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Cities Are the Key to Children's Future

Cities Are the Key to Children's Future

by Charles A. Gardner, PhD

Two hundred years ago, when the Academy was launched, a child growing up in New York, London, Medellín or Manila was part of a tiny minority. Only three percent of all the world's people lived in cities. The modern world is very different: for the first time in human history more than half of us now live in cities. By 2050, more than 70 percent of all children on Earth will be growing up in urban environments. In this increasingly urbanized world, cities play a major role in helping all children reach their full potential.

A growing body of research from the field of early childhood development (ECD) has demonstrated conclusively that poverty, poor health, inadequate nutrition, lack of stimulation, stress and maltreatment disrupt healthy brain development – putting children at a lifelong disadvantage. Conversely, good health and nutrition, nurturing caregivers, stimulating play and safe environments have powerful positive and protective effects on young children's social, emotional and cognitive development. Biology (nature) is important, but recent findings from the field of ECD research give us a new appreciation for the importance of nurturing care.

Mayor Teresa Surita of Boa Vista, Brazil
Mayor Teresa Surita of Boa Vista, Brazil

While parents and guardians take the lead in child care, the public sector plays a crucial supporting role, especially for families under stress. Some farsighted cities recognize that child care is as much an economic issue as a social one—healthy, well-adjusted children are more productive citizens. These "early adopter cities" are now working to strengthen their maternal health, nutrition and parenting programs, to create family centers and improve the child-friendliness of their social services, justice systems and public spaces. To maximize the impact of these investments, these cities know that they need to harness the latest findings from ECD research.

The Academy has created the Global Compact for Early Childhood Development as a platform to support civic leaders in this effort. The Academy believes that cities can be key change-agents in a global movement to improve children's well-being in both wealthy and poor countries. By linking mayors, city program directors and ECD experts, our goal is to facilitate an exchange of evidence-based ideas and solutions. This will promote operational research and local adaptive learning, and a community-led effort to improve the lives of millions of urban children, their families and communities. Mayors and other senior city officials will take the lead in helping all children reach their full potential.

"Early Adopter Cities" Workshop

To jumpstart this important initiative, mayors and other senior officials from 13 cities in Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America met recently at the Academy for the first workshop of the Global Compact for Early Childhood Development. The city delegations were joined by some of the world's leading ECD experts and researchers. The rich exchange of ideas and experiences has already stimulated the development of new programs in Brazil and the Philippines, and strengthened resolve to measure ECD outcomes in several cities.

Joan Lombardi, Senior Advisor to the Bernard van Leer Foundation, opened the program with an overview of "What works." Lombardi's remarks helped to position the Global Compact on the leading edge of a, "global movement of cities coming together for children and families." She noted the importance of bundling services rather than working in separate health, education and child protection silos. Success, according to Lombardi, requires leadership, shared goals and a strong focus on measuring population-level outcomes.

A talk by Aysenil Belger, Director of Neuroimaging Research in Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focused on, "The acquisition of social, emotional and cognitive skills," in young children. Belger emphasized not only that, "adverse environments promote adverse effects on the brain," but that strategic investments by cities can help to prevent, protect and repair these adverse effects.

Mayor Oscar Moreno of Cagayan de Oro City, The Philippines
Mayor Oscar Moreno of Cagayan de Oro City, The Philippines

The workshop agenda included open "fishbowl conversations" that covered how to make antenatal programs work for the future child—"ECD in the womb"—and how to work with children and families in the household—"ECD in the home." Noting the importance of family-based interventions, Ellen Galinsky of the Bezos Family Foundation said, "Learning is all about relationships; it is not pouring facts and figures into empty vessels. Interventions in the early years must address the needs of the whole family."

"Could we reimagine cities so that cityscapes—places where people naturally go—become places where people learn? Can we build cognition into cities?" This was the vision of Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Director of the Infant and Child Laboratory at Temple University, during a session that looked at how to improve family centers, daycare and the so-called built environment—"ECD outside the home."

In a Plenary Talk by Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor of the State University of New York, Chancellor Zimpher focused her remarks on, "how to build collective action across sectors and among relevant stakeholders." She noted the critical importance of investing in early childhood, but that investments, "must continue throughout life or the effects will be lost."

During the workshop, participants used an electronic, tablet-based collaboration tool to capture key ideas. Their priorities included development of "Common Standards for ECD-friendly Cities." Participants also brainstormed common challenges including: building political will; strengthening the ECD workforce; financing ECD programs; improving child safety; reaching underserved children and those with special needs; and engaging parents and communities.

The Future of Cities, Science and Nurturing Care

The Global Compact for Early Childhood Development is unique in its international scope and focus on very young children in cities, from pregnancy to the age of three. But it is still in its infancy. As the Academy develops an information exchange platform for members, enlists additional cities and experts and works to ensure adequate resources for this effort, we will rely on the recommendations from this first "early adopter cities" workshop to guide our steps.

The Academy affirms its commitment to the well-being of all children. Every child needs adequate nutrition to thrive in both mind and body—an aspiration shared by the Academy's Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science, which took the lead in organizing this event.

It may seem to be a cliché to say that children are our future, but it is hard to see in what other context they would be viewed. As more and more children grow up in cities, it is increasingly clear that cities must work to ensure that their children become healthy, educated productive adults who will contribute to their respective societies in a positive way.

A child growing up today in New York, London, Medellín or Manila may one day solve the world's energy problems. This child may conquer cancer or end hunger, solve the mystery of dark matter or one day preside—as President of the New York Academy of Sciences—over our 250th anniversary.