Community, Immigration, Right to the City

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Community, Right to the City

“Shaping urbanization for children”: A handbook for planners – created with UNICEF

I had the honor of working with Jens Aerts, an Urban Planning Specialist at UNICEF, to create a handbook for urban planners to better plan cities for and with children. The general idea is that if cities are planned with children in mind, the most vulnerable population, then cities are made safer for all, and more conducive for a more productive, healthier, and enjoyable life. Below is an introduction to the handbook, its purpose, a list of the 10 guiding principles for children’s rights and urban planning, as well as the essential “Why, What, How” to plan cities for children.

November 26, 2018 UPDATE: If you are in the United States, I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving with family and friends. Today is Cyber Monday, and I am pleased to announce that the handbook is now available online on the UNICEF website, and as always, it’s free to download! Please click on the link below to download your very own copy. Enjoy, and happy readying!

August 29th, 2018 UPDATE: Unfortunately, the handbook has not officially launched yet to the UNICEF website. Below is a brief description of the handbook. Stay tuned for the official launch! noun_766494-1

Image credit: UNICEF/UNI123447/Pirozzi

Purpose of the Handbook

Shaping urbanization for children, a handbook on child-responsive urban planning, presents concepts, evidence and technical strategies to bring children to the foreground of urban planning. By focusing on children, this publication provides guidance on the central role that urban planning should play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from a global perspective to a local context, by creating thriving and equitable cities where children live in healthy, safe, inclusive, green and prosperous communities.

The handbook aims to inspire everyone involved in planning, designing, transforming, building and managing the built environment:

  • Urban planning professionals that use different tools in spatial planning and stakeholder engagement on a daily basis to help shape the built environment;
  • City governments that are responsible for city development and management decisions;
  • Private sector, such as developers, investors, service providers and technology companies that build the large majority of urban infrastructure;
  • Civil society organizations that support local communities in raising their voices to define which spaces, services and land are needed.


The 10 Children’s Rights and Urban Planning Principles

The handbook is structured along 10 Children’s Rights and Urban Planning Principles that cities should commit to so they will not only support children’s development, but thrive as homes for future generations:

Principle 1: Investments – Respect children’s rights and invest in child-responsive urban planning that ensures a safe and clean environment for children and involves children’s participation in area-based interventions, stakeholder engagement and evidence-based decision making, securing children’s health, safety, citizenship, environmental sustainability and prosperity, from early childhood to adolescent life.

Principle 2: Housing and Land Tenure – Provide affordable and adequate housing and secure land tenure for children and the community, where they feel safe and secure, to live, to sleep, to play and to learn.

Principle 3: Public Amenities – Provide infrastructure for health, educational and social services for children and the community, which they have access to, to thrive and to develop life skills.

Principle 4: Public Spaces – Provide safe and inclusive public and green spaces for children and the community, where they can meet and engage in outdoor activities.

Principle 5: Transportation Systems – Develop active transportation and public transit systems and ensure independent mobility for children and the community, so they have equal and safe access to all services and opportunities in their city.

Principle 6: Integrated Water and Sanitation Management Systems – Develop safely managed water and sanitation services and ensure an Integrated Urban Water Management system for children and the community, so they have adequate and equitable access to safe and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene.

Principle 7: Food Systems – Develop a food system with farms, markets and vendors, so children and the community have permanent access to healthy, affordable and sustainably produced food and nutrition.

Principle 8: Waste Cycle Systems – Develop a zero waste system and ensure sustainable resource management, so children and the community can thrive in a safe and clean environment.

Principle 9: Energy Networks – Integrate clean energy networks and ensure reliable access to power, so children and the community have access to all urban services day and night.

Principle 10: Data and ICT Networks – Integrate data and ICT networks and ensure digital connectivity for children and the community, to universally accessible, affordable, safe and reliable information and communication.

The “Why, What, How” to plan cities for children

The handbook answers three questions:

  1. Why planning cities for children matters, collecting the evidence on the urban specific vulnerabilities of the most disadvantaged children and explaining how urban planning can support urban programmes for children.
  2. What to plan for children, based on the 10 principles and resulting in sustainable and children’s rights-based urban places, systems and networks that ensure children’s health, safety, citizenship, environmental sustainability and prosperity, from early childhood to adolescent life.
  3. How to plan for children, reviewing urban planning tools and practice that illustrates how cities can be planned to be child-responsive, building on three potential strengths of urban planning: to provide space for children, to include children in the process of change and to develop urban policy that is based on child-specific evidence.

Within the handbook there is a central place reserved for a checklist Children’s Rights and Urban Planning Principles that allows every stakeholder to quickly evaluate what can be done to take up responsibilities and improve the situation of children, respecting capacities and resources. The checklist takes a central place in the handbook, providing the main reference for starting, monitoring and evaluating investments of every stakeholder involved in child-responsive urban planning, in the short-term, mid-term and long-term. noun_766494-1



Mexico City elected its first female mayor in July. Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo is a scientist and was the former governor of Tlalpan, one of the 22 delegations/districts of Mexico City.  Tlalpan is one of the poorest districts of the city, and was especially vulnerable to the 7.1 earthquake that struck the city last September. The mayor-elect received a lot of criticism for the destruction in Tlalpan that was caused by the earthquake, especially for the collapse of the Enrique Rébsamen school, which killed 300 people, including 19 children. Some are concerned that the lack of provision over building maintenance and infrastructure in Tlalpan will impact her ability to govern an entire city of 22 districts. Many families want justice for their dead children and loved ones, and justice brought to officials who approved the inferior construction permits.

Sheinbaum will not be able to ignore these demands as mayor if she is going to win favor over her skeptics. She will have to focus on crime, pollution, water shortages, and corruption, especially in terms of building and development processes. During her administration, and with the new Congress and Planning Institute, it is imperative that Mexico City establishes a formal planning process that is professionalized and legitimate. Developers will have to be held accountable, the permit process will have to be re-evaluated, and stronger monitoring and evaluation mechanisms must be enforced on building infrastructure.

Sheinbaum has her work cut out for her over the next 6 years as mayor, but what she was able to accomplish in Tlalpan should not go unnoticed, either, especially considering capacity for development is very low at the delegational level. For instance, as governor of Tlalpan, Sheinbaum supported local water management projects despite having no specific budget for water management. These projects, such as rainwater capture and filtration systems, developed and built by Isla Urbana, provide thousadns of households access to running water that were disconnected from the main network. This is a small, household level project that, since Isla Urbana first began, has helped a very small portion of the city – some 8,000 households (approximately 250 thousand households are without running water in Mexico City), but it serves as a viable solution that avoided political red tape, got people what they needed – and quickly. Plus, this particular project avoids taking a scarce resource (water) from one interest group to give it to another, which was a win-win for all residents. 

To me, this says the mayor-elect knows how to  problem solve and fund innovative solutions that make progress, which is a skill-set that Mexico City probably needs most in its next mayor if it is going to combat long-standing issues. With good counsel by her side that has a similar affinity for progress, Sheinbaum may be able to get a lot done as mayor. Let’s see if she can upscale small projects that work, scrap the old ones that don’t, and test alternative approaches. There’s a lot more to unpack from that last statement, but I’ll just leave it there. For now. 

Aside: Preliminary thoughts on Mexico City’s new mayor-elect, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo


This year’s presidential election in Mexico was heavily driven by strengthening the country’s flawed judicial system, corruption, and resolving years of tumultuous internal conflict with drug cartels. Violence and corruption made for a bloody election, which was swept by a wave of at least 145 political killings leading up to election day. Mexico’s president elect – a real leftist – Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, made fighting corruption a central part of his campaign. Although his victory is a win for democracy in Mexico, he has a lot of ground to cover come inauguration on December 1st, 2018, as the fight for democracy continues beyond the polls and into practical policy.

For further reading: Mexico Elections: 5 Takeaways from López Obrador’s Victory; A Victory for Mexican Democracy; Amnesty is Not the Answer ; A New Revolution in Mexico

Aside is a new category of posts that are indirectly related to main posts and pages, and contextualize the political arena of main topic issues. This Aside, and others following Mexican politics, are related to the upcoming post: “A New Planning Paradigm for Mexico City & Opportunities For Meaningful Public Participation.” Stay tuned!






Aside: The 2018 Presidential Election in Mexico was characterized by anti-corruption, justice, & the fight for democracy


Caught in the in-between: Why the legal definition of “refugee” is limiting and why we may not want to change it

The legal definition of a refugee as established by the 1951 Refugee Convention (pictured above) in the aftermath of World War II determines who receives humanitarian assistance from international organizations. Although it was intended for the legal definition to expand over time, multilaterals have been operating under the same working definition for nearly 70 years. Migrants who may not be facing personal persecution from their home governments but that may be facing other serious human rights deprivations – “survival migrants” – are not recognized under the current definition of refugees, leaving them bereft of international assistance from organizations like UNHCR, the multilateral organization guarding countries’ compliance with the legal document. The following explains why expanding the legal definition may not be helpful, and presents potential alternative approaches to making aid more inclusive.

Political incentives and motivations behind why governments and international organizations respond to incoming populations should say a lot about why they react the way they do. From this information we can vilify agencies for their disengagement in certain crises or we can use this information to better understand the key issues facing humanitarian and development agencies in mobilizing resources for migrant populations. For instance, it may be important to note the incredible coordination, effort, and resources necessary to maintain a refugee camp, which is most explicitly expressed and understood from the documentary, After Spring. The documentary follows aid workers fighting to keep the Zaatari refugee camp, the largest refugee camp for Syrian refugees, running. There is only one social worker tending to the needs of thousands of families, and families remain on endless waitlists for essential health-related services. Also, due to the high cost of semi-permanent shelters, many families still reside in tents (Ching and Martinez, 2016). Taking into consideration the operational costs of maintaining camps may explain why changing the legal definition of a refugee may be challenging practically and even why it may not be helpful.

Changing the legal definition of a refugee may also not be helpful because being considered a refugee may not always be in the best interest of some migrants, especially for those who want to maintain the right to return, as expressed in the article, When “Humanitarian” Becomes “Development”: The Politics of International Aid in Syria’s Palestinian Refugee Camps. For example, a mural painted on the side of a house in Ein el Tal, a Palestinian refugee camp in Northern Syria, depicts controversies over UNRWA’s recent attempt to emphasize “development” in Palestinian refugee camps (Gabiam, 2012, p. 96). While “refugee” status should not be taken away from these Palestinians while they remain displaced, it is important to understand the perceived permanence of that status, and how that can be conflated by “development” (i.e. more permanent structures) in humanitarian situations. While refugees may be protected by humanitarian organizations, perceptions regarding their rights and personal freedoms under this status have left them feeling as though their rights are restricted.

The problem is not the definition of a refugee, but that the legal protections migrants receive hinges on the definition of a refugee. It is troubling that international organizations and nation states so readily utilize and rely upon the definition of a refugee as established by the 1951 Refugee Convention when our understanding of why the rest of the world (everyone else) migrates is still so limited, and yet too confounded by outdated and unrealistic neoclassical economic theories of why people migrate that cannot explain the intricacies and nuances behind these heavily personal decisions. If multilateral institutions suddenly decided to get together and update the current definition and legal parameters of the term “refugee” to meet the present needs of migrants, then either political red-tape and bureaucracy needs to improve at the international level to better respond to demands, or we need to dismantle the current framings of migration altogether. The troubling common denominator between both of these alternatives is that neither are highly likely. There is little to no political will to create a new working definition by international agencies (and perhaps for good reason) as evidenced by the fact that agencies have been working with the same definition for nearly 70 years.

Some countries have adopted additional national policies that expand upon the international definition and legal framework, such as the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention in Africa, which expanded the definition of the term “refugee” and introduced non-refoulement. Although well intended, these policies are selectively enforced and rarely invoked into practice, as examined in the book, Survival Migration. The book studies applications of non-refoulement in Kenya, Tanzania, and Angola; however, the most successful case of applying non-refoulement policy was in South Africa, though it had many shortcomings. Many Zimbabweans who fled existential threats received protection as refugees via asylum permits through South Africa’s asylum legislation. By March 2011, however, South Africa imposed stringent transit permits and restricted material support for Zimbabwean migrants. Therefore, even in a successful case, the implementation of non-refoulement policy is short-lived (Betts, 2013).

The current framework of migration needs to be dismantled, but in actionable steps. First we must identify which alternative frameworks of understanding will disrupt dominant discourses and work with those. Perhaps the most expedient and effective way to care about migration now would be through energy strategies, and through changing political discourse around both climate change and migration, particularly their interrelationship. Changing political discourse to create more space for policies that are more institutionally responsive to migration and climate change issues would be extremely challenging. So instead of targeting every politician and every head of state, it may be more important and helpful to understand whether the numbers of those who can be swayed are large enough to change policy (University of Limerick, Ireland, 2016). This shift in political discourse and policy priorities should capture migrants, such as survival migrants, who, on a spectrum between refugees and economic migrants, fall somewhere in between. noun_766494-1



Betts, A. (2013, July 12). Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement. Cornell University Press.

Ching, S. (Producer and Co-Director) & Martinez, E. (Producer and Co-Director). (2016). After Spring [Documentary]. United States: After Spring LLC.

Gabiam, N. (2012). When “Humanitarian” becomes “Development”: The politics of international aid in Syria’s Palestinian Refugee Camps. American Anthropologist, 114(1), 95-107. Retrieved from Link

University of Limerick, Ireland. (2016, April 16). “Public and political discourses of migration international perspectives.” AHHS News. Retrieved on April 26, 2017, from Link

Photo Credit: UNHCR, The 1951 Refugee Convention (n.d.) (also great for further reading about the Convention)


The half-arrival trap: inter-generational impacts government policies have on immigrant integration and assimilation

The opportunities and challenges of integration and assimilation look very different for children of immigrants as it does for their immigrant families. The contemporary experiences of migrants in the process of integration and assimilation are redolent to those of migrants in the past; immigrants today face opportunities and challenges like those that were faced by migrants in the 20th century. The documentary Immigrant Memories: North African Inheritance (Benguigui, 1997) speaks to the experiences of migrants and their families who migrated to France during the country’s reconstruction period from the 1960s to 1970s. The book Arrival City: How the largest migration in history is reshaping our world (Saunders, 2011) explains the opportunities for integration and assimilation presented to educated children of migrants today. Each of these references explains why there is such a disparity of experiences between children of immigrants and their immigrant families, which has more to do with government institutions and programs than migrants themselves.

Around the world, arrival cities are often informal slums or monoethnic minority communities located on the outer fridges of major cities. In the book, Arrival City: How the largest migration in history is reshaping our world, Doug Saunders (2011) describes arrival cities as places where newcomers try to establish new lives by integrating themselves socially and economically into the fabric of the communities in which they move. But for undocumented migrants, the dream to save and invest, and improve one’s economic status by moving out of arrival cities and into cities with greater opportunities for employment in industries that will propel them into the middle class may take years, and even generations. Saunders argues that migrants need not move to seek such opportunities: with proper investment in social services arrival cities can generate a prosperous middle class. However, due to gaps in social service provisions, arrival cities remain a trap for many migrants, especially for immigrant parents and those who are undocumented.

Take for instance the case of Los Angeles, which is a successful arrival city in its own right. Saunders considers Los Angeles the “Great American Arrival City” (Saunders, 2011, p. 76) because migrants living and working in the city send remittances back home at a much larger scale than most any other place in the world. He also examines why demographers consider Los Angeles a “gateway city”: when children of immigrants receive an education in America they move to other neighborhoods, fulfilling the cyclical process of successful arrival cities, which is a continuous process of “arrival, upward mobility, and exodus” (Saunders, 2011, p. 82). Exodus, Saunders explains, serves as an upward social and economic indicator for residents (immigrants and children of migrants), yet is a downward trend for the arrival city (community). In other words, if more children of migrants leave the arrival city than new migrants enter, disequilibrium occurs between the influx of disadvantaged newcomers and the exodus of educated, upwardly mobile residents. Therefore, at continual disequilibrium, this process degenerates the arrival city’s economic status over time.

Exodus of the educated, upwardly mobile children of immigrants is not the issue. Children have every right to seek better opportunities of employment elsewhere, which is especially important for children of migrants trying to break into the middle class and help support their families. Should their immigrant parents not be afforded the same opportunities in their communities as well? Immigrants deserve to escape the plight of half-arrival and attain better integration and socioeconomic equality as well. This means cities such as Los Angeles should provide them with the proper tools and services necessary to escape half-arrival. Often, however, this isn’t the case. Saunders (2011) explains that too often the wrong investments are made in arrival cities:

Rather than getting the tools of ownership, education, security, business creation, and connections to the wider economy, [arrival cities] are too often treated as destitute places that need non-solutions, such as social-workers, public-housing blocks, and urban-planned redevelopments (p. 83).

Disinvestment, or the investment in the wrong types of services necessary for immigrants to thrive is a failure of arrival cities like Los Angeles. This phenomenon leaves the hopes and dreams immigrant parents have of integration, complete-arrival, and breaking into the middle class in the hands of their children, or their children’s children, depending on access to services available. Of course, parents should be able to pass their dreams and legacies onto their children, but it is unfair when improper investments or disinvestments by the government prevent the dream from remaining within their grasp.

The phenomenon of half-arrival that many immigrant families experience in arrival cities today seems to echo the experience of migrants and their families who migrated to France in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically during reconstruction after WWII. The documentary Immigrant memories: North African Inheritance explains that at this time, the French government implemented economic immigration policies in anticipation that migrants brought over to work in manufacturing plants would either eventually integrate or return to their home countries. What ended up happening was that these economic migrants – who were mostly men – remained in the French workforce for years and without access to adequate housing, family reunification, or livable wages. Absent adequate economic policies and provision of social services, migrants could never build a good life, so they remained isolated and impoverished in France. One migrant factory worker from Morocco expressed on camera that he sent remittances back home to his family in hopes that his children would one day succeed: he sacrificed everything, even abandoned his family and culture back home to work in France (Benguigui, 1997).

When the French government switched from economic immigration to systematic immigration, wives and children were finally able to rejoin their husbands and fathers in France. However, family reunification was uncoordinated, and living conditions were horrible: the French government poorly provisioned social housing for migrant families and children were bereft of an education in France because schools were too far away from their residences. Nonetheless, children were growing up in France, and ascribing to French culture. One Algerian woman reported that children of Algerian immigrants growing up in France could not speak Arabic, which was their family’s native language. This meant that they could not communicate with family members back home. Despite how well children fully assimilated into French culture, they were still considered outcasts in France and were denied integration. This suggests that perhaps discursive spaces and symbols, rather than physical borders, separated them from their native counterparts. Additionally, due to uncoordinated policy efforts and poor planning by the French government, Algerian immigrant families and immigrant families of other nationalities remained abysmally trapped in half-arrival for generations (Benguigui, 1997).

Across political boundaries, continents, and time these two examples of failed processes of inter-generational immigrant integration and assimilation exemplify the saying, “Everything that is old is new again.” However, the symbiotic relationship between historical and present government immigration policies does not have to be one characterized by repeating mistakes. The story could be quite different. To change this narrative, however, policymakers would need to focus on developing policies and programs that help undocumented migrants fully integrate and assimilate into new communities. Absent policies for better integration and assimilation, many migrants – with the wildest dream of starting fresh in a new country – once they arrive, currently (as they have historically) must look to their children or their children’s children for hopes for a better life, not to the government institutions that are supposed to facilitate the transition between arrival and full integration and assimilation. The half-arrival trap that millions of immigrants face, especially economic migrants who were encouraged by national governments of receiving countries to come rebuild their economies and labor force only to reject and dehumanize them, is arguably one of the biggest, preventable immigration policy failures of any nation-state and local authority. noun_766494-1



Benguigui, Y. (1997). Immigrant Memories: North African Inheritance [Documentary]. Paris: Canal +

Saunders, D. (2011). Arrival city: How the largest migration in history is reshaping our world. Vintage.

Source image: FirstYear2017