A Green Community Centre in Nairobi's Oldest Slum
This project aims to demonstrate the benefits of appropriate and more affordable green building materials through an iconic public structure
This is the current aspirational and, we hope, inspirational, design envisaged by us and our partners at the University of Cambridge who made a video of the process and thinking behind the design at cambridge-tv.co.uk/Kenya-Project/
In June 2015, the design was presented to and approved by the members of Mathare 3A's community-based organisations, representatives from the Directorate of Housing, the local authority, academia and local NGOs who all voiced their support for the project.
This video presents the participatory design workshop held with the community in January 2015. Community aspirations for the hall, from both male and female members of different age
groups, were understood and agreed upon (types of uses, aesthetics, linkages to social-
economic activities). The community was also sensitised to the benefits of green building materials and technologies in their neighbourhood. A community skillset inventory was also undertaken.
View over the rooftops of Mathare 3A, Nairobi.
EXPLAIN YOUR IDEA
Mathare slum has very few permanent structures, with most people living in temporary shacks made of wood and corrugated iron. These materials cope only poorly with increasingly adverse weather events such as torrential rains, most recently experienced through El Nino, and high summer temperatures, due to their poor thermal properties. In addition, they present a significant fire hazard.
Introducing alternative building materials into communities is often met by social acceptance issues: concrete and brick are predominantly seen as aspirational. To overcome these barriers, it has been recognised that, rather than building demonstration homes, public structures accessible by the entire community are a much more effective vehicle for introducing alternative building materials.
After conducting an assessment of green and affordable building materials options available in Nairobi, they were rated according to availability, cost, ease and duration of construction, durability, aesthetics, thermal properties and environmental impact.
In our completed design for a 15x30m community centre, made out of gabions filled with local or recycled stone and a floor and roof structure made from bamboo, we have managed to match what the community had imagined with what the complex network of other stakeholders want. The structure consists of replicable units so that, with some training, the residents will be able to learn quickly how to build the hall under the guidance of an onsite engineer.
There are very few places for the majority of youths, kids, the elderly, the disabled and women’s groups to get together, discuss, learn and reimagine their neighbourhood with others who may have the same dreams and ideas as themselves -- to come up with new, creative ways of tackling the issues that matter. Therefore, not only will this community centre introduce alternative materials to the community, it will also function as a safe haven and meeting space and be a source of pride for Mathare.
HOW DOES YOUR IDEA TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE CONTEXT OF URBAN SLUMS AND CLIMATE CHANGE?
The reality of climate change is at the heart of this project. Being forced to settle in precarious areas and in homes made of poor quality materials, slum residents the world over are experiencing the effects of climate change most acutely. Mathare is no exception. While its residents contributed very little to climate change, they are dealing with its effects on a yearly basis.
However, we believe that demonstrating the viability and appropriateness of alternative building technologies which both mitigate against climate change and are more resistant to its increasing impacts, is a strategy with tremendous multiple benefits to both people and planet. Through an iconic public structures such as this, the slum residents can demonstrate to the building sector and policy-makers that new innovative solutions in sustainable building are out there and that business-as-usual thinking is a thing of the past. At the same time, the participatory design of this structure allowed all participants to understand the rich culture that already exists in Mathare deeply enough to design a space that is useful to and reflective of the community's needs. The structure is furthermore highly modular and adaptable to changing community priorities and will make use of both the existing skills within the community as well as locally available resources in the most efficient way. Finally, the women who participated in our focus group commented that this was the first time they had been specifically asked for their input in the design process of a community centre, leading to a much better outcome.
Yes, for two or more years
I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for at least two years
TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF
We are a global group of urban planners, architects, community mobilisers, and members of the Mathare community. We have been working on this project partly as individuals, partly within our organisations consisting of Cambridge University, UN-Habitat and the Rotaract Clubs Nairobi Central and Lille
IS THIS A NEW OR RECENT IDEA FOR YOU OR YOUR ORGANIZATION? HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM WHAT YOU ARE ALREADY DOING?
Through a number of meetings with the community, the idea to improve public space in Mathare 3A first came into being in 2013, while the old community hall was identified as a possible site in early 2014.
While many of our members have worked on public space and community projects before, the level of involvement and time committed to having the design reflect the aspirations of the community as accurately as possible far exceeds anything we have previously done. We believe the result speaks for itself.
HOW IS YOUR IDEA DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SIMILAR INITIATIVES? WHAT ARE YOU DOING DIFFERENTLY? WHAT UNIQUE ADVANTAGES DO YOU HAVE?
Building a community centre is certainly not a novel intervention. The need for quality public space is near universal. What this project tries to do differently, is looking beyond the end goal of providing a functional public space towards utilising the process as well as the structure itself to realize additional benefits.
Starting this project, we were in the fortunate position of being able to take the time to really understand the issues facing the community and see how this structure could be designed to address some of them. Upon finalizing the design, we invited community members, local and national government, NGOs and academia to discuss, at eye level, the design and implementation of the project. We hope that this process alone helped to realign perceptions and bring stakeholders closer together.
Our team is also highly diverse with a wide range of complementary skills originating from a number of disciplines. In addition, our long time working in Nairobi have also allowed us to make strong institutional and personal connections which will be essential for bringing our project to fruition and making it sustainable in the long term.
We always strive towards maintaining a constant feedback loop with the community. After the workshops were completed and the data safely stowed away, we mounted the posters and pictures of the workshop on the walls of the old community hall both as a means to verify what we had done but also to try and create a sense of continuity.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR IDEA?
Our previous experiences with setting up community centres have shown that a sound organizational structure and a thorough financial sustainability plan are essential for the long-term survival of any facility. The building of the centre will only be the first step in a long journey, and many hurdles, such as setting up a transparent and representative community organization to manage the centre, will still have to be overcome. Luckily, we now know some of the pitfalls in working in this environment and we are positive that the final result will be more than worth the struggle.
WHY DO YOU THINK THE PROBLEM YOUR IDEA SOLVES FOR HASN'T BEEN SOLVED YET?
The problem of inadequate housing and lack of quality public space in informal settlements is one of the most complex issues in urban development. They range from lack of access to land, decent work, education to deeper causes of political economy. Our project therefore cannot presume to ‘solve’ any of these issues in one fell swoop, but rather to give an important impetus for change in one particular community which could have unanticipated knock-on effects on how public space is valued and how the question of building materials is approached by communities and policy-makers alike.
HOW HAS YOUR IDEA CHANGED BASED ON FEEDBACK FROM YOUR COMMUNITY?
The process of architectural design can often be taken as a top-down endeavor. However, we have always tried to work against that assumption. Following several months of extensive case study research, a weeklong participatory design session was held in January 2015 (see our video). The activities that took place throughout the week were conducted with different demographic groups, and included six workshop exercises designed to gather different types of feedback to support the design process.
At first, participants indicated their opinions about other community centers from across the world by using happy/sad stickers on large posters. The second exercise elicited feedback on potential risks for the existing and new community hall. A third exercise assessed the existing and desired skills which the community could contribute to constructing and managing the hall. A particularly insightful fourth exercise engaged the different demographic groups in reporting on their daily schedules, indicating when and how they hoped to use the facility. Following this, participants wrote and drew their aspirations for the design of the hall on blank pieces of paper. The final exercise involved working in small groups to visualize the layout of the hall in three dimensions. The groups arranged mock-up walls and furniture inside a basic model of a two-story building.
All this data was eventually analysed and fed into the design and envisioned uses for individual spaces.
All the data gathered during the workshops was eventually analysed and directly fed into the design of the centre.
WHAT WOULD YOU ULTIMATELY LIKE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS IDEA? WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP TO GET THERE?
If our project is successful, we will kick our entire team into high gear to make sure that a clear and realistic timeline for the next steps is agreed upon and any yet outstanding hurdles are addressed.
The first and most immediate achievement on our horizon is to create a safe, iconic and really useable meeting space for everybody to get together, discuss, learn and reimagine their neighbourhood with others who may have the same dreams and ideas as themselves -- to come up with new, creative ways of tackling the issues that matter. Eventually, however, we hope to provide an impetus for a discussion in Nairobi about how we build the city and communities, both physically and figuratively.
How does your idea connect to the broader system of the city where you plan to implement?
The Draft Integrated Urban Development Master Plan for Nairobi (NIUPLAN) calls to ‘strategically distribute necessary social services according to the current and anticipated population growth areas, specifically in Nairobi East’. The City County also plans to upgrade over 60 public spaces across the city. Our project therefore aligns very well with on-going public programmes and could very well be embedded into a wider programmatic framework to redevelop or construct other community centres. Especially the use of appropriate, low-impact building technologies could help introduce these technologies into these neighbourhoods by way of an accessible public good and thus help to strengthen communities through higher quality construction. Discussions with the Nairobi City Council, the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development as well as local universities have already been started to make sure that our project will receive the full institutional support it needs.
This is all of us at the workshop with members of Mathare 3A's CBOs, local and national authority representatives, NGOs and academia where we presented again our methodology, how the data was analysed as well as the final design. During the session we also tried to manage expectations wiht regards to the timescales involved but also received feedback and support from public sector representatives for the continuation of the project as part of the city's on-going effort to improve public spaces.