Engaging Young People to Implement the New Urban Agenda

“Youth drive innovation at the local level, and can if given the proper support, develop solutions for our most pressing urban issues such as transportation, housing, climate change and inequality,” UN-Habitat, Youth and Livelihoods Unit Chief, Douglas Ragan


A year ago, the world’s leaders convened in Quito, Ecuador, and adopted the New Urban Agenda (NUA). This is a global roadmap that sets out standards for sustainable urban development. With over 60 percent of the world urban population projected to be under the age of 18 by 2030, youth participation and engagement in the implementation of the new agenda are imperative. Youth are proactively taking action to ensure sustainable urbanization, better urban planning and design, municipal finance and voicing their concerns in urban rules and regulations.

“Youthquake” is the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2017.  It is defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”. This gives significant focus to the influence that young people have in creating change in our current society, including in partaking key roles to achieve the global 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. In pursuit to implementing Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 on sustainable cities and communities, young people are change agents in ensuring that cities are inclusive and accommodate their needs.

More than half of the global population is urban. With more and more young people moving to urban areas, the challenges of ensuring sustainable urban development arise, affecting young people who would be the most impacted. While urban areas provide many avenues for prosperity, many young people continue to face unemployment, lack of basic sanitation and housing, lack of access to transportation, lack of access to public spaces and face the rise of inequality.

Through our work with “Growin’ Money”, an eco-social enterprise in Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia and the Maldives, we have been able to empower and enable young people as drivers of the NUA. Engaging over 5000 families, we have achieved this through sustainable employment creation which was brought about by urban environmental conservation in unison with eco-tourism, organic farming, bee keeping, hydroponic farming. All these were done through the provision of urban spaces for urban gardening and involvement in the municipal decision making processes.

Growin’ Money provides young people with the opportunity to have a say in their local community and among themselves. This has led to over 20,000 youth volunteers becoming changemakers who cascade this holistic model for better urban development. Through the UN –Habitat Youth Advisory board, our representatives have been able to take a step further by contributing to the Berlin Urban Agenda as well as the World Humanitarian Summit and its policies, while continuing grassroots level work to implement the NUA. They do this through innovative and scalable mechanisms like urban design, social enterprise and advocacy.

For effective implementation of the NUA, there are a few things that can be initiated to facilitate a smooth implementation and empower youth in the process. The outcomes in terms of the quality of an urban settlement are dependent on a set of rules and regulations and strategies for implementation. Proper urbanization requires the rule of law but also requires youth partnership, participation and opening of decision-making platforms so that youth voices are heard. In this regard, establishing the adequate provision of common goods, including streets and open spaces, together with an efficient pattern of buildable plots, requires the input of youth. For good management and maintenance of the city, local fiscal systems should redistribute parts of the urban value generated and ensure that this caters to youth needs and aspirations.

Another way to ensure that youth effectively implement the agenda is through the establishment of national urban policies which are a connection between the dynamics of urbanization and the overall process of national development. In this way, young people will effectively contribute to the NUA and achieve SDG  11, which can only be attained through sustainable urbanization. Ultimately, the key to a successful implementation of the NUA is for youth, government, civil and private sectors to coordinate and work together.

This article first appeared on DESA Youth Flash newsletter.
About Anoka Abeyrathne:

Anoka is the Asia Pacific representative to UN Habitat Youth Advisory Board. She is an eco-social entrepreneur and youth advocate and is passionate about sustainable development. Featured in the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia 2017, she is the youngest female recipient of the Commonwealth Youth Award for excellence in Development and Zonta Woman of Achievement for the Environment 2017. Anoka’s sustainability efforts through “Growin’ Money” past the 2004 Tsunami has led to over 50,000 replanted mangroves and social enterprise/education programmes that help over 5,000 villagers in Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Cambodia, attracting more than 2,000 volunteers. Anoka is also the New Champion of the World Economic Forum and Co-Founder of TEDxKandy, and serves as the Global Youth Ambassador with the UN Special Envoy on Global Education and an Associate Resource Fellow of the Institute of National Security Studies in the Ministry of Defense of Sri Lanka. Anoka holds a LLB from the University of London, a Masters degree in Development from the University of Colombo and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Sustainability at Harvard University. Follow Anoka on Twitter @AnokaAbe.

Written by Anoka Abeyrathne

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