Ask an Expert: Cecilia Vaca Jones – “If you could see the city from 95cm – the height of a healthy three-year-old child – what would you change?”

Cecilia Vaca Jones Urban95 blog

Author: Cecilia Vaca Jones

In our latest Ask an Expert Series blog, we speak with Cecilia Vaca Jones. Cecilia has over 20 years of experience leading public and private-sector organisations to promote and enable child-responsive policies and programmes at national and global levels. In this interview, Cecilia shares her insights on leading the Bernard van Leer Foundation from 2019 to 2022 and why she saw so much potential in the foundation’s Urban95 initiative, a global programme that works with city leaders, planners, architects and engineers to support the healthy development of young children growing up in cities.

Can you briefly describe the Urban95 initiative and what it has achieved so far?

What attracted me to the foundation when I joined in 2016 was that they were exploring this idea: ‘If you could see the city from 95cm – the height of a healthy three-year-old child – what would you change?’

For me, this opened up a new way of thinking about service provision for children and families. You could have all the social programmes and policies catering to children in place, but if you are not able to ensure a good city for children and communities to live and thrive in, you are not supporting them in the way I believe we should be supporting children around the world.

Urban95 was still at an early stage when I joined and my role was to help ground the concept and develop metrics and pathways for action. We decided to focus on:

  • Creating better public spaces that are more child and caregiver friendly and integrating them into natural and semi-natural areas within cities such as rivers, canals, fields and parks (known as green and blue infrastructure). These public spaces would be more climate responsive and support play, rest, socialising, health and well-being.
  • Promoting sustainable and active mobility and reducing car dominance to change the way we move around cities. This is better for all age groups as well as for the environment.
  • Developing and improving access to reliable city-level data relating to children in the 0–5 age range. Data are often available at the national level with a focus on health indicators, but almost non-existent at the local level. It is critical to have reliable data for children to inform local social policies and put in place reliable systems.

Beyond core themes we also explored crosscutting areas to strengthen our work:

  • Behavioural science to help ensure that changes in physical infrastructure also support positive and healthy behaviours, and
  • Community engagement and participation to democratise policymaking and placemaking, so that changes are not just enforced by local or national governments but are influenced and owned by people.

Urban95 is a multifaceted initiative. It supports capacity building, data-driven advocacy and action, testing and scaling interventions, and local and global partnerships. What has worked well and why?

Partnering with local governments has been a key approach for scaling up Urban95. Some partnerships have been more successful than others, but overall, this has been the most promising approach for change and impact at scale. Equally important for scale is working with all stakeholders, which means mapping and engaging with all strategic stakeholders who can contribute towards building better cities for young children and their caregivers.

There is a big learning curve involved in changing or rethinking how cities are built. The foundation has taken a strategic step to develop executive courses for frontline actors such as municipal staff and city leaders. These courses bring together city officials from different contexts and enable them to create supportive networks for change – where they can learn from the challenges, failures and successes across cities.

What has been most challenging and why?

A key challenge has been the sustainability of interventions. When the political leadership is driving a programme, things happen quickly. But when there is a transition, and if new political leaders are not invested in the programme, things can start to fall apart. In some cases, changes in political leadership have meant that interventions are not scaled up or integrated with other systems, or processes are not mainstreamed. Another challenge is finding the right financing mechanisms for implementing interventions and maintaining them. This is an area where the philanthropic sector could do more.

How has Urban95 improved the lives of children and caregivers in informal settlements? Can you describe some of the successes and challenges?

From the perspective of the foundation, it is important to focus on the most vulnerable areas where needs are greatest. But ultimately, it depends on the political will and strategy in each context. For example, in Lima, Peru, during the pandemic, the mayor of the city decided to focus on creating public space interventions such as safe and active mobility solutions, communal kitchens and community gardens in the most vulnerable areas in the city to support social cohesion as well as to make it easier for children and caregivers living in these areas.

A child enjoying a child-friendly community space created through the Urban95 initiative in Lima, Peru © Reinier van Oorsouw/Bernard van Leer Foundation

In the city of Recife in Brazil, we were able to do a mobility analysis of how much time and money caregivers in favelas (slums) spend to move from one place to another. This showed that caregivers were spending extraordinary amounts of both resources – time and money – in their everyday lives, leaving them with little quality time to spend with their children. Having this data has allowed us to influence public policies in Brazilian cities and beyond.

There are still many challenges on how we can work better in the most vulnerable urban areas, but I am convinced that if we want to close the gaps in cities, these are the areas where we should be working.

Which cities do you think have benefitted most from the Urban95 initiative and why?

It is hard to focus on just a few because I do believe there are incredible examples from many cities. One that stands out in terms of taking a holistic approach is Boa Vista. The city aims to be the Early Childhood Development (ECD) capital of Brazil. Both the past and current mayors have leveraged the national ECD framework to implement interventions such as creating more public spaces for children and caregivers, bringing in more green and blue infrastructure, taking action to reduce heat, and creating innovative data platforms.

In India, we found that the national Smart Cities Mission was truly interested in making cities work better for children and caregivers and used its platform to launch the Nurturing Neighbourhoods initiative. Two particularly promising interventions have resulted from this initiative. One is a traffic park for children in Pune that simulates traffic rules and regulations for children and supports learning through play on road safety. Another involved reclaiming and refurbishing a public square through tactical urbanism interventions in Udaipur to create a safe, playful and engaging place for children and caregivers.

To make things happen at scale and at city level, strong leadership is important. The case of Tirana in Albania is an excellent example. Mayor Erion Veliaj’s call for citywide change was ‘I want Tirana to be a city for children’.

In Tirana in Albania, central city public spaces were made welcoming to young children by adding playful elements and removing cars © Cecilia Vaca Jones/Bernard van Leer Foundation

What else is needed to scale up initiatives citywide?

Having the right legal frameworks and policies is not enough. To ensure action and impact at scale, it is equally important to have political will, engagement with local communities, capacity building, knowledge-sharing platforms and networks, access to resources, and access to the right tools. The foundation has partnered with different global organisations such as the Global Designing Cities Initiative, Gehl Architects and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) to support the creation of tools including Designing Streets for Kids, Celebrate Public Life and Transit Oriented Development: How to Make Inclusive Cities. 

What would you do differently if you started a new initiative like Urban95?

If I were to promote this type of approach in my own country, I would start by developing and building a strong community of practice with people from different sectors such as academia, government, the private sector and technical experts who are committed to this purpose. Having a constant and diverse base of support is very important to achieve impact at scale and sustainability.

I would also emphasise taking a holistic approach. Of course, it would be an initiative to support infants and toddlers and caregivers. But I would also emphasise that the programme is also supportive of people in different stages of life to ensure we are inclusive in our approach. For example, I would draw attention from the very beginning to the fact that the programme is also about protecting and empowering women and the elderly as well as helping young people to thrive.

What advice do you have for Cities4Children to enable and support better urban environments for children and caregivers?

For me, the Cities4Children alliance has become like a movement and has accomplished a lot in a short time. Looking ahead, for the alliance to be successful, I think it should focus on:

  • Creating a hub of knowledge that is open source and brings together relevant and reliable information needed to make cities more child and caregiver friendly
  • Creating a safe democratic space for collaboration and bringing together people and organisations who truly believe in the mission of the alliance, and
  • Ensuring that whoever is part of the alliance is a champion who can ‘walk the talk’

What is your advice to civil society actors on making cities better for the youngest children and their caregivers?

  • Take a strategic approach to connecting programming with climate change and understanding how it affects children.
  • Focus more on mental health and well-being. Rapid urbanism is affecting the mental health of children and caregivers.
  • Be flexible with programming and funding. Do not come in with solutions but work towards finding and implementing solutions that are context specific and viable.
  • Take a systemic approach and find ways to enable and support cross and intersectoral work. I truly believe a systems approach is critical to driving change in how cities are built and how they can achieve broader impact on the health and well-being of their inhabitants.

About the Author

Cecilia is a policy maker and consultant with over 20 years’ experience managing social development policies and programmes. Most notably, she was Minister of Social Development of Ecuador from 2013-2016, during which time she championed policies to improve the conditions of children, women and indigenous communities, including a cross-sectoral policy for early childhood development. Cecilia is currently a senior advisor to the Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority (ECA). From 2016-2022 she served as Programme Director and Executive Director of the Bernard van Leer Foundation and has also been a valued member of the Cities4Children Steering Committee. She has also worked for several civil society organisations, the Organisation of American States, the UNDP, and as a university professor. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Policies for Sustainable Development from the University of Bologna, a BA in International Relations from the Pontifical Catholic University in Ecuador, and an Executive Master’s degree in Cities from the London School of Economics.

In our Ask An Expert series we interview key figures in the urban space. We ask them about their work, but also about their informed opinions on how we can all improve children’s lives in cities. Read more of our blogs here.

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