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Agents of change: How young planners are supporting sustainable development around the world

Rapid transit in Nairobi

Young planners around the world are creating projects to deliver Sustainable Development Goals within their own countries and communities – and they're having an impact, as Simon Wicks and Matt Moody discover

Nearly 50 per cent of the world population is under the age of 30,” says Ana Ynestrillas emphatically. “So a large minority of the world that doesn’t have the position that you have, the voice.

“And there is a lot of talent that shouldn’t be wasted,” the project lead for the UN’s Local Pathways Fellowship programme adds. continuing: “People taking decisions on how cities are designed are almost always over 30 – and they don’t get feedback from the younger people who are going to be the users of these future cities.”

It’s a tale of exclusion, but also one of squandered opportunities. Ynestrillas’s point is that there are thousands of young people around the world with the skills and interest to contribute to development that is sustainable – and, more importantly, a vested interest in doing so. After all, they will be living longest with the consequences of decisions that are made today.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed by the United Nations in 2015, provide an international framework for addressing social, environmental and economic challenges such as climate change, resource imbalance, and wealth and social inequality. 

“The goals do a successful job in mapping out where we want to get, because we all know we want the world to be better,” says Ynestrillas “We know we need to change things. But sometimes it can feel overwhelming. How do we get there?

“The goals make this process simpler for everyone because they have targets, and then indicators on how to measure progress towards the goal. It makes it easier for organisations to label areas of focus and to form partnerships, and to see how much we’re progressing. We can’t manage what we can’t measure.”

Olafiyin Taiwo, coordinator for the Commonwealth Association of Planners Young Planners’ Network, says planners are integral to their delivery. With their ability to take an overarching view they have the capacity to draw together the different components of a “multi-sectoral and multidisciplinary approach” within a coherent vision of change that accords with the aims of the SDGs.

Where do young people, and specifically young planners, come in? A number of organisations are working with young planners (and other young people with relevant skill sets) to deliver the SDGs within their own countries and communities.

We mention a few below – and introduce you to some of the young agents of change promoting sustainable development around the world.

Organisations supporting young planners and sustainable development 

Local Pathways Fellowship

Operating under the umbrella of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the Local Pathways Fellowship supports architects, engineers, urban planners and social studies practitioners under 30 to develop projects within their home cities that deliver SDG 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

“We ask them to choose like what topic they’re going to be focusing on based on their expertise,” explains Ynestrillas. “Throughout the 10 months of the fellowship, they work on research, connecting with stakeholders, developing the idea and prototyping it. Ideally, they implement at least a pilot.”

Does the programme make a difference? Ynestrillas cites the example of Letícia Pinheiro Rizério Carmo, whose study of harassment of women in public spaces in Belo Horizonte in Brazil led to a government-funded app through which women can report harassment, providing data that can influence policy and resource allocation.

Commonwealth Association of Planners, Young Planners’ Network

SDGs are at the core of the network that connects young planners across the Commonwealth. In particular, says network coordinator Olafiyin Taiwo, the network is supporting SDG 17: “Revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development”.

This means creating partnerships that facilitate delivery of all the other goals. So the network’s emphasis is on expanding its range and forging connections with other organisations. For example, CAP members are also involved in ISOCARP (see below) and the Local Pathways programme.

“One of our members in Pakistan is working within the SDG Academy to create some courses on SDG awareness,” says Taiwo.

“Within the Commonwealth 60 per cent of the population are young people under 30,” she adds. “The bulk of implementation and impact of Sustainable Development Goals will be felt by young people.”


A “global innovation lab for the SDGs”, UNLEASH aims to tap into the skills, disciplines and sectors that can be applied to the challenge of delivering the SDGs, from data analysis to spatial planning.
It works in part through two day ‘hacks’ where participants work in a concentrated way on problems. There is a strong focus on technological solutions to sustainability challenges and developing products that can be scaled up through investment.

Current RTPI Young Planner of the Year Robyn Skerratt worked with UNLEASH in November 2019, describing it as “an incredible opportunity to collaborate with people from around the world, identifying specific problems and then using the ‘innovation lab’ model to come up with potential solutions”.

ISOCARP Young Planning Professionals programme

The International Society of City and Regional Planners’ (ISOCARP) Young Planning Professionals programme has been pulling young planners together to “resolve complex and multi-dimensional planning issues” for close to 30 years.

SDGs are exerting a strong influence on this work, says programme director Zeynep Gunay. “SDGs have been the main pillars defining our societal programmes in various ways, starting with our long term collaboration with UN-Habitat to knowledge transfer events, academic trainings, publications and our urban labs.”

Agents of change: Young planners supporting Sustainable Development Goals


Jenna Halal
Urban planner, UN Habitat

“Urban practitioners can enrich urban planning processes, while sharing a global vision for a brighter and more sustainable future”

Read more... 




Karishma Asarpota
Junior officer, climate and energy action at ICLEI World Secretariat

“The need to transition to a society that is inclusive, just and respectful of nature’s boundaries is becoming more urgent”





Francisco Achwoka
Graduate planner, Nairobi, Kenya

“Professional planning, through its participatory processes, can tackle the endemic challenges facing planning in developing countries” 






Cyrielle Noël
Program Specialist at Oceanwise,Tio'tia:ke (Montréal), Canada

"Natural boundaries have routinely been ignored in the design of our economies, even though our economic activities are mainly reliant upon natural resources"





Malith Senevirathne
PhD Researcher, Colombo, Sri Lanka

"I worked on The State of Sri Lankan Cities 2018, a report by UN Habitat that offered the first comprehensive assessment of Sri Lanka’s recent urban development"





HY William Chan
Urbanist and futurist, Sydney, Australia

“Sustainable development can only be achieved if we have more doers and less talkers”





Viviana Cordero
Lawyer and urban strategist, current PhD candidate, co-founder at Huasipichanga, Ecuador

”Whatever can’t be sustainable simply cannot have a future”







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