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Monday, May 2, 2016

Let’s make our cities safe and fun for children

We often imagine the future as some misty, remote untouchable horizon. We imagine the future as an eon constructed by agents unborn or presently inactive in the extant moment. Nothing could be more delusional. The future is the collective creation by acts of genius or blunder those alive today. 

There are myriad inescapable extant realities that fundamentally define the future. However, I would like to focus on two; the youth bulge and urbanization. In particular, the convergence of the two has consequential implications. 

Our part of the world is the least urbanized sub region of Africa. But today, the pace of urbanization is fast and unprecedented. The rate of urbanization in Kenya is estimated at about 4.4 percent, which 62 percent higher than the annual rate of Kenya’s population growth. Moreover, we are a very youthful country, with a median age of about 19 years. Some estimates show that even by 2050, the median age will be only 25 years.

In a few years a majority of Kenyans will be urban dwellers. Consequently, a majority of Kenyan children will be born and raised in an urban environment. However, a majority of residential neighborhoods in urban areas are informal and squalid. Poor water and sanitation, slum-like housing, and a lack of open spaces for recreation and play often characterize urban neighborhoods where a majority of Kenyans live.

The urban spaces in which our children play and live are insanitary and unsafe. Hence, children are prone to infectious diseases, physical injury and cognitive impairment. A study reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Spanish researchers in Barcelona showed that green spaces improved development of short-term memory and reduced inattentiveness in children.

The East African Institute of Aga Khan University in partnership with Korogocho-based and youth-led K-Youth Media are deploying video and photography in a social purpose storytelling campaign to raise awareness and motivate public dialogue, consensus and action on open, child-friendly spaces in densely populated neighborhoods of Nairobi’s Eastlands. Although these neighborhoods are bustling with enterprise and ingenuity we could do better for our children.

These neighborhoods are home to the majority of Kenya’s urban children. Hence, the long-term implication for our society is grave especially because our urban population is growing rapidly. We say the children are the future. Because we have them here now we must act decisively to provide spaces that will enable their development and flourishing. 

Last week we had a great meeting with senior officers from Nairobi County. The government of Nairobi through its Safer Nairobi Initiative is supportive of a focus on making Nairobi the children’s capital. Learning from successful community-led initiatives like Dandora Transformation League and Place Makers we can drive meaningful participation and consensus for urban transformation.

The task of making cities must be by consultation and consensus to, identify, protect and improve child-friendly spaces in every city neighborhood. But most of all, we must see our cities through the eyes of children, and we must involve them.

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