Why an early childhood focus in vulnerable urban contexts?

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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. 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.

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. 

Children, caregivers and expectant mothers living in rapidly urbanising informal and refugee contexts are a particularly vulnerable population, among the most severely affected by a lack of basic services, inadequate living conditions, and limited opportunities for individual and community growth.

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 early childhood development for the generations being raised in vulnerable urban contexts around the globe. 

What is a vulnerable urban context?

Vulnerable urban contexts are built 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 lacking health and safety measures considered common elsewhere, and investments by city authorities are often limited. Vulnerable urban contexts are 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. Often, the conditions in informal and refugee settlements are inimical to enriching, healthy environments for children.  


When working in informal and refugee settlements, it is important to go beyond simply pejorative understandings of these contexts, to acknowledging both 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.  

An absence of state-provided health, protection and support systems can build stronger community ties as informal dwellers rely upon each other and makeshift mechanisms for meeting their needs. 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’. 

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. 

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. 

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 CitiesMunicipaity of Tirana, Cuidad Emergente,  Qendra Marrëdhënie (The Relationship Center)American Red Cross


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