Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lamu. Kenya

To finish up my time in Kenya, I decided to hit the coast. Lamu is old Swahili town in eastern Kenya, and with the exception of Zanzibar, is the most well preserved Swahili culture on the eastern coast of Africa. In fact, in 2001, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The place is amazing. The people are so friendly. Everyone on the street says “jambo” (hello) or “karibu” (welcome). The crazy thing is that I felt like I have been here. The similarities in the built space to Koliwada in Dharavi (Mumbai) is extraordinary. The narrow alley ways. The open doors. The public walkways that go under people homes, the cool breeze and constant shade. It may not be much of a coincidence, as both of these very old communities originally very much depended on fishing, and there has been quite an influence from India all over East Africa.

And the architecture is rich. The old houses have extraordinary friezes and carved decorations in many of the rooms, and the exterior doors are often handsomely carved. But, changes are happening, and it, of course, reveals a lot of layers and complexities.

In one of my earlier posts, I was criticizing a preservation project in Shanghai, which basically renovated old Shikumen housing and turned into to upscale shops and eateries, while displacing everyone that lived there. Here, there is a similar challenge, although it is more a natural process of urban renewal. It can be very expensive to renovate a house here, sometimes as much as three times the cost of building a new one on the periphery. Additionally, because some of the houses are so old, they may have 10-15 owners, usually in the same family. Consequently, many Swahilis have sold their homes to wealthy Europeans who will then renovate them beautifully. Unfortunately, many of these will not live here, and only visit for a couple of weeks a year. I met one shop owner who was lamenting some of the displacement and shifts taking place, as there were fewer and fewer kids in the alleys playing and filling voids between buildings with shouts of joy. While there are often funds to help renovate public buildings, it is rare to find funding to help in assist renovating private homes. In some ways, people are a victim to the historic significance and success of the place, which is certainly happening in almost every city.

So, while many houses are actually getting into better shape, some of the original inhabitants aren’t around. Another thing I noticed is that the new and renovated houses are getting to be quite large. Most of the houses used to be one story with maybe a kitchen on top (to prevent fires from spreading on the floor below). People used to be able to move from roof to roof. However, these new homes are rising up to four and five stories, dominating the houses below. They actually reminded me of our McMansion problem in the US, especially in Atlanta, where people were tearing down small homes, and building massive new ones, dwarfing the older ones in the vicinity.

Part of the challenge within all of this is the need to have order and control. And this is much more critical in historically significant areas where preservation is of a main concern. I was speaking with an inspector in the conservation department here, and he was saying that Kenyans don’t really have much interest in preservation. To them, this is an old way of life and does not necessarily represent the advancement and aspirations of the people themselves. They want to be building with what is new and modern, not that which is old and original. Yet, on the flip side, those who do come from the developed world, and have tired from all things modern, seem to fall in love with this place, its buildings, and its throwback to the past.

For preservation reasons, one of the things that has to be controlled is the use of materials. Amazingly, corrugated iron is not permitted to be used here, even though there is still plenty of it. Most of the buildings are made from coral. Locals cut the blocks by hand (as it is much softer than most rock). The wood for supporting the floors and such in mahogany and mangrove. The structure is very similar to that used in Tibet. But, at what expense does keeping the town visually and historically significant, if it creates a hardship on the people living in the structures? Building a corrugated iron roof may actually be cheaper than the thatched coconut leaf roofs that are now so much in vogue and are more historically accurate. At the very least, people would rather have a newer, functional and more technically advanced material over their heads. On the flip side, the increased tourism certainly brings in lots of money and income to people living here, so they may actually be better off. But, I would that is small minority of the population. To change and then not to change..


I am privelaged to be living next to the slum. We hire a lot of them and most of them have had access into our homes, and they know we are not really rich. Even them, if they had a better job, they would find a better place to live. But now, their jobs are casual, small, unpredictable. They see a lot of struggle living here as well.”

Priscilla lives in a gated estate right next to Kibera (the largest slum in the Nairobi) and was doing a lot of work on her house. She is one of many people I have met here in Nairobi who either work or live with walls around their buildings. In fact, Nairobi is a gated city. In fact, much of the developing world is. If you are upper class, middle class, or even lower middle class, living in a city, you most likely have a wall around your home and a security guard protecting it. However, many of these seem to be different from some of those now taking firm hold in the US, and consequently much of the rest of the world, which are based more on class segregation and not on real issues of security. In the rural mountains of North Carolina where I am from, new gated communities are developing all over the place, often in the middle of nowhere.

People here describe the walls as visual deterrents, but not social ones. They still work actively to know and be involved with their neighbors and surrounding community. This negotiation of the public and private is one of the key notions in understanding and designing better communities. The notion of a semipermeable wall is also manifested physically. Dotted along the outskirts of Priscilla’s community, people have set up stores that open onto the main street. These spaces of transition are a connection for people on the outside of the walls with those on the inside, as they are mutually linked to each other.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Land. Kenya

60% of Nairobi lives in slums, but some housing remains empty

Ultimately, much of these housing challenges are about land. In fact, the issue of land has continued to be a divisive issue, and was one of the main reasons that such extensive violence broke out after the elections. After independence, the redistribution of land, and the process by which it took place left deep divisions among different tribes, as preference was given to those who had connections, regardless of who had owned the land before the Europeans claimed it as their own. And of course, these challenges to land continue today, and in fact is very indicative of the political problems of corruption and favoritism that keep the rich and powerful just that.

This crazy world introduced itself to instantly as we piled out of the Matatu on valley road as we headed to Kibera for the first time. Looming over the entrance to Kibera were sprawling apartment blocks. The windows were busted out, grass over grown, and completely fenced off. I asked my companion what the story was. He said a private developer had acquired the land illegally, went ahead and built the project (supposedly for residents of Kibera). But, people were never allowed to move it, and now six years later, it still stands empty while right NEXT DOOR 600,000 people live in quite shocking conditions.

So much is always talked about the poor illegally staking to claim to land, but here, it seems that the wealthy may be even more blatantly illegally acquire land than the poor do.

Professional Understanding

During one of our initial conversations here, an architect described an interesting evolution. Originally, architects designed buildings for gods, then it was governments, and now generally, it is for rich people. The question remains, what is next in that evolution? To me, it is obvious, regular people, especially poor ones. I see some serious glimmers of such a shift taking place in the US, but to what extent it continues to happen remains to be seen. Given the state of the built environment around the world, especially in terms of the dwelling unit, it is amazing more architects aren’t involved in lowest sectors of housing. Well, I guess plenty have been historically, but many of the more famous architects are better known for their failures than successes in these realms. Many people here seem to think that informal settlements and slums are not an architectural problem, so why should they waste their time working in such environments? While it may be true that such settlements will not be solved through architecture, architects are absolutely essential in the process. Or, at least, architects who better understand the realities of such communities. But, it is a lot to ask architects to get to know intimately each community they will be working with. There is not much money in this work. I am fortunate, because I can choose to work where there is so little money, but many architects don’t have that choice. It often is a choose between doing good and paying the bills. And there is burnout.

The rewards of being deeply involved in the community processes are tremendous, but the challenges and fallout can be just as great. One of the lessons that is being reinforced here is that the more deeply you immerse yourself here in the community issues, challenges, and organizing, the longer the process will take. While the end result may be good, its impact may be limited due to the extensive amount of energy focused on the community and social issues. And this can be very tiring and difficult for architects to be continually engaged.

The group Architecture for Humanity has been really successful because it has been able to link architects from around the world to projects that really need technical assistance and the skills of architects. Often they are able to link up on the ground NGO’s and communities, where the bulk of the community work has taken place, and architects can focus on solving the problems at hand. I had breakfast with Cameron Sinclair the other day here in Nairobi (couldn’t catch him in San Fran) and he was showing the finalists for an international design competition for a youth center in a slum here. (I, along with some fellow students, entered this same competition, except our site was in Nepal.) Each of these designs were done where the designers live, far away from the realities of the projects, digging up as much research as they could on the web, etc. At first, I was very critical of this process, wondering how in the world we could effectively design for a community we had never even visited and basically knew nothing about? But, there is also a certain level of creativity and freedom which takes place in an unencumbered design environment. On the flip side, dealing with the on the ground realities of social, political, and economic challenges can quickly suck all the creativity and freedom out of the most seasoned designers. It’s easy to talk about the necessity for architecture to really challenge deeper issues, and there are plenty of examples that do, but it is tough. And it is really messy. Yet, when designs are created in absolute vacuums, their results can be disastrous and certainly much messier.

There are many projects now that AFH is involved in and most of them are linking architects from the developed world to projects in the developing world. They are working on numerous soccer fields all over Africa, which will be rolled out FIFA as part of the 2010 World Cup. Another really fantastic project is a school in Rwanda. Once designs are chosen or get to a certain point, the architects will come to the site and be more engaged. But, there is still an inherently limited approach and involvement. And the projects are so appealing because the program involves buildings that will serve to address deep social issues. Having a soccer pitch that will have a community center, a school, a health clinic, and technology center all within its vicinity is fantastic. They might be beautiful, environmentally sustainable, and affordable. But, how do you ensure that the community will have true ownership of the design, maintenance, and fulfillment of such facilities. Is this a truly sustainable practice? Can the design process be done so that the outside help can eventually be irrelevant?

I think relevancy is particularly important to architects. Architects are typically known for being obsessive about details and have strict ownership and control over all aspects of their designs. I think we do a good job of ensuring our job security by making sure we are always relevant. We are the problem solvers, and we love to feel relevant. I know I do. But one of the issues some architects here are struggling with is the need for outside designers, NGO’s, and professionals to eventually become in irrelevant in such communities. In essence, how do you release this capacity to the community? And is this really necessary? I mean, for the longest time, architects were completely irrelevant to just about everyone, as people have always found ways to provide housing for themselves. Of course, this isn’t necessarily about architecture, and it is an issue people all over the world struggle with, but I find it wonderful that an architect here is not only asking that question, but truly searching for an answer.

In Kambimoto, the process has been messy, time consuming, and grueling. Even so, the lessons learned and opportunities achieved have been deep and fundamental. Yet, it is still not truly a sustainable project, but it is pretty darn close. Unfortunately, the intensity of the process necessitates big changes in small areas. Meaning, it make take 5 years to upgrade 100 families to quality housing the right way. But, in Nairobi, 60% of the population (5 million people) are living in slums. It will not happen over night, and needs to take place incrementally, as the professionals slowly relinquish control to the community. And that is what makes incremental housing so essential….

Bio Gas

Bathrooms, showers, community space and sustainable energy

One of the more exciting and interesting things I saw was a biogas project that a community was building with the assistance of the Pamoja Trust. As part of the eventual upgrading process of a small informal settlement of 30 families, they decided to build a common facility that would house all the bathrooms and showering facilities, a community space, and a tank to collect the human waste, and then catch the methane. Eventually, the methane will be piped to the houses to be used for cooking and heating hot water. It is pretty sweet. And it is a visually significant object, and has generated much interest from the surrounding community. In many ways, it is the start of an incremental process of upgrading the entire community, starting with the bathrooms. It is common start, and ties all the interests of the community together.


Control over Future Growth

Homogeneity: same or different?

While the Kambimoto project is extraordinary in the depth, comprehensive nature, executive, and community based approach, one criticism I have is that all the additions are carefully controlled and regulated, and are all the same. One the surface, one could argue that, while it is incremental, it will still end up producing the same, homogenous housing across the entire community. While I certainly spend enough energy railing against homogeneity, in a weird way, this could be a good thing. Communities need diversity, but one of the shortcomings of some earlier projects I visited was the open freedom for people to sell their land, tear their home down, or build newer and bigger ones. In this case, the market takes on a life of its own and the homes end up further stratifying individual communities. When Pamoja Trust was doing the assessment of the Kambimoto community, one of the biggest challenges was striking a cord between renters and structure owners (some of whom owned multiple structures). It is a testament to the success of the focus on the community development that everyone was able to agree on getting the same size plot and initially the same size house. So, in some ways, this homogeneity is a great testament to the strength and cohesive nature of the community. In other ways, it also represents a top down approach that is unable to give people full control over their spaces and homes.

But, it is a very tough issue. How important is it for people to be able to build how they want to, and when does the architect relinquish that control, and what are the consequences of it?

The design team was deliberate in not relinquishing control over how the houses were added onto. Each one of them would be built up in the exact same way, the only thing differing was the timing. The architect described the importance of keeping the material and aesthetic language consistent and different from the shanties that stood on the site before and still surrounded all the new houses. These new houses were very symbolic in their upgrading status. If there were no controls, the fear is that people would just throw up rudimentary additions that would first and foremost be unsightly, and eventually could be unsafe. This, however, could be indicative of the fact that there is a bit too much handleading, while not allowing the community enough design freedom and individualism.


Precast on site using local labor

Pamoja Trust is part of a group called Slum Dwellers International (SDI), which was actually started through the support of SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resources) in Mumbai, India. SPARC was one of the collaborators with Urban Typhoon workshop in Dharavi that I attended. SDI is established in a number of Africa countries, and uses information exchange to better support poorer community groups in urban areas to improve their living conditions. In the Kambimoto project, Pamoja Trust used some technology developed for slum upgrading in India. Using small, precast pieces of concrete, the technology not only makes a sturdy house, but is also something that can be done by local community members. This is just one small example of the benefits of such information exchanges.

The benefit of this is that community members are learning skills throughout the process, as well as earning money. The current construction foreman was low skilled at the beginning and did not originally show much promise. This is certainly one of the most difficult components to actually get right, and continue to invest in. While this is an intention of many groups, rare is it to find those that are actually doing it well.

Pamoja Trust: Kambimoto

'Design Dreaming' Exercises

Through a couple of contacts, I was able to come to know Pamoja Trust, who have been doing some really great work in a number of the slums and informal settlements around Nairobi. They have been working diligently, helping communities better understand their own dynamics, initiating savings schemes, securing tenure, and eventually, at the end of all that, building new housing where people were previously living in shacks made of whatever metal they could get their hands on. They work in collaboration with a local community group called Muungano wa Wanavijiji, and some local architects. One architect, in particular has been working almost exclusively for them and has been especially generous with his time. Much of my reflections here are based on conversations with him.

A process of intensive and inclusive community building

Overall, the approach of Pamoja Trust is very methodical and multi-pronged, digging deep into social challenges, but using the physical manifestation of a home to seek much larger change. One project where they have done this is Kambimoto, a slum upgrading program in Huruma, just outside of Nairobi. The actual building of the homes did not start until after multiple years of intensive community building, organizing, and preparing.

The project itself will be about 70 units of new housing built on the same amount of land that the community previously occupied.

Before, during, and after

They are building the project in phases, and have only completed 34 units so far. Consequently, the each phase of the project can currently be seen. Each unit has a footprint of about 215 SF (14x14). This was to be able to fit all families on the land while, also having some open space and pathways that would support upgrading infrastructure. One floor was built for each family, and it was designed to grow vertically, as families would add another floor when it was necessary and/or feasible. The stairs up to the eventual third floor were already built as a reminder to people that ,”their houses are not finished.”

Houses designed to be expanded vertically

Monday, May 19, 2008


After spending some time in slums in India and Bangladesh, this one definitely was hard to swallow. Its reality is harsh. A strange site greeted us upon entering. The City was upgrading one of the main entry points into Kibera. Good, I thought. However, as we actually entered the slum, the challenges of upgrading became clearly obvious. A large bulldozer was sitting on the side overlooking a number of already demolished structures. In order the make the road work it has to widened. And in order to be widened in a place as dense as Kibera, structures have to be demolished. And since it is a main thoroughfare, just about every one of these structures is income producing. I asked my friend about compensation, or something. He said, “Tough luck.” As we continued down the path, all the structures along the road had a big red X on it. Either you take down your structure or we’ll do it for you.

But, a road is good, right? Maybe. Goods seem to make it through there pretty well, although the occasional vehicle does have a time fighting mud, people, and animals. But, maybe it could enhance economic activities, further increasing people’s earning capacity. But, a little later I thought about. Since they have all the road torn up, why aren’t they adding any infrastructure such as water and waste lines? My friend said that they can just focus on one thing at a time. And there is Kibera, continually talked about improving, with small scale changes happening, big projects and dreams never taking off, while the scale and reality of the settlement overwhelms everything around it. Yet, people exist. They live. They strive. They survive. They smile. They work. They dream. They watch futbol. They get by.

Recycled commerce

The tracks around which Kibera was built

Local grocer

Much of the people living in Kibera are tenants. When you look at an aerial view, you see a lot of long roofs. Usually under one of these roofs is four or five rooms, which families rent out individually. The crazy thing is that there are many wealthy people and connected people that own these structures, and make a lot of money off the people living there. It is not just housing, but in the services as well. A report on Kibera published by COHRE said that informal residents pay between three and thirty times more for water than the rest of the city!

One of the community members working on the public space project showed me his house. It was a 10 x 10 foot space with two couches, a table, and a curtain shielding the bedroom. He had just recently had a baby, so his mother and sister were there with him. Five of them in such a small space. He pays about $25 a month in rent, but said he had a good landlord.

Low rise, high density

The thing that is somewhat different from other slums is that Kibera is basically all one story structures. Most of the homes are mud wattle and daub with small poles to support the corrugated roof structure. Since most of the people are renters and the homes are not built with enough structure to support vertical expansion, there is little opportunity for growth and additions of any homes there.

Kibera Public Space Project

Laying out a future pedestrian bridge

A future reclaimed public space

Composting barrels turning food scraps into income

One of the projects I was able to team up with is the Kounkouey Design Initiative (KDI) working in a large slum called Kibera, one of the largest in East Africa. The particular project is called Kibera Public Space Project and is a joint initiative started through some graduate students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the University of Nairobi, in conjunction with the community of Soweto in Kibera. Here in Nairobi, the project is supported on the ground by Eco-Build Africa, a great little office doing housing, research, and projects focused on sustainability. The first step of the project is to develop a public space at the lower end of the settlement. As part of this project, they are developing some composting bins, with hopes soon that they will be able to sell the resulting mix as fertilizer as a starting point that will generate independent income for the community. This is very viable considering how expensive the cost of fertilizer has become as a result of post election violence.

While it is just a public space project, the goals and potential extend far beyond any particular space. There is a creek that runs through this particular part of Kibera. And it is the repository for massive amounts of trash, sewage, and everything in between. It all empties out at the bottom into something called Nairobi Lake. Unfortunately, there is not a lake there anymore. It has filled up with both sediment and trash. An extraordinary amount of trash, in fact, 50% of the ground is trash in this area. While the ultimate goals of the KDI are very promising and necessary, linking in many larger systematic issues, especially from an economically sustainable point of view, the on the ground reality poses many challenges. As with anything generating change, challenging people’s perceptions and ways of doing things is never easy. Each time we walked pass the creek, someone else was throwing in all kinds of food scraps or trash. If done effectively, all of that food scrap could eventually be turned into money. Right now, the main challenge is getting the project started again after the post election crisis.

As with such projects, even small changes in cost can have big impacts. There has been much in the news in the recent weeks about the global food crisis. It is no joke and it is not just food. And here in Kenya, it is exacerbated by post election crisis. The plastic barrels that they were using for compost 6 months ago have quadrupled in price. Rice alone has increased 200-300%. And it is not just rice, it is just about every good here. And for Kenyans who don’t make much money, this is tough. I will leave solving this problem to the experts. Seems like the World Bank has a plan. There seems to be a lot of talk about how this could be an opportunity for Africa to increase its crop yields, etc. We’ll see.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Karail Bustee. Dhaka.

The entire settlement is resistance. It is on someone else’s land. Morphologically, it couldn’t be any more different than the surrounding wealthy estates of Gulshan and Banani. The water bounds is. The inhabitants have set up full formal transportation networks of boats to ferry people to and from their jobs. People walk off the boats, indistinguishable from any other class. The boat drivers even sing. One day, Venice. Maybe….

But, is the community and way of life really incremental? Not really, I wonder why people haven’t started to go vertical there. I guess it is really an issue of access to money and materials, and the ability of bamboo to not be able to. It can’t grow any more. That is a problem. Are their legal issues that are limiting the nature of its growth? Dharavi kept growing to a certain extent. But, it can’t anymore. But, within Karail are many spaces of resistance. It is pretty clearly planned, does that make it a space of resistance? Where does it gets it water and electricity from? The boats scrape the water pipes floating in the water. The pipes tap into the main lines in Banani. Someone is controlling it. Electricity is strung over the water, again tapped into the main line. It is all informal, or is it? Someone is regularizing and controlling it. Regardless, is informal inherently resistant?

An architect at a local university lives in this ‘slum’, out of choice. He has control over his environment, pays very little rent, and has easy access to cheap goods. His place is interesting. He rents a room from a family right on the edge of the water. I don’t know if I would necessarily say that the addition to his house is really different or an alternative. Many people rent out rooms all over the place. I guess I am drawn to it because it is formally different and has been changed. But, the space outside of it, if we think of outdoor rooms being added on, challenge the typical existence of the public realm, and the perception of it from outsiders. He is converting his space to vibrant, healthy, beautiful open space. He has planted seeds all along the shores, and imagine, beautiful, healthy plants and wildflowers currently cluttered with refuse. And he is doing it with his neighbors. They are excited and take care of it. So, they are doing what is normally considered something poor people or people in slums wouldn’t do. And they are specifically challenging the overall nature of the settlement.

This brings up this great paradox. While the inside of most people’s homes are very well taken of, most of what is around them, such as alleyways and public space is not at all respected or taken care of. My architect friend says that people don’t respect their surroundings because they don’t own the land and, consequently, don’t have security of tenure. This is a very important point, but how can the trash and human waste not be significant to people? It is the agglomeration of the all the systems that are not set up to handle so many people and there are very visible and dangerous implications of that. Where does all the trash go? Where does the waste water go? These are the big issues. Yet, people are able to figure out how to get electricity, water, cable, even internet, so why can’t they figure out how to get all that other stuff out? I am not saying that it is necessarily their responsibility. All the new stuff won’t necessarily make you healthier (aside from water, but it does increase the quality of your life, or does it if the consequences are that bad?