In Kibera in Kenya, the Kounkuey Design Initiative is undertaking a series of projects to transform a polluted river corridor into “productive public spaces.”
A walk through the informal settlement of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya gives a snapshot of some of the physical issues faced by our rapidly urbanizing world. Open sewers run down each side of twisting, dusty lanes. In the dry seasons, they are clogged depositories for rubbish – there is no formal garbage collection there. Inadequate access to clean water, one toilet to between seventy-five and two hundred people and a heavily degraded physical environment hamper healthy development. The settlement is home to what estimates place at more than a million residents, with densities reaching 2,300 people per hectare, and most families live on around one dollar per day.
A train periodically thunders through the already narrow main street, halting the trackside trade. Once the train disappears, music rises, activity resumes and children play among lanes and streets which drain an accumulation of many small rivers into a polluted river corridor. It is along this main river that the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) is undertaking a series of projects to transform marginal lands of the settlement into “Productive Public Spaces,” providing small-scale yet networked solutions to some of Kibera’s big problems.
Within Kibera’s community, KDI has found opportunities for development where many have seen only the statistics of poverty. While only 28 percent of adults have formal employment, entrepreneurial spirit is high, with 65 percent of those remaining running their own businesses in the informal sector. Kibera’s iron workers provide local construction skills, and the social networking necessary for survival ensures that one in every two people is associated with a community group, so there is a high potential for community project ownership.
KDI initially engaged the community by requesting proposals from residents, community organizations and local government leaders. The public nature of the project proposals dealing with open space means the exclusive involvement of the already empowered is avoided and ensures that the majority feels the impact of the improvements. Within the democratic public realm, the innate potential of the landscape can be examined closely. The delivery of community-owned infrastructure has the potential to catalyse public realm improvements. For outsiders, the challenge is to initiate this change without imposing formal technical solutions.
Informal developments are often located on or around marshland river corridors because of the degraded qualities of the land. Transformation of flood-prone land is an ideal starting point for many slum improvement projects. KPSP 01 began in 2006 as KDI’s first project, and was initiated by the founders during their time at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. The riverside site chosen by the community was subject to flooding, reducing pedestrian circulation, and was used as a dumping ground, like much swampy land in slums.
The project initially involved a community clean-up of the space, bank stabilization using gabion systems, and design and construction of a small bridge. Bridges are invaluable in these environments. Connectivity provides the potential for the use of adjacent land and enables the surrounding space to evolve into a community node. KDI and the community designed and built a shade pavilion to fit up to two hundred gathered people, a playground using recycled timber, and a small office and vegetable garden. The construction method and materiality are consistent with known successful approaches to community projects. Gabion walls, for example, allow for community build by unskilled workers without the use of heavy machinery. Bridges are small-span, about five or six metres, so they can be built mostly from timber transportable on foot. The KDI team now includes a pro bono engineering partner, Buro Happold, making safe construction of such structures possible.
Within informal communities, shacks are modified by “owner occupiers” from regularly collected scavenged materials, and with the use of easily transportable building supplies, “recycling” from newly completed structures can be problematic. Another persistent difficulty is simply lack of maintenance, leading to facilities falling into an unusable condition. A recent Hollywood film shot in Kibera provided a toilet facility that now stands in disrepair. One solution is to attach a community-owned, micro-economic strategy to the upgrading of infrastructure. The KDI team has understood this issue and has made real attempts to underpin physical projects with robust capacity development strategies, creating profitable micro business. For example, vegetables grown are sold to local kiosk operators. A group called Grow Kenya produces compost out of collected vegetable waste from around Kibera. Kiki Weavers is a women’s weaving cooperative that harvests water hyacinth from Nairobi Dam. A small profit percentage from these enterprises goes towards a maintenance fund.
A second project established community training to make soil-stabilized bricks on site, which were then used for the construction of a new sanitation centre. The brickmaking company continues to trade even though the sanitation centre is complete. The centre is situated beside a river crossing and consists of six toilets, four showers and a 10,000-litre water tank. KDI worked with government agencies to connect to major infrastructure and to supply pipework. Kiosks for street vendors and a bamboo playground have a wider use as a community node. Again, the team used gabion stabilization of the waterway to prepare the site. Like other successful sanitation projects in Kibera, this one charges residents for use of the facility. The kiosks also generate maintenance revenue through their rental.
Open-endedness is an essential feature of public space proposals in informal communities. Locals must be allowed to work with and complete the development of new public domain, becoming, over time, the true owners of the space and its infrastructure. Cross-programming is another way to keep spaces open and flexible enough to pass into community ownership.
The third public space project involved formalizing an existing drainage line through one of the streets. Gabions were used to create a level public space and another playground was designed and built. Future programs such as a school and community centre are planned for the site. With its fourth public space project, KDI has made plans for a new sanitation centre to be built on land owned privately by the partner community group. KDI is treating this project as a pilot to test the benefits of moving away from the river corridor.
Similar problems seem to appear throughout the world’s informal settlements and, surprisingly perhaps, generic technical solutions have rarely been useful. Despite initial appearances, informality does not have a singular quality. KDI’s site-by-site community engagement process ensures that where technical solutions are employed, they are firmly based in the specificities of place and exhibit strong demand-side ownership. It is clear that as stand-alone projects they are not big enough to make much of a difference to the whole of Kibera. However, it is when several of these community nodes are delivered, as KDI intends, that they become emergent networks capable of effecting widespread change.
Emergent landscape networks with micro catalyst operations are the future of sustainable infrastructure delivery in slums and must replace static masterplans entirely as a physical urban development strategy. When micro operations are attached to a horizontal field of a river system and embedded within social and economic layers of a community, they can begin to transform a whole degraded environmental system into a large piece of catalytic infrastructure for an entire community.
The involvement of an outside design team such as KDI for a short period of time also has a catalysing effect, where outsiders provide momentum and act as agents of change. If KDI’s methodology is sound, at some point there should be a tipping point where the river becomes a highly valuable landscape asset to the community. At this point a truly sustainable physical network will have emerged with social, environmental and economic underpinnings to the new physical forms. Informal becomes formalized, yet if this transition can take place through community-driven emergent networks, the cities of the future will not only be places of acceptable health, they will also retain their texture and character, something that a static masterplanning process has historically failed to deliver, in both the developing and the so-called developed world.