Saturday, January 16, 2010

Participatory planning in Mathare slum, Nairobi, Kenya

by Nels Nelson

I had the opportunity to take a brief glimpse into a participatory planning meeting between Maratini, a community in the Mathare slum of Nairobi, and Babu, a young urban planner working with a non-profit group that specializes in assisting communities upgrade their plots within informal settlements.

Babu recently finished an undergraduate degree in urban planning with the University of Nairobi, a course that until recently was reserved for masters level students. He was kind enough to give a short tour of the Mathare slum, a valley on the east side of Nairobi densely packed with mud and steel sheeting dwellings with interspaced concrete apartment buildings. Land ownership and land rights are a complicated issue in Kenyan slums. Most parcels are government owned while some are privately owned and have been developed into the afore mentioned housing blocks or churches.

The planning meeting was held in a corrugated steel church at the entrance of the Maratini community. The Maratini community exists on about 1.5 acres of land and has an estimated population of 3000.  The land is government owned, but is being considered for transition to the community under a progressive slum upgrading policy facilitated by Babu’s NGO. The goal is for the community to take control of the land and build new dwellings with their own money. The main obstacle is negotiations with the owner of the current building structures from whom the community is renting.  These ‘slum lords’, who build shanties on squatted land for renting to urban poor, are often also involved in politics and have a tight grip over their domain.  It is this system of tenancy which causes some of the worst slum conditions, as the renters are not incentivized to invest in their houses and the shadowy owner collects profit without reinvestment either.

The meeting that I attended was focused on the spatial planning of the new community. About fifty of the community members along with Babu and two UN-HABITAT interns were in attendance. After formal introductions, Babu presented hand-drawn maps of the land parcel depicting possible layouts of the building structures. The new buildings will be two-to-three stories from concrete and steel, an upgrade from the current situation of single level steel and mud shacks but shy of the tall concrete housing blocks which have been shown to cause further problems. The plan calls for rows of about ten houses back-to-back with narrow alleys between the blocks, a few wider roads through the community, and an open space in the center.  Open space is a rare but welcome privilege, as any open parcel is otherwise built upon, further congesting the environment.

To inhibit land grabbing in the transition process, Babu suggested photographing the population of the community and laminating the results with names to have a complete registrar of future inhabitants. Some elderly community members criticized the spatial plan because they wanted wider alleys between the houses for sitting outside their house. A workman complained that in the prospective residential community no space is made for workshops which exist in the current community. He suggested that either space be made for workshops in the community or the government builds another space for workshops nearby on the major road.

It was inspiring to witness such participatory planning in action under such careful and prepared consideration by a young urban planner. The community was very receptive and engaged in the process. I wish the people of the Maratini neighborhood the best on their path towards a new home!