcrowding and sexual harassment deter parents from enrolling their daughters in school. Sexual abuse by teachers and other students has been documented in several countries and increases the dropout rates. Such obstacles combine with cultural and social practices that militate against girls’ education and favour child or early marriage. In some countries of sub-Saharan Africa, such as Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Mali, only half the school-age girls are registered in urban schools. In most others, between 20 and 30 per cent of girls living in slums are out of school. Geographically targeted education policies and programmes matter as much as shelter deprivation in increasing girls’ levels of school enrolment. Informal and flexible educational systems are needed in order to accommodate these situations.

Figure 6. Percentage of Male and Female Population, Aged 0-12, by Slum and Non-slum Residence, in Selected Countries

Click here to enlarge image

Source: UN-Habitat. 2007. Urban Indicators Database.

Adolescence is the time when most young people initiate sexual activity. Lack of access to sexual and reproductive health information and services can lead to unwanted pregnancies and to unsafe abortions. The fact that young people, even in urban areas, do not have adequate information or services in sexual and reproductive health is a greater cause for concern in the era of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. About half of all new HIV infections occur among young people aged 15-24, in particular among girls.(76)

Unemployment and underemployment are major concerns for urban youth trying to provide for themselves and their extended families in cities. Young people living in urban poverty are more likely to be married, have at least one child and be heads of household, requiring greater financial resources at an early age.(77)Young women without education are more likely to find only temporary and informal work.



UNFPA Senegal supports a project for adolescent girls, in partnership with the UN Foundation, that combines reproductive health with livelihoods and life-skills activities within the framework of poverty-reduction strategies. UNFPA also supports voluntary HIV testing and counselling services for youth centres in urban areas where young people are more at risk from precocious sexuality, undesired pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Prevention activities target populations such as migrants and truck drivers who may put young people at risk.

Young men’s frustration at being unable to find adequate work, or to construct productive, decent livelihoods, contributes to violent behaviour on the streets or at home. Young unmarried women faced with uncertain financial futures may resort to early marriage or involvement in prostitution to provide for themselves and their children, increasing their risk of sexual violence and exposure to HIV/AIDS. 

Programmes offering job-skills training and mentoring and increasing access to capital and microenterprise support can help young people fulfil their economic potential. The ability of cities to absorb young people’s labour will be a key determinant in the future success of cities and their people.

Urban life greatly increases the exposure of young people to new technologies, mass media and global culture. The Internet is, in most developing countries, an exclusively urban phenomenon. It could be used more effectively in training young people and linking them to jobs.


The importance of involving the young in improving their neighbourhoods is being increasingly recognized. Young people have a right to a voice in matters that concern them. They are also experts on their own environments, well placed to identify not only the problems that confront them but also possible solutions. The Internet has greatly multiplied communication among young people; it could become an important tool in reaching out to them and promoting their effective participation in city governments.

Recognition of the need to involve young people in city governments has spawned such initiatives as the “Child-Friendly Cities” movement (a loose network of city governments committed to involving children in the process of making them better places for children) and the “Growing Up in Cities” programme (that has supported children in low-income urban neighbourhoods all over the world to assess their local environments and to work with local officials to improve them).(78)


The number and proportion of older persons is increasing throughout the world. Urbanization in developing countries will concentrate an increasing proportion of the older population in urban areas. In Africa and Asia, older persons still live predominantly in rural areas, but it is expected that this situation will be reversed before 2020.(79)

Given the context of limited access to social services, high incidence of poverty and low coverage of social security in many countries, this increase in the numbers of older people will challenge the capacity of national and local governments. In principle, urban areas offer more favourable conditions: better health facilities, home-nursing services and recreational facilities, as well as greater access to information and new technologies.(81)Urban areas also favour the rise of associations of older persons, as well as the development of community-based services to support the sick and the frail.



In the city of Barra Mansa, more than 6,000 children have been involved in discussions about how to improve their city. They take part in neighbourhood assemblies where they debate pressing issues and elect district delegates who, in turn, elect child councillors. All children aged between 9 and 15 can participate, nominate candidates and vote in the assemblies, but only those who attend school are eligible for election. Such initiatives improve the quality of neighbourhood responses to children’s priorities and provide children—both those elected and those who meet to discuss their concerns—with a genuine chance to apprentice in the skills of active citizenship.

However, to benefit from these theoretical advantages, older persons need economic security, strong social support systems, access to good transportation and unimpeded access to urban space free of charge.(82)In most cities of the developing world, these potential advantages are undermined by poverty and by physical or institutional restrictions. Moreover, older persons are often invisible, “lost” among other priorities. Urbanization tends to erode traditional sociocultural norms and values and the social networks and family support structures favouring the support of older persons by communities and families.

Three main areas need to be addressed: helping older persons to preserve their autonomy and independent living for as long as possible; providing health and other social services, including long-term care; and assuring higher levels of economic security through social protection systems for those who are more socially and economically vulnerable.

Particular attention must be given to the situation of women who are less likely to have lifetime earnings or full-time employment and who tend to live longer, thus losing spousal support. They are more likely to have worked in the informal sector and thus are not entitled to pensions and social security nor to have accumulated savings. Moreover, given the lack of state protection, the burden of care is likely to rest entirely on the shoulders of women and girls.

The data needed to analyse and monitor these issues have to be improved and updated, including mapping the situation of older persons and their social and spatial segregation.(83)In order to maximize the development benefits of urbanization for older persons while minimizing its possible negative impacts, new approaches will be needed. Box 12 offers a case example of tackling the issues of ageing populations in Asia.



By 2050, fully 24 per cent of China’s population will be 65 and over, compared with 8 per cent today; seven per cent will be 80 and over, compared with 1 per cent today. People live longer and have fewer children today, largely because technology allows them to do so. But there is no easy technological answer to the sudden arrival of large numbers of elderly people. Population ageing is happening fast in developing countries; ingenuity will be needed to meet its challenges.

Ageing in Asia is increasingly an urban phenomenon. The tradition that children support their parents in old age survives, but many young people have left the countryside for the city. A growing number of elderly people are following them, in search of a way to live. They do not always find it: In China, the city of Wei Hai is building homes for some 10,000 “abandoned elderly” who have no direct family support.

Adapting for an ageing future requires organizational ingenuity. In Chennai, India, for example, where the total fertility rate has already fallen to below replacement level, the city is closing 10 maternity clinics, retraining staff and reopening them as geriatric units.

Organizational change is also part of the response in East and South-East Asia, where ageing is already more advanced. Wei Hai is proposing itself as the site for a pilot programme in which the national family planning board’s mandate will be extended to include the aged. Such creative reorganization will be necessary to prepare for the challenge of urban ageing.