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Kibera Public Space Project: a Participatory Approach to Upgrading in Nairobi’s Largest Slum.  


Joe Mulligan

Associate Director, Kounkuey Design Initiative



The Kounkuey Design Initiative founded in 2006 operates in many different countries with current projects in Haiti, Ghana, Kenya and the US. Here we learn about the Initiative’s work in Kibera, Kenya, which has engaged community groups in the participatory design of public spaces and local infrastructure. 


Kibera is an informal settlement not far from the centre of Nairobi, Kenya, with up to one million habitants (depending on which statistics you take) in an area just over 200 hectares. The slum has a strong informal economy, high vulnerability to fire and flooding, political instability, access difficulties, high theft risk, and is on environmentally degraded land due to polluted water from the river. Residents have shown to be very resilient to past events and to have a strong sense of community.


Since 2007 KDI has been working on the Kibera Public Space Project, a network of public spaces and infrastructure developed at five different sites to date. The driving concept was to transform an environmental liability into a usable public space, authored and operated by its end-users. The programme followed three strategies: engage multi-stake holder participation, alignment and agreements; sectorial integration; and networked social change. Multi-stakeholder participation is crucial and it is developed through designing with the groups involved followed by a democratic process of selection, whereby the community chooses different physical, programmatic and commercial interventions, bounded by constraints of space and budget. Next a master plan is developed, detailed in terms of infrastructure, and executed by residents in conjunction with the technical experts from KDI. Following construction and implementation the initiative continue to support residents in the development of their businesses to ensure that the site can generate income to fund the ongoing maintenance of the site, as well as improving livelihoods. 


Despite being effective, this intensive participatory process may be difficult to scale up due to its very nature of being deeply rooted in the culture and mechanisms of the particular community at hand. From Mr Mulligan’s experience a successful implementation requires at least two years of focused work. Common to the various projects is the main objective of using physical remediation to improve the quality of life, generate skill transfer, and social networks between sites. The transfer of knowledge and experiences from one community to the other has shown to be effective, through formal and informal interfaces, influencing each other. However, information also needs to be escalated upwards to reach governmental decision makers. Therefore a platform called Watsan Portal: Kibera was created with a Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, to facilitate decision-making around water and sanitation projects. 


Despite its challenges, the participatory design process has shown to have a positive impact in numerous cases on the lives of the people involved. The outcomes of the projects are very well understood (new businesses, number of jobs, facilities, users and income) and in their next project KDI is looking to measure the actual impact of a project using the Multidimensional Poverty Index as a broad baseline for understanding poverty in a complex urban environment. 


“Good development practice facilitates emergence; it builds on what we’ve got and with

it goes to scale… in order to do something big—to think globally and act globally—

one starts with something small and one starts where it counts.” Small Change by Nabeel Hamdi


Written by Maximilian Bock, Elizabeth Wagemann & Ana Gatóo

9th January 2014

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