Ideas about what constitutes public space can shift quite a bit depending on what city you’re standing in. I was reminded of this during a recent trip to Nairobi, where the City Council has committed to creating 60 great public spaces by 2017.

Cynthia leads a workshop in Kibera. Photo: Ulrik Nielsen, Gehl Architects

Over the course of a week, I led a series of placemaking trainings with 40 staff people from seven city council departments, the Kilimanjaro Initiative, UN-Habitat, and several local organizations working on the ground in the Kenyan capital, as part of an ongoing partnership. When talking about expanding public space within the city, I kept bumping up against this assumption from the Nairobi staff  that this meant they had to buy big chunks of land and even clear people out of existing neighborhoods to make room for new parks. The idea that schoolyards and sidewalks, streets, plazas, and fire stations could be meaningful places within the city’s public realm was new to them. There’s a division, for many in Nairobi, between “Public Spaces” and spaces that merely happen to be public.

Reasons for this division aren’t hard to figure out. We worked at two specific sites during the trip, in very different neighborhoods. The first was an athletic field in the Silanga section of Kibera, purportedly the largest informal settlement in Africa. Our project was to re-think the field as a multi-use community destination, but just walking through the surrounding  neighborhood was so eye-opening. Kibera’s buildings are built mostly out of sheets of corrugated metal, and its streets are packed dirt. The main (and only) thoroughfare here, Kibera Road, is a pretty amazing place. It has an intense mix of activity, all right out there on the street: a huge variety of vendors, people getting their hair braided, people cooking, socializing, reading the paper, kids doing their homework. But the infrastructure is terrible. It’s a clear-cut example of how Nairobi has so much public space that people don’t even recognize as public space.

Shops along Kibera Road. Photo: Ulrik Nielsen, Gehl Architects

Another issue in this city is one I’ve written about before, and something that many developing world cities deal with (or, too often, don’t): the reality that public spaces play host to frequent sexual harassment and assault, which can make them fearful places for women. Leaving home after dark to go to a public latrine can be life-threatening for women in Kibera; many people have to use plastic bags, creating some pretty unsanitary conditions. This has led to innovative programs like Pee Poople and Ekotoilets–but while these are clever stopgaps, creating safer, more welcoming public streets would be a critical improvement not just for sanitation and public health, but for the less tangible aspects of quality of life throughout Kibera and neighborhoods all over Nairobi.

Back in the center of the city, our second site was a very formal English garden donated to the city by the Jeevanjee family. I visited the site with several members of the family and the city council who had recently been to New York. They’d seen successful public spaces all over the city, and when we visited the garden, I said ‘Think of this as the Bryant Park of Nairobi!’ The space had been kept very pristine, and they didn’t have an idea of how it could evolve. Once we started talking about it with Bryant Park as a reference point, they got really excited. The idea that this could still be a lovely green place that was also full of activity was something that sunk in very quickly.

“Think of this as the Bryant Park of Nairobi!” Photo: Ulrik Nielsen, Gehl Architects

Promoting the idea that existing spaces could become really wonderful pieces of public life was so important on this trip. The idea that you can do many small things instead of a few big things–that placemaking doesn’t have to be capital-intensive–is critical in a city like Nairobi, where so much economic activity is still informal. Public spaces there have to provide a way for people to earn a living. Vendors, hawkers, performers: these are people whose livelihoods depend on active public spaces. Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper interventions that change things right now are what’s going to raise the quality of life in Nairobi; not big new parks on the edge of town that take years to build.

And the LQC mindset isn’t a stretch for people in Nairobi. Traffic there is utter chaos: stoplights are more of suggestion than a command, there are a bazillion roundabouts that nobody really knows how to drive through, and two-lane roads are regularly packed four-cars wide. At major intersections you see a kind of behavior from motorists that’s more common with pedestrians back in New York, called platooning: cars bunch together and sort of push their way out into the intersection, and that’s how the direction of traffic flow changes! It makes for some hellish commutes, but that platooning behavior exemplifies a willingness to work within the existing constraints of dysfunctional systems to make things happen.

Children play at the Silanga athletic field next to a sign advertising coming infrastructural improvement. Photo: Ulrik Nielsen, Gehl Architects

At one point, I showed a slideshow of possible examples for how the athletic field in Silanga could be made into a more vibrant hub for the community, and the group had already come up with a lot of the same ideas on their own. It’s one thing to suggest to people what they could do; it’s an entirely different thing to show them, ‘This is what they did in a slum in Rio; this what they did in a slum in Colombia, where the neighborhood used to be completely run by gangs,’ and to have them see that what they’ve envisioned is totally possible. When a few dedicated people take ownership of a place and band together to push through existing misconceptions about what public space “should” look like and how it can function for the people that want to use it–that’s where placemaking starts.

Work on the two pilot sites will continue, spearheaded by the Nairobi City Council and supported by UN-Habitat (whose international headquarters are located in the nearby Girgiri neighborhood) with PPS providing technical support.  Two down, 58 more to go!