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The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World - Key Facts


More than 50% of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. This number is growing. By 2050, two thirds of the world’s people are expected to live in towns and cities. The world’s urban population grows by around 60 million people each year, with most urban growth in low- and middle-income countries.

In Western Europe and the Americas, individual countries’ populations are already almost entirely urban.

Sample stats (2011 estimates)

  • Over 75% urban: Mexico 78%; USA 82%; Saudi Arabia 82%, France 85%; Brazil 87%; Argentina 92%, Belgium 97%
  • 50–75 % urban: Nigeria 50%; Japan 67%; Turkey 70%; Russian Federation 73%; Germany 74%
  • 25–50 % urban: India 30%; Egypt 43%; Indonesia 44% 
  • Below 25 % urban: Ethiopia 17%; Afghanistan 23%

Half of the world’s urban population lives in Asia. China alone has an urban population of approximately 630 million (2011 data). Asia is home to 66 of the 100 fastest-growing urban areas (half of these in China). Africa has a larger urban population than North America or Western Europe.

A slum household is defined as one that lacks one or more of the following: access to improved water, access to improved sanitation, security of tenure, durability of housing and sufficient living area. 1 in 3 urban dwellers worldwide lives in a slum, rising to 6 in 10 in Africa.

Children in urban areas

Over one billion children live in urban areas. Over the next few decades, as urbanization progresses, urban childhood will be the norm. UNICEF is working to ensure child rights are part of the urban agenda.

Broad averages show that results in the fields of child health and survival, education, protection or sanitation tend to be better in urban areas than those in rural areas. However, this conceals the fact that the greatest inequities are found within towns and cities. In most urban areas, great opportunity and great deprivation exist side by side.

Children living or working on the street, children living in slums, migrant and displaced children, children without formal registration and those trafficked are among the most vulnerable. 

In some cases, children living in urban poverty are at least as likely as those in rural areas to die before the age of five or to be undernourished, if not more so. Compared with the rest of the urban child population, children living in urban slums are among the least likely to be registered at birth, immunized or attending school.


Children in urban settings are generally considered to have an educational advantage – they are more likely to benefit from early childhood programmes, and more likely to enrol in and complete primary and secondary school.

However, urban opportunities are not spread evenly. Take early childhood development – in Egypt, 25 per cent of children in urban areas attend kindergarten in 2005-2006, compared with 12 per cent in rural areas. However, among the children of the poorest fifth of urban households, only 4 per cent were found to attend.

Despite the progress many countries have made in pursuing universal primary education, quality schooling remains beyond the reach of many children – reflecting inequalities in parental income, gender, ethnicity or status. Informal settlements or slum areas often have little or no public school provision.

Although school enrolment rates improved in the rural and non-slum urban areas of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe in the late 1990s, they worsened in urban slums.

In Delhi, India, just over 54 per cent of children from slums attended primary school in 2004-2005, compared with 90 per cent of children city-wide.

The poorest families struggle to meet the costs of schooling: a recent survey in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Casablanca, Morocco and Lagos, Nigeria, found that the poorest 20 per cent of families spend more than 25 per cent of household income on schooling.

Even where schooling is free of charge, families can be burdened with the costs of uniforms, books and supplies.

Marginalized groups, including children living or working on the street, migrant children and the children of refugees and internally displaced persons, face particular barriers to education, including difficulty in meeting registration requirements to enrol in urban schools.


While children in cities may live close to health services, there is no guarantee that they will be able to access them.

High urban child mortality rates tend to be seen in places where significant concentrations of extreme poverty combine with inadequate services, as in slums. Cramped and unsanitary conditions are conducive to the spread of disease while immunization levels for children remain much lower in urban slums. Health services for the urban poor tend to be of much lower quality, often forcing people to resort to unqualified health practitioners or pay for premium health care.

In Bangladesh, 2009 household survey data suggest that the under-five mortality rate in slums is 79 per cent higher than the overall urban rate, and 44 per cent higher than the rural rate.

In Nairobi, Kenya, around two thirds of the population lives in crowded informal settlements, where the under-5 mortality rate is an alarming 151 per 1,000 live births. Pneumonia and diarrhoeal disease are among the leading causes of death.
Disparities also affect children in high-income countries. Income and ethnicity have been found to affect infant survival in large cities in the USA.

Children in low income urban areas are exposed to a high risk of respiratory disease and road traffic injuries – especially where safe play spaces and pedestrian infrastructure, such as sidewalks and crossings, are lacking. Road traffic injuries, common in urban areas, account for 1.3 million deaths a year – they are the leading single cause of death worldwide among people aged 15-29 and, the second leading cause of death for those aged 5-14 (after respiratory disease).


The rural-urban gap in nutrition has narrowed in recent decades – essentially because the situation has worsened in urban areas. In a 2006 study of Sub-Saharan Africa, the disparities between rich and poor urban communities were found to be greater than between urban and rural areas. Undernutrition contributes to more than a third of under-5 deaths globally.

Urban undernutrition rates were found to be very high in a 2005 – 2006 study of eight Indian cities. Among the poorest urban residents, 54 per cent of children were found to be stunted, indicating they had been seriously undernourished for some time, compared with 33 per cent among the rest of the urban population. A 2009 study in three slum communities in Nairobi, Kenya found that children in urban slums are 2.7 times more likely to be stunted than the children of the urban rich.

At the opposite end of the nutrition spectrum, obesity afflicts children in urban parts of high-income countries and a growing number of low- and middle-income countries. A diet of saturated fats, refined sugars and salt combined with a sedentary lifestyle puts children at increased risk of obesity and chronic diseases.

Water and sanitation

Unsafe water, poor sanitation and unhygienic living conditions claim many lives each year – an estimated 1.2 million children die before the age of 5 from diarrhoea alone. Poor urban areas where insufficient water supply and sanitation coverage combine with overcrowded conditions tend to maximize the possibility of faecal contamination.

Worldwide, people in urban areas enjoy better access to improved drinking water (96 per cent) than those in rural areas (78 per cent). But coverage is barely keeping pace with urban population growth. In the poorest urban districts, a litre of water can cost 50 times more than in wealthier neighbourhoods with access to water mains. Improving access remains vital to reducing child mortality and morbidity.

Sanitation is also failing to keep up with urban population growth. The number of urban people who defecate in the open increased from 140 million to 169 million between 1990 and 2008. The impact of this practice in urban areas is particularly alarming for public health. Where sanitation facilities exist, these are often poorly maintained and shared by large numbers of people; special provision for children is rare.


Tens of millions of children live or work on the world’s urban streets, and the number is growing. Children may resort to living or working on the streets to escape violence or abuse in the home or because of poverty. Living on the street exposes children to violence and exploitation, but crimes against them are rarely investigated. They are often ‘criminalized’ as vagrants and in many cities there are reports of abuse at the hands of police and security forces.

At any given time, 2.5 million people are in forced labour as a result of trafficking – 22 to 50 per cent of them children. Child trafficking is frequently denied, hidden or ignored so there is little comprehensive data. Some forms of trafficking take place mainly in urban areas – trafficking for sex work or to work as child domestic servants, for example, or trafficking of children who live or work on the streets. Many children are trafficked from rural to urban areas.

Children who lack birth certificates or official registration documents, including refugee and internally displaced children, can be at particular risk of trafficking. The lack of registration makes it difficult for authorities to trace or protect such children. While lack of birth registration is predominantly a rural problem, over one third of children in urban areas are not registered at birth. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, half of all children in urban areas do not have a birth certificate.

Around the world, an estimated 215 million boys and girls aged 5-17 were engaged in child labour in 2008, 115 million of them in hazardous work. In urban areas, children may work as ragpickers or shoeshiners, serve at tea stalls, sell cigarettes, or work in homes or factories. Child domestic labour is predominantly urban – with domestic workers, largely girls, isolated and subject to the arbitrary discipline of their employers.


Migration contributes to urban expansion, although by the latest available estimate, children born within cities account for approximately 60 per cent of urban population increase.

Most child migrants move with their families. In China in 2008, 27.3 million children (nearly 10 per cent of China’s children) migrated within the country with their parents in 2008.

A significant proportion of children and young people move within their countries on their own. A recent study of 12 countries found that one in five migrant children aged 12–14 and half of those aged 15–17 had moved without a parent.

Many child migrants are ‘seasonal migrants’ who move for part of the year – for example, to pursue work in urban areas during lulls between planting and harvesting in the countryside. Around four million children migrate seasonally in India, alone or with their families.

Like adults, children migrate to secure better livelihoods, find educational opportunities or escape poverty, conflict or disasters and the upheaval and food shortages that accompany them. Family circumstances, such as the loss of a parent or an unstable or difficult situation at home, often play a role.

Economic shocks

The effects of the economic crisis continue to be felt around the world in high unemployment, deteriorating work conditions, dwindling real incomes, and food and fuel prices that are high and difficult to predict. The poor are especially vulnerable to rising food and fuel prices because they already spend 50–80 per cent of their money on food.

There were 30 million more unemployed people in late 2010 than before the economic crisis that began in 2007; the number continues to grow globally . Unemployment is disproportionately high among workers aged 15–24.

In an economic downturn, youth unemployment can fuel upheaval. Young people frustrated by a lack of economic opportunity accounted for a significant proportion of demonstrators in the protests that spread across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011.

Urban violence and crime

Crime and violence are fuelled by exclusion. A study of 24 of the world’s 50 wealthiest countries confirmed that more unequal societies are more likely to face high rates of crime, violence and imprisonment.

Whether as targets, participants or witnesses, violence affects hundreds of millions of children in urban areas. Children growing up amid violence display poor academic performance and higher school dropout rates, as well as anxiety, depression, aggression and problems with self-control.

In many parts of the world, urban gangs are known for committing crimes including extortion, robbery and murder. In marginalized urban settings, such groups lure children and young people with the prospects of financial reward and a sense of belonging.

Successful strategies to prevent violence involve all levels of the community and serve to strengthen ties among children, families, schools and other institutions, and local and national governments.


Urban poverty is intensified by exposure to natural hazards. Vulnerable locations and great concentrations of people can make cities especially dangerous. Children are among the most susceptible to injury and death.

Children of the urban poor tend to live in flimsy homes built on the least desirable land: on slopes susceptible to landslides, on low ground that is easily flooded or near industrial waste sites, for example.

Poor health and inadequate nutrition leave children more vulnerable to the effects of environmental shocks.

Recommendations: putting children first

Increasing numbers of children are growing up in urban areas. In order to ensure that all children have the opportunities they need to realize their rights and potential, urgent action must be taken to:

  • Better understand the scale and nature of poverty and exclusion affecting children in urban areas.
  • Identify and remove the barriers to inclusion.
  • Ensure that urban planning, infrastructure development, service delivery and broader efforts to reduce poverty and inequality meet the particular needs and priorities of children.
  • Promote partnership between all levels of government and the urban poor – especially children and young people.
  • Pool the resources and energies of international, national, municipal and community actors in support of efforts to ensure that marginalized and impoverished children enjoy their full rights.



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