COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Communities in Nairobi Compete to Contribute to Public Space

Yumika (Miki) Takeshita
May 1, 2020
May 1, 2020

Public spaces have long been an afterthought in the informal settlements of African cities, where public spaces are prone to land grabbing and authorities have other socioeconomic challenges to deal with. This pervasive lack of clean and maintained public spaces, coupled with densely populated informal settlements, inadequate sanitation, little waste management, and limited access to healthcare have led to hazardous health conditions, now magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, for many years, communities in Nairobi, Kenya, continue to show their resilience in the face of these conditions. They are banding together to reclaim the public spaces in their communities using placemaking methods that are light, quick, and cheap to provide a clean and safe environment for residents to enjoy. 

What better way to generate new ideas, build community, and encourage civic engagement than a little friendly competition? The Changing Faces Competition (CFC) in Nairobi, organized by the Public Space Network (PSN), engaged 114 community groups from all over the city, mostly from low-income neighborhoods, to transform neglected spaces into vibrant, safe, and healthy community places. 

Miki Takeshita, a Transportation Intern here at Project for Public Spaces, talked to Anna Tehlova, co-founder of the Public Space Network and coordinator of the Competition, and Evans Otieno, a youth leader who has been involved with transformative placemaking in his community of Dandora since 2015. Evans has participated in every edition of the Changing Faces Competition.

Komb Green, one of the spaces transformed by the Changing Faces Competition in the Korogocho neighborhood of Niarobi. Photo courtesy of Public Space Network.

Miki Takeshita: First, please tell me a little about yourself and what gets you excited about cities.

Anna Tehlova: I’m Anna Tehlova and my background is in urban studies. My passion for urban issues in the context of Africa, which is currently the least urbanized but fastest urbanizing region in the world, led me to become the co-founder of the Public Space Network, a nonprofit association in Nairobi that brings together a diverse range of stakeholders around community-driven public space management. 

Facing such rapid population growth and so many Nairobians living under the poverty line in informal settlements, public authorities have other urgent issues to pay attention to than ensuring access to quality public spaces to all their citizens. However, quality public spaces have a demonstrated impact on the quality of people’s lives in terms of health and safety, as well as access to an improved economy and environment. 

Before and after photos of the Komb Green Solutions project in Nairobi's Korogocho neighborhood, overall winner of the 2018-19 Changing Faces Competition. Photo courtesy of Public Space Network.

This is why I decided to join and support the nascent community efforts to create a more livable urban environment, especially in the lower-income neighborhoods. In addition to having very limited public resources, these communities face an urgent need for creative solutions to ensure sustainable urban development and good living standards for their growing urban population.

Evans Otieno: My name is Evans Otieno and I’m a community mobilizer. I’ve been a member of the Dandora Transformation League since 2015 and have participated in all of the Changing Faces Competitions. What excites me about cities is seeing clean, green, and safe spaces.

Miki. Tell us about the Changing Faces Competition. How did the idea for it come about, and why did you choose to use a “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach? 

Anna: The idea for the Changing Faces Competition came from the two founders of the Dandora Transformation League (DTL), a community-based organization in Dandora, a low-income community in Nairobi. DTL is the founding member group of PSN and an umbrella organization for youth groups that transform and maintain open spaces in the neighborhood, commonly known as courtyards. After one of the youth groups, called Mustard Seeds, initiated the transformation of a site that used to be covered with garbage into a community garden and playground in 2013, Charles and Robinson, DTL's CEO and Chairman respectively, wanted to engage other youth groups in transforming their own spaces and provide clean and green spaces for the community. 

Before and after photos of the Mustard Seeds project in Nairobi's Dandora neighborhood, winner of a Special Achievement award in the 2018-19 Changing Faces Competition. Photo courtesy of Public Space Network.

They came up with the idea of a competition as a fun way to mobilize the youth groups in the neighborhood around light, quick, and cheap public space transformations and to foster lasting community ownership of public spaces. The participating teams also identified income-generating activities related to the maintenance of the space to ensure the long-term maintenance of the space and generate income for unemployed youth. For example, some groups have organized waste collection and clean-up in exchange for small regular contributions from the residents living around the transformed spaces (around $1 USD per month per household), while others have created multifunctional spaces that serve as playgrounds during the day and paid parking at night ($2 USD per car, per night).

After 3 successful competitions in the Dandora neighborhood from 2014 to 2017, mobilizing over 3,000 youths to transform 120 spaces, PSN took the lead in scaling up the initiative to the whole city, leveraging its citywide network of members and partners. In the 2018-19 Changing Faces Competition, 114 community groups across Nairobi transformed 114 spaces into inclusive community places through placemaking. 

Miki: What were the challenges that you faced when growing the competition from a local to a citywide scale? 

Anna: The biggest challenge has been to secure funding. We had so many ideas about how we could use the citywide Changing Faces Competition as a massive awareness-raising campaign, organizing parallel sports and cultural events such as soccer tournaments for participating teams. But such a big event requires a big budget to cover coordination and marketing. Even though a few companies were interested in sponsoring the event, the private sector mostly wanted to give in-kind donations, such as the materials for a public space transformation. We eventually decided to go ahead with a smaller budget, relying mostly on volunteers and a communication strategy based on social media and word of mouth. 

Before and after photos of the Akili Ni Ngatu project in Nairobi's Dandora neighborhood, winner of the Most Innovative Transformation award in the 2018-19 Changing Faces Competition. Photo courtesy of Public Space Network.

The key to successfully implementing the event was the community champions. We recruited 35 young community activists, who were the point people in their respective areas, responsible for engaging local public authorities, and for recruiting, mentoring, and supervising the teams. It was an intense couple of months for the coordination team, which was mostly made up of volunteers, but the initiative was successful and proved that the lighter, quicker, and cheaper public space transformations can have an enormous impact. 

Miki: What were some lessons that you learned from this competition?

Anna: As the competition's coordinator, I learned that fundraising does not need to be the number one priority to ensure success. If I were to do it again, I would invest more time in training the participating teams on lighter, quicker, cheaper methods of placemaking, rather than fundraising. 

Evans: I think it demonstrated that competition is the best tool to mobilize the community. When we compete, new ideas are created.

Miki: Have you observed changes within your community as a result of this placemaking effort? How do you plan on keeping the momentum going? 

Evans: Yes, I've seen a lot of changes in the community. Children now have spaces to play, and we have parks in the community that we didn't have before. We’re continuing to mobilize youth to take ownership of public spaces and transform them, and to maintain the ones we have already transformed.

Miki: Do you have plans for the competition's long-term sustainability?

Anna: The competition is a mobilization tool and the transformations won't end with the end of the competition. The long-term sustainability of the space transformations relies mostly on community groups taking ownership for their spaces and being aware how they can play an active role. We are happy to observe that many groups who took part have been inspired to keep going.

Before and after photos of the Believers Court project in Nairobi's Dandora neighborhood, winner of the Best Child-Friendly Space award in the 2018-19 Changing Faces Competition. Photo courtesy of Public Space Network.

We also developed the Placemaking Toolkit: Guide to a Community-driven, Low-Cost Public Space Transformation to empower community groups to transform their spaces—inside or outside of the competition framework. The aim of this toolkit has been to share our experience with anybody who wants to replicate our approach, whether it is in Nairobi, Kenya, or anywhere else. 

Miki: What's your vision for Nairobi and its public spaces?

Anna: Through my work with the Public Space Network, I realized that community groups are the key actors in reclaiming and transforming their public spaces. My wish is for more community groups to continue joining the placemaking movement that we have aimed to initiate with the Network, and to take an active role in transforming their small-scale public open spaces from dirty spaces filled with garbage into community places, like playgrounds and parks. To maximize the impact of the community-driven public space transformation, I hope that public authorities and the private sector will support these communities more actively with the resources they need even for creative, low-cost transformations.

Evans: My vision for Nairobi is to transform each and every public space into a clean, green, vibrant, and safe place for the community.

Miki: Do you have any advice for people who might be looking into organizing their own competition or starting their own group to reclaim public spaces in their community?

Evans: Be passionate, focused, and work as a team. Always involve the community. Start by doing what's possible, follow by doing what’s necessary, and before you know it, you will be doing the impossible.

Anna: For people who want to start their own competition: think carefully about how you use your resources. Rather than organizing a glamorous event, ensure that the participating teams have all the tools and knowledge they need to successfully transform and maintain their spaces beyond the competition. The mentorship of the participating teams is the key to success and sustainability. 

Before and after photos of the Pirates project in Nairobi's Mathare neighborhood, winner of the Best Newcomer award in the 2018-19 Changing Faces Competition. Photo courtesy of Public Space Network.

For those who want to start their own public space transformation: make sure to involve your community in the transformation process to avoid conflicts and to meet the needs and wishes of the community. Organize a meeting, seek ideas, and let everybody participate!  

Miki: Do you have any final words for our readers?

Anna: I want to recognize the hard work of all the community champions who mobilized teams during the Nairobi-wide Changing Faces Competition. Especially in the neighborhoods where such a community-driven approach to public space transformation is completely new, it's challenging in the beginning to ensure public authorities and the whole community supports the transformations, but those that were not afraid of challenges proved that the hard work is worth it. 

I want to give a shoutout especially to Nashon Pambo Kitegi from Kibra, as well as Samuel Omare and Samuel Odamo from Kayole, who introduced the concept of community-driven public space transformation to their neighborhoods and who continue championing this cause beyond the competition. I’d also like to say thanks to Charles Gachanga, CEO of Dandora Transformation League, and Evans Otieno, an executive team member of Dandora Transformation League, who managed to completely change the face of the Dandora neighborhood and mentor the new placemaking champions from other parts of the city. 

Evans: I want to give a shoutout to all the public space lovers and environmentalists out there.

To learn more about Nairobi’s Public Space Network, visit publicspacenetwork.org or contact them directly at partners@publicspacenetwork.org.

Yumika (Miki) Takeshita
Yumika (Miki) Takeshita
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space