For many children around the world, the city has become their natural habitat. According to the UN, 54% of the world’s population today lives in urban areas, a percentage that is expected rise to 66% by 2050. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child makes no explicit mention of cities, however General Comment 17 (2013) on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts (art. 31) does refer to the creation of urban and rural environments which promote the well-being of the child. UNICEF has drafted a framework for defining and developing a Child Friendly City. It offers nine building blocks to build a ‘local system of governance committed to fulfilling children’s rights’ and promotes ‘the implementation of the UNCRC at the level where it has greatest direct impact on children’s lives.’ On the European level, the European Network of Child Friendly Cities, dedicated to promoting the rights of children and young people, has emerged.
Thinking about the child and children’s rights in the city raises the question of how these international norms become meaningful to children in the city. Even more so, now that today it could be argued that both on the global and the national level the importance of the nation-state is fading. Current processes of decentralisation force cities to take more responsibility for their citizens in terms of international human rights, while at the same time cities and their citizens are stepping up to new aspirations, drawing from the global discourse on human rights. (For an interesting take on ‘the rise of the city’ see Ted Talk ‘If Mayors Ruled the World’ by Benjamin Barber)
Human Rights and the City
Barbara Oomen traces the rise of attention for human rights and the city back to a shift within the human rights movement, from standard-setting to implementation, which brought local government and other actors into view. The twin dynamics of a global rise in the importance of social and economic rights and emphasis on state parties to undertake action to actually realise human rights obligations, highlights local government as the level of governance best placed for implementing rights such as education, health and housing. Based on her extensive research on Human Rights Cities, she observes that cities may have strategic reasons to opt for using the language of human rights. Moreover, ‘human rights’ may actually be approached as a discursive tool in an attempt to create a unifying language, rather than being used as a set of legal obligations. The analysis of different Human Rights Cities shows that, often, the initiative sparks from one or a few dedicated individuals who manage to create broad alliances both within local government structures, civil society and other stakeholders.
Children’s Rights and the City
In Utrecht, the fourth city of the Netherlands, there is a movement towards children’s rights. Since the beginning in 2015, the Municipality has sought broader alliances in order to determine what ‘children’s rights’ can deliver for the city of Utrecht and the children that live in it. In November 2016, the Municipality of Utrecht and the Dutch Youth Institute organised a symposium entitled ‘Child Right’s City Utrecht: the voice of children and youth.’ Policy makers, youth workers, representatives of schools and civil society organisations, and children came together to take a closer look at how children and youth can be given a voice in the local policy making that affects them. In one way or another, these organisations already work with children and children’s rights, but they may not frame their goals, responsibilities and/or activities in those terms. Bringing them together under the banner of children’s rights may very well create new synergies between the stakeholders and new creative tools to listen to the voices of the young citizens of Utrecht and actually work with their ideas.
What makes the notion of Children’s Rights Cities interesting and promising is that it demands a holistic approach to children’s lives. The Committee of the Rights of the Child, in its General Comment No. 17 (2013) on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts (art. 31), emphasises the need to create urban and rural environments which promote the well-being of the child. It points out that cross-departmental collaboration and accountability between national, regional and municipal authorities is necessary. ‘Relevant departments include not only those dealing directly with children, such as health, education, social services, child protection, culture, recreation and sports, but also those concerned with water and sanitation, housing, parks, transport, environment and city planning, all of which impact significantly on the creation of environments in which children can realise their rights under article 31.’ This is a true challenge for both national and local governments who are used to working in designated departments. For a Children’s Rights approach to children’s and youth issues to work, a horizontal movement that cuts through departments transversally may very well be necessary.
The meaning of Children’s Rights in the city
Now the question presents itself: what is the meaning of children’s rights in the city? Is it a potential powerful discourse that, in the hands of the willing, can create a broad movement for Children’s Rights involving many stakeholders, including children themselves? A movement that can sustain itself through political changes and time, and may produce policies and practices based on, and inspired by, Children’s Rights? Perhaps, in time, even a ‘local culture of children’s rights’? On the other hand, what are the legal implications of Children’s Rights for governmental bodies at a municipal level? The legal perspective actually turns the question around: it may very well not only be about what local governments want to do with Children’s Rights, but also about what they have to do.