What can our cities do to combat climate change and improve them for children?

Author: Cities 4 Children

This year’s COP26 is all about accelerating adaptation and mitigation: driving action towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. We know now that climate change affects all aspects of our life. 

The majority of the world’s population live in cities, and that number is set to rise. It’s believed that by 2050, around 70 per cent of the world’s children will live in urban areas. Sea level rise threatens coastal cities, while extreme weather events can cause urban flooding, droughts and heatwaves, resulting in deaths. It’s often the case that those who have contributed least to the problem will be the most impacted. The most marginalized children and young people are often the most neglected – they include refugees, displaced, migrant, street-connected and stateless children within those countries, and are more at risk of the impacts of climate change than others. 

It is therefore vital to consider what our cities can do to combat climate change, especially when it comes to safeguarding the lives and futures of all children. Adaptation is just as important as mitigation, so we must work together to understand how best to structure our urban areas to withstand up to two degrees of global warming. Thus, we put the question to our alliance members: What can our cities do to combat climate change and improve them for children? 

Improve sustainable transport

Critically, we must improve and expand sustainable public transport and make it more affordable (or even free for children under a certain age) so that people use their cars less.  

And it’s not just about reducing the number of cars, but also about providing alternative, healthier options. We must advocate for greater walkability and inclusive cycling too, which will in turn reduce car usage and improve air quality. The goal should be for all short trips to be achieved through active or public transport whenever possible, while cleaner fuels and electrification should be leveraged for longer distance travel. 

There is a large and mostly untapped potential in making cycling and other forms of active transportation the main mobility mode in cities. This can be done by ensuring cycling and walking is safe, convenient, affordable and enjoyable by families with (young children) through behavioral change programs combined with infrastructural improvements. Ensuring safety on public transport is also key – public transport must be safe for girls and young women to feel confident using it.


More green spaces

We all need space to catch our breath in fast-paced and busy cities. But for children, green spaces are critical not just to play in, but to develop independence and identity and make friends. One suggestion by the Alliance was around “creating safe public spaces for children especially in the informal settlements where they can play and interact with each other.”  

Green spaces serve a practical purpose too: green spaces can provide shade and have cooling properties (with increased heat waves), as well as cleaner air. For children specifically, there are many well-established benefits for health and development on all fronts. In Delhi, trees and vegetation have been associated with lower stress levels in children, while in Kathmandu, how close one is to green space can have a significant impact on obesity and being overweight, Sheridan Bartlett writes in her blog on the importance of green space. We must also make living in cities more bearable by developing green and blue infrastructure, for example trees, park spaces, and green roofs, to combat heat islands. 

Engaging children and education

The climate crisis is something we’re all still getting our heads arounds. Engaging children and trying to understand the city from their perspective is important. Ensure their perspectives and priorities are prominent in city planning and the provision of public services. We must also support a shift among urban planners and decision-makers to plan, design and manage cities by taking the needs and experiences of (young) children and their caregivers as starting point. This can be done by developing experiential and empathy-based processes for decision makers to help connect with children’s lived experiences. It’s also crucial to ensure that data sets that feed into decision-making consider age, and include children as a specific priority population 

More generally, it’s about ensuring education around climate change continues. We must educate on how urgent climate change is not at the city level but also at the individual level. In addition, we must facilitate individual actions (for example offer education, alternatives for greenhouse gas emitting activities and more). We should remember that young people and adolescents should be empowered to engage and influence city planning on their own terms. We should support young people and activists as change makers, supporting them to understand the critical role they can play in city planning.  


Housing and service provision

Improving informal settlements and slums should also help protect children and mitigate climate impacts. Promoting social protection systems will improve children’s access to adequate housing and improve their resilience in urban settings.  

A further recommendation by the Alliance is to dedicate resources for urban planning and the provision of basic services in the upgrade of informal settlements and slums, with a focus on improving the adequacy of housing and water and sanitation infrastructure, and finding local solutions to better adapt to the impacts of climate change. 

Photo credit: Cities Alliance

Get the right data

Although children make up the biggest population in slums, we rarely have accurate data. This may mean children remain unaccounted for when it comes to urban planning and budgeting for specific infrastructure and services. This includes childcare, healthcare, education and even playgrounds.  

To give children greater agency and to be held accountable for children’s needs, local government needs to prioritize data-gathering. One way is to work within the community itself, through slum dwellers organizations working in partnership with other organizations like Cities Alliance and Slum Dwellers International for example. Data gathering was successfully used in slums to inform Covid response, and the same methods can and should be applied again to ensure correct services.  


Eliminate pollution

Children are the most vulnerable age group when it comes to air pollution, because their lungs are still developing. That’s why it is crucial cities work hard to monitor air quality, understand the source of air pollution and make a plan of action to address air pollution. We must work to reduce air pollution in cities and devise clean, energy efficient and affordable solutions for household heating, and eliminate the use of coal. Poor households in particular require new and innovative solutions to help adapt the city as global warming rises.  

Children are also more exposed to direct air pollution from traffic, due to their shorter heights. Phasing out fossil fuel powered vehicle and shifting all short trips to active transportation has the potential to significantly and rapidly make a difference in air pollution exposure of children. 

You can find out more about the Global Alliance – Cities 4 Children here.  

Follow our Cities 4 Children event at COP26 here


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.