In the informal settlements of one of Africa’s most impoverished cities, Department of City & Regional Planning (DCRP) students are working to make a difference in the lives of the urban poor. The second collaborative planning studio between the department and the University of Nairobi Department of Urban and Regional Planning took place during the Spring and Summer of 2011. Organized and directed by Associate Professor Jason Corburn, eight DCRP, Architecture, Energy and Resources Group, and Public Health students joined their Kenyan counterparts to work with settlement residents on an integrated upgrading plan. The interdisciplinary team built upon collaborative work that began in 2008.
This year’s studio aimed to develop plans to improve living conditions for over 150,000 slum dwellers in the Mathare Valley informal settlement, a few kilometers from the center of Nairobi. The studio included analyzing existing conditions data and policy processes in Nairobi, workshops with our NGO partners, Muungano Support Trust (MuST) and Slum Dwellers International (SDI) in Berkeley, and over two weeks in Nairobi in May 2011. Berkeley students participated in planning meetings with settlement residents and other stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations, UN-HABITAT, UN Environment Program (UNEP), the World Bank, and local government agencies. The studio team will complete a comprehensive plan in December 2011.
The work within the Mathare Valley comes at a critical moment. More than 65% of Nairobi’s 3.5 million residents live in informal settlements and this number is increasing. In the Mathare Valley slum, residents face the constant threat of eviction, families live on less than $5 dollars per day, electricity is intermittent, and it is common for over 500 people to share one water tap and toilet. Recognizing these intolerable conditions, the Kenyan Government and the World Bank have committed to a policy and financing for major slum improvement programs across the country. And NGOs, particularly MuST, are helping community-led movements advocate and win support for living condition policy reforms.
Salma Mousallem, a studio participant and MCP student noted, “What struck me most was how proactive community residents were in making a change. Already hard pressed for time, they engaged in a lengthy process of community mapping for the project. To me, this showed the resilience of the community.”
In spite of many hardships, the residents of Mathare Valley bring numerous assets to the planning process. Many residents are well educated and have deep expertise in community needs and the complexity of political negotiation. Many women run small businesses, manage families, and participate in community institution building, making their knowledge an asset. The team met many young people in Mathare who were active in sanitation projects, waste recycling, media and art campaigns and technology. Unlike other outsiders, we aimed to make community expertise a central part of our collaborative planning and design process.
Marcy Monroe, an architecture student who participated in the Nairobi studio, noted that the inequalities and injustices that contribute to informal urban settlements like the Mathare Valley are “incapable of being solved by a single profession or individual.”
According to Professor Jason Corburn, “The studios are one aspect of our long-term commitment to working collaboratively with our Kenyan partners. The studios are important for building trust with residents and our NGO partners, and linking research with tangible, short-term improvements. Yet, we are also working collaboratively to change national and local policies that penalize slum dwellers and are supporting a global network of “slum resident planners,” called Slum Dwellers International, in the hope that our students, in some small way, are contributing to global change.”