#18 cities
Charles Newman

The Future’s Architects

In the 1980s, when Kibera started to take shape at the outskirts of Nairobi, officials failed to provide integrative solutions to its growth and needs. Until now, when the government and innovative NGOs like Kounkuey Design Initiative are working hand in hand with the residents of Kibera.

Urban Infrastructure Development in the Informal Context: A Multi-Stakeholder Approach

When considering informal settlements and debating the challenges that face our world’s most vulnerable urban residents, one of the most referenced slums is Nairobi’s Kibera. As one of the largest settlements in the world, Kibera is also regarded as one of the most dangerous and complex neighbourhoods in East Africa. Residents and urban theorists alike struggle to find solutions for addressing the exceptionally complex and difficult conditions in Kibera.

… the Kenyan government responded with corrupt negligence (…).

When Kibera began its rapid growth as an informal neighbourhood in the 80s and 90s, the Kenyan government responded with corrupt negligence, allocating development funds to the city centre and more affluent neighbourhoods. In response, hundreds of NGOs entered Kibera intending to improve the livelihoods of residents, only to collectively contribute to an over-saturation of aid. Together these uncoordinated efforts among aid groups and a lack of initiative on the part of the government perpetuated the unruly expansion of the informal settlement, further reinforcing Kibera's reputation as an intractable urban crisis.

NGOs have also begun making notable progress (…) within the urban fabric of Kibera.

The last eight years, however, have seen unprecedented development efforts inside the settlement that have successfully improved both public infrastructure and public service delivery. NGOs have also begun making notable progress both in working alongside the government and in developing smaller scale infrastructure interventions within the urban fabric of Kibera.

The Government of Kenya – Redrawing the Urban Plan

The unprecedented flurry of development activity from Kenya's government began in 2010 when ground was broken for the National Kenya Slum Upgrading Program (KENSUP). In Kibera, over 20 high-rise residential buildings have already been built with dozens more planned for later phases. 2014 saw the implementation of new initiatives, starting with the construction of sewage lines and over 100 public sanitation blocks. In 2015 work began on turning the main pedestrian routes through the settlement into two-lane paved roadways. In 2016 the area around the iconic railway track that runs through Kibera is scheduled for redevelopment with an expanded buffer zone and adjacent row housing.

… public housing, water and sanitation, and transportation infrastructure on the largest of urban scales.

Together, these efforts have sought to address issues of public housing, water and sanitation, and transportation infrastructure on the largest of urban scales. The funding and motivation for each of these projects came from both county and national offices, reflecting a shared dedication across government stratum to execute massive upgrades throughout the settlement.

… forcing them to hastily cut their small shops in half (…).

From residents' perspective, however, this flurry of activity has followed a familiar sequence of top-down implementation. Plans were drawn up in government offices, and budgets and financing models approved by elected officials. Only after these plans were complete were surveyors and task forces sent into the community to designate illegal structures for demolition, and, in some cases, to inform residents of their forced relocation. The projects were often initiated with little warning. When a sewer line was constructed through the dense Lindi neighbourhood in 2014, some residents reported being given less than 48 hours to disassemble their homes before they would be forcibly demolished, and no relocation services were provided. Store owners were given similar timelines in advance of the road expansions, forcing them to hastily cut their small shops in half to accommodate the approaching bulldozers. These developments have generally been accepted by residents as long overdue upgrades, though the seemingly haphazard implementation methods have been jarring and disruptive for the Kibera community.

The International Community – Refining Public Space

With this surge of activity, NGOs working in Kibera have found their roles evolving. Once independent stakeholders working on grassroots development projects, they now work on a larger scale, collaborating with governmental implementing agencies.

Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), an international NGO of engineers, architects, urban planners and Kibera residents, has worked in Kibera since 2007. KDI’s mission began with initiatives to help residents improve their own neighbourhoods in Kibera through the development of productive public spaces. These locally scaled projects sought to resolve environmental, social and economic challenges by developing the water and sanitation infrastructure, gathering spaces, playgrounds, and income-generating activities.

… an iterative design process that puts residents forward as the primary decision makers.

These smaller, more intimate projects have required a much more nuanced approach to development, as such projects require unique, site-specific solutions. In response, KDI developed an iterative design process that puts residents forward as the primary decision makers. Through open forums and referendums, residents decide everything from public/private boundaries to the locations and details of public facilities.

The bottom-up strategies of KDI’s design and implementation methods stand in stark contrast to the government’s approach. Based on the lessons learned over the past few years of development activity however, KDI and the government have started working together and sharing resources, coming together in an effort to address the seasonal flooding that occurs as a result of Kibera’s over-development, for example. This joint project employs community-driven flood mapping coupled with government strategic planning and risk assessment.

Examples of government/NGO coordination can be seen in numerous other parts of Kibera as well. Where government leadership once generally worked independently, offices have now begun to take advantage of the expertise of NGOs and contract them to assist in their large scale interventions. Additionally, much of the large-scale public infrastructure labour costs have been linked to government-run savings and loan schemes, a strategy normally associated with non-profit aid. This growing coordination and cross-fertilization of efforts represents an emerging acknowledgement of the complexities surrounding life in Kibera.

Kibera Residents – Activating the Neighbourhood

Kibera residents now have unprecedented opportunities for more secure investments (…).

This combined approach of top-down interventions on the part of the Kenyan government and the bottom-up development efforts of NGOs has begun to formalise and solidify the physical infrastructure and urban plan of Kibera. This has gone beyond the simple construction of needed infrastructure and begun creating social and economic opportunities for residents. Kibera residents now have unprecedented opportunities for more secure investments in their neighbourhoods and private businesses.

On roads that used to be dirt alleys only wide enough for pedestrians, buses and motorcycle taxis now ferry passengers in and out of Kibera on paved roadways. Local business owners have reported that with the improved vehicular access, they have been able to import goods for sale more easily. This enhanced connectedness to the larger city of Nairobi along with a new system of night-time lighting has also brought more customers, injecting Kibera business owners with a very new sense of competition and opportunity. Private structure owners are now building more permanent homes and businesses along the roadways and adjacent to public spaces, as confidence in what is “public” and “private” in this informal setting has begun to solidify.

Issues of high unemployment, informal education, and public health remain.

The challenges facing Kibera’s residents are by no means resolved though. Issues of high unemployment, informal education, and public health remain. The concerted efforts of development actors over the past few years, however, have made substantial progress towards mitigating the numerous challenges that confront development strategies in the informal context.

… solutions at the urban scale cannot be approached by solely invasive, top-down, sweeping interventions.

Kibera’s recent history teaches us that solutions at the urban scale cannot be approached by solely invasive, top-down, sweeping interventions. Additionally, results stemming from time-intensive, small-scale, community-led efforts can prove insufficient without the support of larger public sector development. It is only with the coordination of efforts, the sharing of ideas, and the acknowledgment that multiple actors working in a single environment is an opportunity for collaboration that the challenges and volatility of informal living can begin to be addressed. This coordination can then effectively allocate resources and expertise to open the door for the private sector to emerge.

Slowly, Kibera is beginning to rewrite the neighbourhood’s troubled reputation, as well as the common misconception that its many challenges are too complex to analyse, too difficult to clarify, or too big to address. What was once often referred to as “one of the worst slums in Africa” is set to stand as an example of the “formalized informal” resulting from inter agency coordination.

Photos by Kounkuey Design Initiative.

Video by Lightbox Africa.

Recommend us

Related Articles

Meeting the World’s Housing Needs

By 2050, 70 percent of people will live in cities. A prospect calling for building 100,000 housing units per day until 2030.

» more

The Water Sector Reform in Kenya Is Bearing Fruit

» more

Water – A Resource of Conflict and Source of Cooperation

» more