Children and the Rights to the City

The majority of children in Latin America live in settlements and popular neighborhoods of large cities where they live with high rates of inequality.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, a series of questions have emerged about the role of public spaces in urban areas and whether children have proper access to them. These questions relate to children having a happy place in which to grow and thrive. The following summary presents a first approach to the bibliographic review conducted by “Equidad para la Infancia” and the Arcor Foundation. It is about urban children, their access to public space, exercising their rights and achieving opportunities for them to fully develop.

Since the pandemic began, a majority of Latin American boys and girls have suffered from material deprivations and structural inequities. Health care, access to education, suitable housing and adequate urban infrastructure were hampered. Children were disproportionately affected and remain one of the most vulnerable populations. This age group has been strongly impacted by overcrowding, domestic violence, the abrupt loss of socializing spaces, the digital divide, discourses portraying children as vectors of disease and restrictions on public spaces. (Tuline Gülgönen, 2021; Valeria Llobet 2021).

The study’s objective is to generate resources, promote discussion and influence the policy agendas of governments and civil society organizations. Children, it postulates, will develop, grow, socialize and express themselves if our strategies promote a healthy community life.

Right to the City  

Latin America is the second most urbanized region in the world (Rubio; 2020), where settlements and slums neighborhoods are a significant component (Unicef; 2016). Since the 1960’s, factors such as poor urban planning, expansion of agricultural frontiers and the rise of real estate businesses have triggered an urban crisis. Philosopher Henri Lefebvre coined the concept “right to the city” to reconcile contradictions between urban potential and urban needs (Duhalde; 2011). 

Regarding these concepts, we assert the following: 

  • Citizens have a right to coexist in areas that are rich in diverse uses, where space and public facilities contribute to their collective and individual development. It is a right to enjoy a safe environment and to access an equitable distribution of resources that favor personal progress, social cohesion and cultural identity (Duhalde; 2011). 
  • The city should be envisioned as a meeting place, a place for conflict resolution, and as a place for political participation and improving State transparency. (Ana Falu; 2011). 
  • The city is a multidimensional concept, a social mobilizer, and an object of government action. Everyone has the right to not be excluded or discriminated against, regardless of their gender, age, community, or for social, economic, educational, or cultural reasons (Ana Casal, 2011). 
  • Inclusion implies starting from the concepts of citizenship and public space. A person’s citizenship is a social and legal recognition that he or she belongs to a community with a territorial and cultural base that constitutes being a member of a Nation-state (Duhalde; 2011; Llobet, 2021).
  • If citizenship is the right to have rights, then public space – agora – is the stage where the recognition of rights and duties, as processes, take place. 
  • Because of these factors, public space appears as a central stage for disputes over participation about defining common spaces and its non-monetary value to society (Casal, 2011; Llobet, 2021). 

Citizenship, childhood and public spaces  

Recently, studies (UNICEF, 2016; Di Virgilio, 2021; Tuline Gülgönen, 2016 and 2021; Valeria Llobet 2021) have shown a strong correlation between precarious housing and unequal access to rights, resulting in diminished wellbeing for children and adolescents. Thus, a holistic view of poverty means not only low-income households, but multiple deprivations that hamper essential aspects of children and adolescents` life rights such as health, nutrition, education, water, sanitations, and housing. (Fernandez, 2015). 

Regarding these relationships, the following ideas stand out: 

  • To think about the relationship between childhood and urban space, it is necessary to distinguish between the rights of boys and girls in the city and to the city. It is a useful distinction to think about urban policy and the different ways to address issues about how children are to be included in the city. Rights in the city have to do with children’s economic, social and cultural rights, which are fundamentally linked to accessing infrastructure and quality services. Boys and girls have rights to cities, as do all other inhabitants (Gülgönen 2016).
  • Public space serves differently for each group of citizens but children are the most vulnerable group because of their risk of exposure in the city. In cities, children can learn while recognizing traditions and appropriating them. Cities allow for a lifetime education that must incorporate active citizenship, acceptance, understanding, rights and peace. In a safe and conducive environment, children can develop their physical, psychological, spiritual, social, emotional, cognitive and cultural selves. (Leslie Páez Maldonado, 2017).  
  • There is a decreasing presence of children in public spaces, as well as hostility from the urban environment towards their presence, partly for reasons of insecurity, but also due to the existence of spaces that are not conducive to their integration (Gülgönen 2021).
  • The participation of children goes beyond their presence in events with adult-centric forms, and recognizes the child as a social actor (Gülgönen 2021).
  • A common concern when considering the relationship between citizenship and childhood is how to ensure democracy and our societies’ ability to produce subjects who internalize, transmit and transform it for the future. (Valeria Llobet, 2021).
  • The rights to the city also entail play and access to safe spaces. The works of Ianina Tuñón (2014) and Tuline Gülgönen (2016) serve as a reference. Games allow the establishment of rules and the assumption of differing roles, which enables boys and girls to learn patience, sharing and collaboration. Social abilities that are developed through play, whether in sports, physical activity or arts and culture, constitute important spaces of belonging during adolescence. 
  • Institutions must be created to warrant and enable true participation of all boys and girls. The literature review gathers a series of good practices that we recommend be scaled up and implemented regionally to attain child friendly cities. Examples include, co-designing public spaces with children and adolescents, or, integrating children’s perspectives into city council deliberations to ensure shared and appropriate governance. (Gülgönen 2016). 

Children’s Experiences and Participation


  • Casal, Ana (2011): Rights to the city and social justice. A city for everyone, in “Right to the city: a city for everyone”; Ministry of Justice and Human Rights of the Nation, Argentina. Available online.  
  • Di Virgilio, María Mercedes (2021): Inequalities, habitat and housing in Latin America; Nueva Sociedad Magazine No. 293. 
  • Duhalde, Eduardo Luis (2011): The right of citizens to the city. The city as the mother cell of the Nation-State, in “Right to the city: a city for everyone”; Ministry of Justice and Human Rights of the Nation, Argentina. Available online
  • Falú, Ana (2011): Cities of rights or the right to the city? The social function of the city in the framework of globalization, in “Right to the city: for a city for all”; Ministry of Justice and Human Rights of the Nation, Argentina. Available online.  
  • Fernández, María del Carmen (2005) “A city with the eyes of a child ´with children, for everyone´”, in “Rosario Experience, Policies for governance: Rosario experience/ United Nations Development Program; Municipality of Rosario.
  • Gülgönen, Tuline (2016): Playing the City. Reimagine urban public play spaces for children in Mexico City; Center for Mexican and Central American Studies and the Laboratory for the City; Mexico.  
  • Gülgönen, Tuline (2021): Reflections in the times of the pandemic on childhood citizenship in Mexico City, in “Debate Notebook No. 6: The challenges of inclusion in educating cities”, available online. 
  • Minujin, Alberto and Born, Diego (2016): Childhood and urban housing inequality in eight Latin American countries; UNICEF, available online
  • Llobet, Valeria (2021): The construction of citizenship from childhood, in “Debate Notebook No. 6: The challenges of inclusion in educating cities”, available online.
  • Páez Maldonado, Leslie (2017) The space of children in the city: childhood as a subject in the processes of urban transformation and in the production of public space. Metropolitan District of Quito. Ecuador (1990 – 2017). Master’s Thesis.  
  • Rubio, Monica (2020): Childhood and urban housing inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean; ECLAC article, available online.  
  • Tunon, Ianina (2014). “Right to the game. Between school time, friends and public space”. Barometer Edition of the Social Debt of Children.

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Equity for Children participated in the series of talks organized by MUNA-UNICEF Argentina to promote the exchange of knowledge and experiences among municipalities on various topics related to the rights of children and adolescents.

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