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Why an early childhood focus

in vulnerable urban contexts?

With cities worldwide growing exponentially and global population displacement on the rise, the coming decades will see increasing numbers of children growing up in informal, resource-restricted, and otherwise fragile urban settings.

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Picture by Catalytic Action
Why this focus

Currently, up to 1 billion people are estimated to live in informal settlements – hundreds of millions of them are children. Nearly half of the world’s 25.4 million refugees reside in cities, and 85% of these displaced people are being hosted in developing countries. 52% of the global refugee population are children, and 4.25 million of these refugee children are under the age of five. Furthermore, over 250 million children in developing countries are at risk of not attaining their developmental potential.


In these areas, the needs of the youngest and most vulnerable often go unheard in decision-making and planning. This is critical as the shape of cities and urban settlements increasingly determines children’s health, lives and their futures.

Picture by Mihai Andritoiu

The early years of a child’s life are crucial for healthy physical and mental development. Neuroscience research demonstrates that a child’s experiences with family, caregivers and their environment provide the foundation for lifelong learning and behaviour.


To develop to their full potential, babies and toddlers require not only the minimum basics of good nutrition and healthcare, clean air and water and a safe environment; they also need plenty of opportunities to explore, to play, and to experience warm, responsive human interactions.


For young children to make the most of their surrounding environment, those places need to cater to age-relevant developmental needs, while providing affordances and barrier-free access for caregivers.

Picture by Adriana Mahdalova

While the typologies of vulnerable urban contexts can vary, living in these environments is consistently demonstrated to have significant negative impacts on the optimal development of very young children, as well as their support networks.


Not enough is being done by governments, development and humanitarian organisations and urban practitioners to meet the holistic needs of 0-5 age group in informal and refugee settlements. Existing early childhood investments focus mainly on formal educational facilities or services, or on healthcare and nutrition programmes. More can be done to create a healthy, protective, stimulating and supportive environment where young children, their caregivers and pregnant women can thrive.

Picture by Iñigo Ruiz-Apilánez, Arup

Investing in early childhood development has been proven to be the single most effective method for poor and vulnerable societies to break out of poverty and vulnerability cycles. For urban and development professionals, and government authorities alike, there is no greater chance to reap long-term, society-wide benefits than by improving the conditions for the generations being raised in vulnerable urban contexts around the globe.

What is a vulnerable urban context?

Vulnerable urban contexts are environments subject to ongoing shocks and stresses that pose a threat to residents’ lives, livelihoods, and the maintenance of social, physical, governance, and economic systems.

These contexts tend to be overcrowded, polluted, and characterised by tenure insecurity, compromised access to urban services, and incomplete or unsafe infrastructure, as well as by a shortage or absence of green space. Despite the challenges, it is important to acknowledging also the assets and strategies their inhabitants employ to improve their own living conditions. These contexts can be the site of great creativity, innovation and resilience.

Relationships and social cohesiveness in these contexts can build community resilience to daily and event-specific challenges or uncertainties; and community-led upgrading schemes can actually empower local authorities and contribute to more ‘adaptive cities’.

What is a vulnerable urban context?

The Proximity of Care Design Guide was developed considering two classes of vulnerable urban context: informal settlements and refugee settlements.

Informal Settlements


‘Informal Settlements’



Refugee Settlements


‘Refugee Settlements’


‘Refugee Camps’

Beneficiaries and their needs

The Proximity of Care Design Guide considers four key groups living in vulnerable urban contexts:

Children Age



Children Age





Pregnant Women


These four beneficiary groups are particularly exposed to and severely affected by inadequate basic services, poor living conditions, limited economic and educational opportunity, and lack of representation in urban policy and planning.

Beneficiaries and their needs

The Partnership

Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation have partnered to combine their design expertise and knowledge of early childhood development to create the Proximity of Care Design Guide. Our aim is to support professionals and decision makers working in vulnerable urban contexts to make lasting positive change for young children, their caregivers, and pregnant women, with benefits for the whole community.

The partnership

About the Partners

To optimise the Design Guide, Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation have partnered with four experienced organisations operating in informal and refugee settlements, and piloted the approach in four sites: Catalytic Action in El Mina, Lebanon; Civic in Azraq, Jordan; Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) in Kibera, Kenya; and Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) in Khayelitsha, South Africa.

To support the development of the Design Guide, we established a Technical Review Committee with a select group of experts and decision makers from both city government and the humanitarian and development sectors. The Committee includes individuals operating at the forefront of policy, design and construction in vulnerable urban contexts, as well as those involved in initiatives focusing on early childhood development, and/or involved in children’s development more broadly.

The following organisations contributed to the development of the Design Guide: UNDPUN-HABITATUNICEFInternational Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent SocietiesInternational Rescue CommitteeSave the ChildrenImagiNation AfrikaNACTOWorld Health OrganizationWorld Wide Fund for NatureNorwegian Refugee CouncilEuropean Network for Child Friendly CitiesMunicipality of Tirana, Cuidad Emergente,  Qendra Marrëdhënie (The Relationship Center)American Red Cross


London, 2021


Project Director:

Dr Sara Candiracci, Associate Director, International Development, Arup



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