Most people living on the planet live in an urban setting, and those urban settings, while providing an advantage, do not always provide that advantage equally, as a recent UNICEF report reveals.
Laurence Chandy, UNICEF director of data, research and policy, said the report, titled “Advantage or Paradox?: The challenge for children and young people of growing up urban,” primarily focuses on the advantages many children living in an urban area can have versus those in a rural area.
Primarily, what draws families to live in urban areas is proximity to services, Chandy said. There are also higher income-earning opportunities and more mobilized resources in cities, leading to better financial services and infrastructure.
But the urban advantage is not the reality for all children living in urban areas, Chandy said, which is where the paradox side of the report comes in. Many modern cities around the world are unplanned, so that beneficial density is relatively low. In addition, there are many health downsides for children living in these cities.
“There are risks from the environment and with health,” Chandy said. “There are road accidents. There’s air pollution. And we also think of cities as being places that are quite unequal, so what we tried to do in our report is tease out, how does the effect net out? Is it better to be in urban areas or not?”
Chandy said the data for the report came from a collection of indicators that capture different aspects of childhood wellbeing and access to services in urban and rural areas. Though it is not the most straightforward method, due to the varying definitions of urban around the world, he said UNICEF did the best it could, trying to look beyond the averages.
“On every measure that we looked at, we saw, on average, the kids in urban areas were doing better than the kids in rural areas,” Chandy said. “But we also found that that urban advantage was sometimes larger and sometimes smaller depending on what we were measuring.”
That disparity can be seen in areas like education, where urban areas have a large advantage, and immunization rates, where there is very little difference between urban and rural cities. Beyond that, Chandy said, the advantages an urban setting has can largely be attributed to income, not resources.
“When you take an urban family and a rural family at equivalent levels of income, you don’t really see any urban advantage at all,” he said. “That urban advantage seems to disappear.”
In cities, Chandy said, there is a large disparity between the rich and poor, which is a growing problem that has a detrimental effect on children living there.
“Just as you have infrastructure which really benefits many urban kids, that same infrastructure, if it’s not extended to everyone, if it’s not universal, leads to the kind of deprivation which we tease out in our report,” he said.
Moving from paradox to advantage is not an easy process, Chandy said, but the UNICEF report helps to shine light on the inequality issue and dispel the assumption that urban living is good living. There are unique factors that contribute to urban welfare, like air pollution and road safety, that are different from rural areas, which require close monitoring.
“For us, the important issue here is that we are monitoring issues that are salient to people’s welfare in urban settings, and those are often unique,” Chandy said.