The article below was written my me and my KDI team in the fall of 2014 and was ultimately published locally in East Africa’s BuilDesign Magazine. The text and images seek to summarize the strides taken and the successes achieved in developing what has become known as Kibera Park – the largest (and greenest) space of its kind in Kibera. Work on the site continues to this day as the community is slowly expanding the park to fulfill their envisioned master plan.
Kibera has grown to exemplify the broad range of challenges facing hundreds of thousands of Nairobi residents. These hardships extend beyond the basic needs of economic insecurity, inadequate housing, or limited access to quality water and sanitation facilities. These challenges also include minimal access to open, green public spaces that allow residents to enjoy recreational space which is a vital part of everyday urban life.
Like so many other informal settlements, Kibera is characterized by a dense concentration of people and housing. Relief from this congestion in the form of public park space is a rarity. The existing public spaces in Kibera, which are mostly bare, open football pitches, are few in number. Furthermore, the ambiguities surrounding land ownership and the limited space availability, means that creating new public spaces with amenities that serve Kibera residents continues to be a contentious issue.
One organization working to develop public space in partnership with the residents of Kibera is Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI). Featured in our previous issue, KDI is an organization of urban planners, architects and engineers that has partnered with six communities throughout the informal settlement to reclaim and transform waste areas into Productive Public Spaces (PPS).
KDI’s first PPS began in 2006 and remains its largest project to date. The one-acre public park, Kibera Park, is situated in Silanga Village, bordering Soweto East and sitting at the edge of the Nairobi Dam Basin. Born from what was once a dumping site and a hideout for thieves, Kibera Park now stands alone as one of the only public green spaces within the informal settlement. KDI’s community partner, the New Nairobi Dam Community (NNDC) group, operates multiple programs within the park including a multi-purpose structure that hosts primary school classes, religious services and public gatherings on the weekend, two showers, three compost toilets, a compost processing facility, an urban farming initiative, and an artistic co-op that creates
designer baskets for sale. The community group is also looking to expand the project to include a polytechnic school, a recycling centre and a community café.
After numerous meetings with area leaders and surrounding residents, construction of the project began in earnest in 2007. The area’s residents began by contributed their efforts to sorting out and cleaning up the rubbish that clogged the river tributaries that delta into the Nairobi Dam. Together with KDI, the residents excavated and defined the river waterway to guard the site against future flooding. This process led to the complete reclamation of the dumping grounds into buildable land.
With the land secured, KDI engaged NNDC in initial design workshops. In these meetings, visioning activities were conducted using various mediums of engagement—interviews, mapping, modeling, and photography—to give residents a new lens for interpreting their own landscape. Together, the community and facilitators proposed and then prioritized physical and programmatic solutions through a democratic, iterative process. Constraints of space and budget were then incorporated into the decision-making process via a series of applied exercises: surveying, footprinting, costing, and business planning which led to the final design resolution.
The completed multipurpose structure boasts five 8x8m spaces. Each of these spaces are defined by folding walls that can be opened to transform the modular structure into a unified performance space for public gatherings. This flexibility has allowed the community group to reinvent the space(s) to accommodate multiple programs. Adjacent to the structure, KDI and the community members developed the land into a farm for growing vegetables and an improved water vending station for the community group to sell quality water to local residents.
A few years after this first phase of the project was completed in 2010, NNDC worked with the Ministry of Agriculture to further improve the yields of their farming project. This led to the installation of a polytunnel greenhouse with a drip irrigation system. These improvements have increased the quality of the produce cultivated by the community group.
KDI returned to the site in 2013 to kickstart a bamboo planting initiative, construct a much needed foot bridge, and to design and support NNDC in building a much needed sanitation facility. This particular area of Kibera presented two unique challenges: the reclaimed land is too low to connect to the elevated sewer line and build a modern toilet, and the subterranean water level is too high to build a traditional septic system. These design constraints led KDI and NNDC to investigate a number of decentralised sanitation systems like urine filtering wetlands and dry toilets.
After a number of field trips and design workshops, the community decided to develop a compost toilet system. This decision then informed the design of an elevated toilet structure with compost chambers located below it. Inside each chamber is a compost receptacle that collects human waste and dry materials. This receptacle is then moved to compost bins to mature into usable humanure which NNDC intends to sell to horticulturalists and planting initiatives around the site.
The detailed design of the structure, completed by KDI with technical support from Buro Happold (an engineering firm), boasts wide, steel reinforced concrete footings to ensure a strong and sustainable placement within unstable soils. The super
structure was erected with Interlocking Stabilized Soil Bricks (ISSBs), which not only cut down the construction timeline and expedited the building process, the fabrication of these bricks on-site kept the financial investment within the community. The finishing of the structure was completed using local fabricators and materials. The tiling throughout the building adds a distinct accent among sanitation facilities within Kibera.
The completed sanitation block now boasts three compost toilets, one urinal, and two showers for the use of surrounding residents. While the non-flushing, compost toilet has generated curiosity among the surrounding residents, it has also piqued the curiosity of the Ministries of Environment and Health as potential solutions to the complex water and sanitation challenges facing this area of Kibera. Since the opening of the project, KDI has been working together with the community to establish maintenance and operational procedures that ensure a quality compost product is produced and that the facility remains clean and safe for area residents.
The NNDC Group has spearheaded each incremental development within the site. Having prepared a complete master plan of the site in partnership with KDI, the community’s vision for the next decade includes expansion of current agricultural facilities to include a fish pond and elevated grow beds. This improvement of the farming methods on the site will ensure that all agricultural activities produce organic quality produce. Additions to the multi-purpose hall will provide more classroom space for the existing school’s children and will expand the project’s ability to be used in a variety of ways – perhaps even allowing the school to turn into an open air market during weekends.
Kibera Park demonstrates how a public park, its programs, and its community members can be unique catalysts for the wider community and for economic spin-offs. The project has provided environmental, social and economic benefits for Kibera residents as a place that allows residents to reconnect with nature and escape the stress of city life. This has had a positive impact on visitors’ mental health whilst providing essential water and sanitation facilities.
Kibera Park is one of five Public Space Projects that KDI has realized in Kibera over the past eight years. While each project presents unique challenges, all of the projects are geared towards creating environmental, social and economic impacts that ensure they are owned, operated, and sustained by the residents of Kibera long into the future. Further, with the support of technical experts, the Kibera Public Space Project is raising the standards of design and construction within the informal settlement. KDI’s approach to creating public space through a non-intrusive, community driven design method stands as an example of contextual slum upgrading that produces quality design and sustainable programs.