Finding ways for young people to live well in cities is one of the most urgent and difficult tasks confronting all communities. The CYCLES project studies young lives, wellbeing and prosperity in seven cities. Sylvia Nissen from CUSP explains the project and some early findings.

Cities are youthful places. By 2050, seven out of ten of the world’s youth will live in an urbanising area. For young residents, cities can offer new opportunities for education and employment and a chance to lead fulfilling, if energy intensive, lives.

Yet cities are also the sites where young people collectively confront some of the most serious problems facing our urbanising world. These urban challenges lie at the heart of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goal 11 and its vision for sustainable cities and communities. Urbanisation is one of the defining challenges of this century, achieving sustainable urban development requires close attention to the objectives of promoting other interconnected objectives including for example of good health and wellbeing (SDG 3), quality education (SDG4), clean water and sanitation (SDG6), decent work and economic growth (SDG8) and responsible consumption (SDG11).

Understanding how we can make progress on the Sustainable Development Goals is one of the ambitions of Young Lives in Seven Cities, a recently released report lead by the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), University of Surrey, with research partners in Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa.

This report marks the launches the CUSP longitudinal CYCLES project – a study of the lifestyles and embedded experiences of children and young people aged 12-24 in seven diverse urban communities. The background scoping report provides an initial audit of the key sustainability challenges facing young people in seven very different cities around the world: Christchurch (New Zealand); Delhi (India); Dhaka (Bangladesh); Grahamstown (South Africa); London (England); São Paulo (Brazil); and Yokohama (Japan).

Young people’s experiences across these seven cities differ significantly, but the scoping report highlights three common sustainability challenges. The first is persistent and rising social inequality. Cities are lively places for many young people who have hopes and aspirations for a different future, but intergenerational inequality also underscores the experiences of many young people, with some groups struggling more than others with social problems associated with inequality.

 CC.0 Pujohn Das /

The growth of slums or favelas in cities like Dhaka, New Delhi and São Paulo reflects the rise of this social inequality in communities of rapid urban expansion, and are sites of some of the worst experiences of inadequate nutrition and sanitation, poor access to healthcare and education, and insecure housing. In developed cities like London and Yokohama, young people can also struggle to access decent, affordable housing in cities with some of the highest house prices in the world and often live in areas of multiple deprivation, despite the surrounding wealth.

A second challenge shared by young people in cities is accessing good education and meaningful employment. Cities can offer work opportunities not available elsewhere, but in rapidly changing technical and financial contexts the precariousness of young people’s employment and education is a global challenge. Cities like Grahamstown in South Africa are struggling with high rates of youth unemployment, often double the rate of the adult population. Many young people, especially girls, also continue to lack access to secondary education and experience low-paid, insecure and unsafe employment. Growing numbers of young people in cities like London, Grahamstown and Christchurch in New Zealand are also taking on high levels of debt to access higher education.

Declining youth mental health is a third shared challenge, presenting long-term problems of planning for urban wellbeing in rapidly changing environments. Young people’s mental health and wellbeing in some cases seems to have become decoupled from the sustainability of their wider urban environments. Cities like Christchurch in New Zealand and Yokohama, Japan rank highly on sustainable cities indexes, but like many other cites globally are also struggling with high rates of youth suicide and social isolation.

These sustainable development challenges facing young people are considerable, and yet these cities and their young populations are not defined by these problems. Each community also has youthful energy and a desire for change. Our challenge is to find ways to address the issues identified here, and to support young people to live more sustainable, fulfilling lives.

The next stages of the CYCLES project will be to learn from the experiences of young people in these cities to understand the opportunities for sustainable living in a new generation. We will be asking questions about: How do young people see the world? What are their hopes and aspirations for the future? And how will they navigate the challenges of prosperity and sustainability now facing the 21st Century? Our aim in this ongoing study is not just to understand these phenomena but to identify and rapidly share ways to help young people across the world achieve their full potential – within the limits of a finite planet.

To find out more about the CYCLES project or ways your city could be involved, please contact Dr Sylvia Nissen