What is Kounkuey Design Initiative?

What is  Kounkuey Design Initiative?

Building Productive Public Spaces with Communities

By NDW Team on 4th November 2015


Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) is an innovative international partnership specializing in the practices of architecture, landscape architecture, engineering and urban planning to empower residents from impoverished communities to address and improve the major physical, economic and social challenges they face. KDI works in several different areas and have offices both in Los Angeles and in Nairobi, where the Nairobi office mainly focuses on the villages in Kibera. KDI uses their knowledge of design to build what they call Productive Public Spaces, which are low-cost, high impact environments that the members of the community can enjoy.

Map of the sites in Kibera where KDI has built Productive Public Spaces.

The idea behind KDI and the Kibera Public Space Project began to take shape in 2006. The project is set out to tackle the complex issues and in 2007 the work of building public spaces started. KDI works in several different areas and have offices both in Los Angeles and in Nairobi. The office in Nairobi mainly focuses on the villages in Kibera, where it has developed several solutions that aim to improve the life conditions for people living in these areas.

Kibera is the largest informal settlement in Nairobi and is situated only four kilometers from downtown Nairobi. It is infamous for its scale, history and degraded conditions. Kibera has no formal trash collection system and limited sanitation facilities. Due to poverty and unemployment the crime rates are high. The houses are densely built which leaves little open spaces for people to gather and children to play.

When starting out a project KDI always begins with asking the residents about their ideas and thoughts about what is needed in the neighborhood. By building these spaces in collaboration with the communities KDI builds on the residents ideas and improves them with their technical knowledge.

“What normally happens is that we have a community-driven process with workshops. They talk about what they want to do, how they want to do it, and they come up with the ideas for the subjects they want to build”, explains Ibrahim Maina, Program Coordinator at KDI.

KDI working together with residents during the design phase at the Anwa Project

By using this approach when building of the Productive Public Space KDI manages to include the residents throughout the process. This means that when the project is finished the residents will know how the community benefits from the space and will also be more inclined to maintain it. KDI has been recognized for their innovative approach to poverty alleviation by notable institutions such as UN-Habitat, The Rockefeller Foundation, The California Endowment, Ashoka Changemakers, American Express, Annenberg Alchemy, Smithsonian Institute, and Echoing Green.

“When you approach a community you need to know the community. We believe that context appropriate social investment is the key totransforming Kibera and other impoverished communities. By using site specific engagement processes we ensure that solutions address the needs of the community they serve thereby creating higher chances for sustainability”, says Tatu Gatere, Country Director of KDI.

A Productive Public Space is a community-driven, sustainable urban system that functions collectively to mitigate environmental hazards, provide public space amenities, build social networks, and develop small business enterprise. Though the specific elements of each site and the priority needs of each community will vary. Some of the products that the KDI has developed for the communities in Kibera are community parks, social halls, greenhouses, water kiosks and sanitation spaces. Apart from building Productive Public Spaces KDI also work on settlement scale issues through projects on water and sanitation and urban flooding.

KPSP05 and the finished result of the sanitation block.

KDI Currently has 7 projects completed in Kibera with the 8th currently in the community engagement and design phase. The current project that KDI is working on is a primary school in the Lindi Village in Kibera. The Public Space Projects are located in a number of villages across Kibera. One of the completed works is KPSP05 which is located in the southwest part of Kibera. During the work at this site KDI partnered with youth group EMCOF to develop a sanitation block. The location of this village made it impossible to connect to municipal sewer lines which resulted in an alternative solution where a natural stream was utilized for showers and toilets, and a compost system to clean toilet waste.

Working in such an intense and high-pressure environment inevitably has its many challenges. Maintaining clear and transparent communication channels with all project partners is critical. Though the projects often take longer because of the participative approach, and though there are many ups and downs, collaborative and engaged design is the only way to get things done. Some of the main challenges that KDI is facing is the limited availability of public spaces and the challenge of securing public spaces due to land grabbing. Another major challenge is the substandard construction and infrastructure in the area which leads to damage during poor weather conditions.

“There are many challenges but we cannot run away from challenges”,
concludes Ibrahim Maina, Program Coordinator at KDI.


To learn more about what Kounkuey Design Initiative is, and their Public Space Projects please visit their website www.kounkuey.org.

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