82 percent of the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) population lives in cities. It is not the megacities that concentrate most of the urban population, but intermediate cities with 100 thousand to two million residents, where almost 40 percent of all LAC population resides. A third of these cities are in an emerging phase, when their population growth is higher than national average, and their newness generates productivity boom of 17% of the region’s Gross domestic product.
This means that intermediate cities are the locus of economic and population growth in LAC. Yet, they face substantial challenges similar to their giant relatives. The population grows faster than the urban infrastructure and without social cohesion and communitarian organisation. Unplanned city sprawl lays ground for inequality of housing and access to public services (SDG 11). Crime and insecurity are dividing the public space by walls and segregating its citizens by unequal access to security (SDG 16). The booming production can result in higher CO2 emissions, contributing to climate change, while lacking resilience to face climate change disasters and shocks (SDG 12). Yet, once population grows too much, the ceiling to the economic growth appears, what eventually leads to hunger and food insecurity (SDG 2).
How can we invest in intermediate cities so that they contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals, and they take a sustainable and inclusive path to urban development?
Much of the population growth in intermediate cities comes from rural-urban youth migration. The youth leave countryside because of poverty, lack of employment and education opportunities, and worse living standards. The scarce employment opportunities are taken by young men paid better than their female peers, what pushes more young women to move to cities (IFAD, 2022). This is one of the flaws of the biggest rural employer of the youth: the food systems, that fail at providing a decent work and livelihood for the young generation, while accounting for more than one third of global greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. Yet, the youth are agents of change who are already taking actions to transform the food systems, from grassroots to global level, in the form of activism, entrepreneurship, and research.
To make sure that investment in sustainable urban development of intermediate cities triggers transformation towards a greener future, we need local governance structures that include the youth in local decision-making. We need the cities to coordinate and exchange best development practices to become a united partner for the investors. These governance structures and city-to-city coordination should be centred around a common topic essential to human development: food. Taking a food systems approach, we can see that the way our food is produced, traded, consumed and disposed of lays the foundation for a participatory governance with youth participation. The urban food agenda promotes policies, programmes and projects for the sustainable development of urban and peri-urban food systems under local governance. By including the youth in urban food agenda, we can ensure that investment in intermediate cities is implemented with and by the youth, in an inclusive and impactful way.
First, the urban food agenda promotes grassroots involvement with agriculture that brings neighbours and youth around food production, improving their diets and incomes. Urban agriculture fosters many co-benefits, among them community cohesion, increased civic engagement and empowerment, and consequently better representation in local governance. Youth empowerment within food systems produces clear policy demands and political participation through the World Food Forum. Second, the urban food agenda triggers horizontal exchanges between cities to jointly address the urban challenges while improving hunger through the Network of Intermediate Cities and the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact. By linking the grassroot benefits for youth and civic engagement, with the city-to-city networks, the urban food agenda becomes a mechanism for resource mobilization, and for the community and youth participation in the implementation of investments.
Youth needs to be involved in policy and decision making over investments that shape the future of urban development. Boosting the urban food agenda with youth engagement makes the goal of impactful investment in urban development within our grasp.