To grow up urban

by Joshua Rommel Vargas

High-rise buildings are built alongside residential areas in Mandaluyong City and Makati City in Metro Manila, Philippines. By 2030, some 30 per cent of children in East Asia — 800 million children — will live in cities. Their lives are likely to depend on how well urban environments provide for these children’s development and growth. ©UNICEF Philippines/2016/Josh Estey

With a sash-like cloth and a hat, the locals welcomed me and other UNICEF delegates into their kampung (traditional community). Kampung Lawas Maspati was one of many communities touched by Surabaya’s Kampung Improvement Program. When one pictures an urban low-income community, the immediate image is that of a slum left in disrepair. Here, plants line the walkways, and in between the wood and concrete houses would be a different community building; sometimes a small school, sometimes a library, and sometimes a store selling homegrown coffee. Here, children play outside, if they weren’t in the schoolhouse learning the Javanese alphabet or in the library playing with toys.

Philippines Youth Representative to the Growing Up Urban conference Joshua Vargas being taught by the locals how to play life-sized Snakes and Ladders in Surabaya, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Liaison officer Nirmala

Not once did I see the adults hold the children back. This was a sort of childhood that I didn’t think could exist in an urban environment, and certainly not the childhood I had.

I grew up rather sheltered, though I wouldn’t blame it on my family. There was a crisis with security and safety at the time, and the military would constantly be on red alert. I was told never to stray far from mama, all the more walk by myself to school.

Then again, even if I lived in most other cities in the Philippines, the story would probably have been the same. Cities didn’t have a reputation at the time for being safe or walkable, all the more for children. Children from the middle class, like me, would often be brought by parents to school, with limited mobility or independence.

We would be shielded from every sort of risk or hazard there could be: the urban environment, to us, was like a landmine.

There are children out there who tread along the spaces of that landmine every day. Some are in families that do not have the means; some don’t even have families. Some do not have education or access to shelter. Some do not even have food or water.

That kind of contrast ran through my mind while attending the Growing Up Urban meeting of UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific last May 6–8 in Surabaya, Indonesia. I was there as a Youth Representative for Zamboanga City, accompanying Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco-Salazar, City Social Welfare and Development official Ma. Socorro “Sokee” Rojas, UNICEF Philippines representative Lotta Sylwander, and UNICEF Philippines Social Policy chief Anjanette Saguisag.

Philippines Youth Representative to the Growing Up Urban conference Joshua Vargas delivers his remarks at the Growing Up Urban meeting organized by UNICEF.

As one of two youth representatives, my role was to be the ‘voice of the youth.’ It is also timely, given that the meeting took place only days before the Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) elections. However, I have taken so much more from the meeting than I can give. It made me learn so much about how even the smallest decisions by our governments and the smallest changes in our communities ripple to affect our quality of life.

Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini proudly showed us the achievements of her government and the Surabaya people, including the Kampung improvement project. Michael Samson from the Economic and Policy Research Institute talked about the importance of investing in ‘cognitive capital,’ and stressed how essential it is to invest heavily into the early stage of a child’s life, as nutrition and healthcare during the first 0–2 years would have lasting effects on physical and mental development. This is a theme that was touched on throughout the meeting: that investing in children is an investment in society and an investment in the future.

Zamboanga City Mayor Beng Climaco and Youth Representative Joshua Vargas with the UNICEF Growing Up Urban Surabaya Liaison Officers. Photo courtesy of Mayor Beng Climaco-Salazar.

Around 11 child-friendly cities shared their experiences. This included my own city, Zamboanga. Mayor Beng had unique challenges when the city went under siege. Nevertheless, she persisted with her goal of making the city more child-friendly.

She delivered State of the Children addresses, created programs for youth participation and livelihood, and invested in public spaces like the playground at Barangay (village) Sta. Maria which I pass by every day going to school.

The mayors and city leaders did agree that, despite their accomplishments, there is still much more to be done with regard to making more inclusive and welcoming societies for children, as well as assuring their safety and access to social services and welfare.

I loved all the presentations, but one of my favorites was the one by Patrin Watanatada, Knowledge for Policy Director from the Bernard Van Leer Foundation. She discussed the importance for leaders and urban planners not just to plan for children’s needs, but also to plan for children. She pushed the concept of URBAN95 and handed out masks that had a measuring tape 95 centimeters long towards the floor. This was to help us view the world from the eyes of a child, and to remind us that even the adults in charge of governance were children, too. She stressed that, in making cities inclusive for children, we should not only think in terms of hard concrete policy but also plan with love and imagine how living in our cities would be like for children. She also noted that it is important to “ask the children”; that is, encourage their participation in society and actively involve them in planning.

I think that is why a truly inclusive society is not just one that has been planned to meet the needs of different demographics but also makes every single citizen truly part of the process of progress.
Philippines Youth Representative Joshua Vargas taking notes during the UNICEF Growing Up Urban Surabaya meeting. Photo courtesy of Anjanette Saguisag.

This means providing avenues for youth participation, the central topic of the five-minute commentary I gave at the meeting. This is why the SK is important, and why we should be keeping track of it even after the elections conclude and the reform law kicks into full force. This is why leadership programs, student councils, and mock congresses are important. But this is also why it’s important to promote self-expression through art, writing, and social media. The process of progress is not a careful plan, but a plethora of little forces creating a big push together, and to not just benefit from but also to contribute to it is an opportunity we should provide for every child.

To grow up urban shouldn’t be a paradox, where everything is so in reach and yet so far away, and where there is a lack of equity in terms of access to the things we need to develop our full potentials. To grow up urban should be an advantage. I yearn for the day where every child can live an urban life like the ones I saw at that kampung.


Philippines Youth Representative to the Growing Up Urban conference Joshua Vargas posing with a local dressed in a dress made out of recyclable materials in Surabaya, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Liaison officer Nirmala

The author

Joshua Rommel Vargas is a 17-year-old campus journalist and debater from Zamboanga City.