During Caroline Owala’s childhood, flooding during rainstorms was a normal occurrence. “When it rained, it would be very difficult for us to even sleep because the flooding would get into the houses,” she told WRI. Caroline grew up in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. Nestled alongside the Ngong River, the settlement was at the mercy of the riverbed. During heavy rain, residents would watch as the river water spilled over, invading their homes before traveling into the rest of settlement.

In Kibera, drainage channels are constantly clogged with trash due to the lack of regular waste collection and sanitation services, and the density of the built environment means there are few green spaces to absorb excess water. As a result, homes are extremely susceptible to flooding — over 50% of Kibera’s households flooded in 2015. Climate change is exacerbating Nairobi’s rainy seasons, with rainfall rates projected to increase by up to one third. This means more households will experience potentially devastating floods — especially those in Nairobi’s informal settlements, occupied primarily by the city’s most vulnerable residents.

While the rain is not easing up, there is new light on the horizon.

Today, Caroline and other Kibera residents are working with the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) on the Kibera Public Space Project, a finalist for the 2020-2021 Prize for Cities, to co-develop solutions for flooding and other challenges in the informal settlement. Together, they are building a network of community-designed and managed public spaces that reduce flood risk, provide access to core services and create new income-generating opportunities. 

Kibera laundry pad allows women to watch their children while doing their work
In one of KDI’s public spaces, a newly constructed laundry pad allows women to watch their children while doing their work. Photo by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

Reclaiming Land for Public Spaces

When KDI first began working in Kibera in 2006, the extremely dense settlement — which occupies two square kilometers near the center of Nairobi — not only faced tremendous flooding challenges, but also lacked adequate public space to carry out social and economic activities. KDI quickly learned that true change would come from reclaiming existing dumpsites, wastelands, marshy areas and other undesirable spots of land inside Kibera, rather than creating new amenities at the settlement’s edge. Transforming these into productive public spaces required navigating space constraints, as well as land tenure issues since most of Kibera’s land is not owned by its residents, which makes building permanent structures a risky undertaking.

KDI launched the Kibera Public Space Project, which uses a bottom-up approach to construct multifunctional public spaces and reclaim abandoned areas and dumpsites. By layering critical physical, social and economic infrastructure — such as flood protection, drainage, bridges, playgrounds and small businesses — KDI has helped protect vulnerable households from exposure to flooding and create access to essential services in one of Nairobi’s most impoverished communities.

Children play on a slide at a KDI public space.
Creating play space for children is a commonly identified need for KDI sites. Photo by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

The Kibera Public Space Project is designed to put community priorities at the center of construction of each new public space. KDI partners with at least one community-based organization for each of its sites, and together, they identify the core needs of the space and surrounding community. For instance, in the first public space, KDI and the community organization for the site, the New Nairobi Dam Community Group, developed a multifunctional space that includes a pavilion, office, garden, playground, bridge and gabions — or wire walls that reduce erosion and flood risk. This space addresses flooding from the Ngong River, as well as crime, poverty and lack of recreation opportunities for children. 

Nairobi residents redesign public spaces to build flood resilience
Daniel Odalo, a community leader for KDI’s fifth public space, in discussion with members of the Kibera Action Group Organization. Photo by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

Since its launch, KDI has helped design and construct 11 public spaces that respond to different needs across Kibera, making up 35% of public space in the settlement and increasing access to water, sanitation, flood protection and social amenities for over 125,000 residents. Additionally, maintaining its commitment to community involvement, KDI trained over 350 community members to build, maintain and generate enough income to run their public spaces. As a result, community organizations are involved not only in building and co-creating the vision for these public spaces, but actually ensuring their future. 

KDI board member and co-founder Arthur Adeya explained to WRI that KDI aimed to “really begin to build up the resilience of a space that people can own and then begin to defend as their own.”

Community Networks Build Climate Resilience

Each public space in Kibera is relatively small, but together they form a large, community-led network that collects and disseminates information critical to tackling some of the area’s biggest environmental challenges, like flooding. For example, since many of the public spaces sit along the Ngong River, KDI surveyed nearly 1,000 households and community groups living and working nearby to better understand watershed-level flood risks. Insights from this survey led to a formal partnership with the Nairobi City County Department of Public Works to identify and remediate flood hotspots along the Ngong River and in other locations in Kibera; they installed new drainage infrastructure and created buffer zones of natural vegetation around the river to help absorb water, which directly reduced the flood risk of 8,000 households. 

KDI public spaces mapped on the side of a structure.
KDI public spaces mapped on the side of a structure, with drawings of available services in each. Photo by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

The public spaces are also central to KDI’s efforts to share weather and climate information among residents of Kibera.  The network of spaces provides an early-warning system tailored to the needs of Kibera residents. Weather information is disseminated throughout the settlement via local radio channels and a network of community leaders based out of the public spaces. Visual signposts also alert the community of potential weather risks — for example, in the tenth public space, a flag post is mounted near the river and displays either a green or red flag, indicating whether to expect flooding. This model allows the community to be better prepared for torrential rain, floods and other weather events that threaten their lives and livelihoods, and it has since been applied to informal communities in Tanzania as well.

From Crisis Management to Crisis Prevention

Forming relationships with local authorities has been critical to the sustainability of the Kibera Public Space Project, since neither KDI nor community organizations own the land on which they build public spaces. The project has drawn the attention of key stakeholders, especially urban planners, to the urgency to build climate resilience and adapt to climate change. This marks a paradigm shift away from a tendency to focus on crisis management in informal settlements like Kibera, to anticipatory action, ensuring all stakeholders are better prepared for events such as floods. 

It was also a significant milestone when the Nairobi Metropolitan Services approved a Special Planning Area (SPA) for Kibera in late 2020, after two years of advocacy by KDI, beginning the process of integrating the settlement into formal city planning practices. The SPA is a critical opportunity for KDI to scale its work, both from the perspective of climate change and equity. While climate change is still too often left out of Nairobi’s urban planning, the SPA presents the possibility to integrate flood resilience into municipal development plans at their inception, and in a way that centers community voices. 

The SPA will be a significant test of whether KDI’s community-centric approach can be replicated through a larger scale government-led process. It also has implications beyond Kibera, since more than one-quarter of the world’s population lives in informal settlements, representing a huge, mostly-untapped source of local knowledge.

Caroline Owala, a KDI board member and former Kibera resident.
"When you come to Kibera, the people who live in Kibera are experts in their own rights,” explains Caroline Owala, a KDI board member and former Kibera resident. Photo by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

“Having grown and worked in Kibera… I think the assumption is normally, if you're working with poor people, they don't have ideas,” said Caroline to WRI, who is now a KDI board member. 

However, today, KDI is bringing about a fundamental shift in who has a voice in development. As Caroline explained, “when you come to Kibera, the people who live in Kibera are experts in their own rights.”

The 2020-2021 Prize for Cities celebrates innovative approaches to tackling climate change and urban inequality together, showing how to live and thrive in a changing world. From five finalists, one grand prize winner will be announced June 29, 2021.