Urban Synergies Group: Leaving no one behind: A transformative solution for young people in urban slums of Sierra Leone

Urban Synergies Group: Leaving no one behind: A transformative solution for young people in urban slums of Sierra Leone

Urban Synergies Group joined forces with Dreamtown, a progressive Danish NGO, and the local NGO partner Youth Dream Center Sierra Leone in order to develop and test a new solution to implement the New Urban Agenda with a focus on the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11.7: By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, across urban slums of Sierra Leone. This article is a short report and reflection on findings of our recent progress visit to the slum communities involved in the project across the country, in which we aim to improve the well-being of young people through co-design and co-create public spaces as targeted interventions with the intent to generate ownership and meaningful participation.

This two-year long project is an international sustainable urban development project that targets one of the poorest countries on the planet and focuses on one of the most vulnerable population group: the youth. 75 percent of the urban population in Sierra Leone live in slum areas (The World Bank, 2019) and the youth (people 15-35 years old) make up almost 40 % of the total population (UNDP, 2018), of which 44% live in urbanised areas (Statistics Sierra Leone, 2017).

With these facts in mind, Urban Synergies Group and Dreamtown set out on a mission to i) increase participation for young people in shaping society and improve access to safe and inclusive public spaces in the city; ii) to improve their level of subjective wellbeing and sense of ownership and purpose within their respective community; and iii) to carry out rigorous research on youth wellbeing in urban environments to inspire evidence-based decision making and inform impactful actions and advocacy activities. In order to achieve the objectives, an interdisciplinary strategic partnership was formed between Dreamtown, the Danish project lead, Urban Synergies Group, the Australian technical advisory body, Youth Dream Center Sierra Leone, local project partner NGO, nine local community-based organisations (CBO’s), to implement the actions, and two university partners comprised of the University of Canberra, Australia, and University of Makeni, Sierra Leone.

This unique partnership, based on SDG 17 Partnerships for the goals, was formed to create transformative outcomes that encompass international synergies between research, action, and meaningful human experiences. Overall, the team designed and tested four project phases: First, we conducted a comprehensive Youth Wellbeing Survey with more than 1000 young people across the different communities with our academic partners. At the same time, we built capacity at the University in Makeni, where 15 students were trained to collect and to analysis the data. Second, we created a Dream Catcher Tool. This is a context specific co-design process to identify collective dreams of the local youth that hold the potential to generate transformative outcomes. As part of this tool, a rigorous self-selection process created an outcome where expectations were kept low in terms of the scope of the project. Third, during the space development phase, local community-based organisations (both newly formed in order to represent the genuine interests of the youth, as well as already existing CBO’s) were tasked to work hand in hand with local youth groups to implement the top dreams from the dream catching exercise. Most of the nine communities decided to build community centres, as central youth hubs in which further dreams can be articulated, issues can be discussed among the youth, and actions can be planned. Fourth, the advocacy phase includes capacity building of the implementing CBOs through targeted advocacy training. Advocacy in the widest sense as it includes awareness raising about pressing issues concerning the prosperity and wellbeing of the youth, as well as fundraising and mobilisation of support locally to self-generate and mobilise funds to realise the full potential of the public youth centres – and limit single-donor dependency.

Currently, the project is between the third and fourth phase, with the finalising of the public space projects across the communities and start-up of advocacy campaigns. The following outlines some of what we have learned over the past few weeks:

Early findings from our representative baseline survey indicates that:

  • 67.7% of the youth feel that not being able to walk safely alone is a moderate to big problem (Youth wellbeing survey, n.d).
  • 74.9% of the youth do not have places where they can go and be creative (Youth wellbeing survey, n.d).
  • 62.3% of the youth have no access to nature or ‘green’ (plant-filled) spaces where they can go to (Youth wellbeing survey, n.d.).
  • 94.4% of the youth feel that ‘lack of opportunities’ is a significant problem (Youth wellbeing survey, n.d.).
  • 58.0% feel that young people are not being listened to (Youth wellbeing survey, n.d.).

Furthermore, we visited the communities to assess the progress of the implementation and discuss successes and challenges with the implementing partners and community youth. Negotiating access to land can be very challenging in the context of urban Sierra Leone – and this challenge has also affected the progress of our project. However, due to the commitment and diligence of our local partner, Youth Dream Center Sierra Leone, and the negotiation efforts of the implementing CBOs, all projects have been developed on land owned by the community to avoid conflict and enhance sustainability. We were impressed to see that all projects are now in the building process – with strong support from community members.

Eight out of nine community dreamt of having a community centre for all the youth in the community, in which people can come together to share ideas, learn skills, discuss their issues, host youth activities, and be inspired by each other. This includes dancing, music and drama, as much as having a place to study and participate in informal education, such as computer skills, literacy, or tailoring workshops. One community, instead of a community centre, decided to erect three long benches for their youth as central points for gathering and continuous collective dreaming. Although expectations from community members remain high in terms of how much the project can provide support for, overwhelming feedback from all project partners and communities focused on excitement over finally seeing follow up action and physical intervention as a result of community engagement. Many communities have previous experience with promises of different development projects where no follow up was made, e.g. after engaging community members in data collection. This highlights the importance of commitment, honesty, and transparency in community driven interventions, as well as conscious feedback loops in the process of doing research and during the implementation of the actions.

Linking research with action by following up with actual interventions in the same areas as our research was done (and will again be done by the end of 2020) has proven to establish more trust among project partners and community members – and has created an environment for commitment and trust. Youth groups have taken part in all processes throughout the project – from participating in research as interviewees, to expressing dreams for the public spaces in their community, to working on the building projects, and procurement of materials at the building site. For the young people engaged, this has meant that they gained valuable experience in relation to negotiating with community decision makers and taking on ownership, for example by participating in project steering groups and monitoring committees, while some youth have been inspired to come together and create new youth groups.

Community empowerment, in the context of this project, under the conceptual framework of ‘Right to the City’ (Lefebvre, 1967), means giving the power to young people to implement their own ideas, on their terms, for a better everyday life in their community. Our research and time spent with the young people in their communities highlights clearly that motivation is not an issue. In fact, what is lacking are opportunities for youth to unfold and prosper. Our key takeaway from this visit to all other urban thinkers is that co-creating public community spaces for youth is a very effective way of providing this opportunity. We look forward to following the amazing work of all the partners and young people in Sierra Leone as they continue to develop and make use of these spaces. If you are interested, wish to learn more about this innovative approach, and might want to replicate the method in your city, we would love to hear from you! We will be attending the 10th World Urban Forum early 2020 with some of our key partners. See you there!


Butler, C. 2012. Henri Lefebvre: Spatial Politics, everyday life and the right to the city: Routledge. International Alliance of Inhabitants. (2005). World Charter for the Right to the City. Retrieved from http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/fr/deed.fr.
Lefebvre, H. 1967. Le droit à la ville. (Vol. 29).
Statistics Sierra Leone (SSL). 2017. Sierra Leone 2015 Population and Housing Census - Thematic Report on Children, Adolescents and Youth.
United Nations. 2019. Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform. Retrieved from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300.
UNDP. 2018. UNDP Sierra Leone 2017 Annual Report. Freetown: UNDP Sierra Leone.  
The World Bank. (2019). Sierra Leone, The World Bank, viewed 7 February 2019,
Youth Wellbeing Survey. (n.d). Creating space for young people in urban Sierra Leone. (Ed.) J. Schirmer & G. Mews, University of Canberra, Urban Synergies Group: Canberra, Australia. To be published early 2020.

Article by Gregor H. Mews & Nina Fredslund Ottosen
Photo Credits: Gregor H. Mews/ Nina Fredslund Ottosen (CC)