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Transforming Public Spaces for Children in Latin America

A vibrant mural outside the San Francisco Market in Salayá, Guatemala, designed by local artists and painted by local children, showcases the path to the park. Eitan, 4, son of a local shopkeeper, and his four young friends lead the way from their mothers' fruit and vegetable stalls to the new park and playground.

Only three years ago, there were no murals, no park, and no playground. It was a dangerous area beyond the market; women kept their children close to their stalls for safety's sake. But a community effort has transformed the area into a joyful space for children, where moms can keep an eye on them while running their businesses. It's almost like an extension of home. 

Today, the children's joy is contagious. They run down the path to show us which murals they helped create, and leap around the playground. For the market, a community led by women, it's been transformational. The second floor of the market is now a community gathering space, even hosting a gym.

Cities are places of opportunity, but too often not built that way. The World Bank estimates that by 2025, 85% of Latin America's population will live in urban areas, increasing the need to design public spaces with inclusive services for all. At United Way, we work to mobilize communities to action, so all can thrive. As we mark International Children's Day on June 1, it's worth reflecting on how we're doing in building a world that helps every child succeed. 

Urbanization poses a variety of challenges for families; children can spend more time commuting on public transportation than playing in safe parks and playgrounds.  If you could experience your own city from 3 feet or 95cm — the height of a three-year-old — what would you change?

This viewpoint invites all of us to be part of a community solution where harmonious neighborhoods impact the lives of current and future generations. That's why the United Way network in Guatemala, Colombia, and Chile joined Van Leer Foundation and FEMSA Foundation to create public, urban spaces where young children can thrive, through Urban95

The murals, park and playground at the San Francisco Market were part of a larger, regional effort in Latin America. Between 2021-2023, similar collaborations across Guatemala, Colombia, and Chile impacted over 81,800 individuals, 15,900 families, and 63 institutions in the cities of Mixco, Cartagena, Barranquilla, and La Pintana. Underlying this was collaborative, cross-sector leadership from local communities, schools, and government. In 2024, the Urban95 project is focused on advocating for city policies that encourage public spaces to be child-friendly.  

Fernando Quezada, Grant Manager at United Way Guatemala, recalls “the challenge of broadening the concept of early childhood including the city's view from the perspective of young children. Although by engaging with the community, and considering different perspectives, today you can see the result: the park is full of families daily.”

Other results are harder to see, but equally important: efforts to create more urban spaces for children in Guatemala, Chile and Colombia have almost quadrupled families' time spent in parks and trails – from 30 minutes to nearly two hours. 

Perhaps no one sums it up as well as Eitan. At the end of the tour, he keeps playing, while his friends go off to school.  “My mom lets me play outside the local market," he assures us. "This is my playground.”

Join us — find your local United Way here to learn how you can make a difference in children’s lives in your community.

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