Chelina Odbert and Jennifer Toy
Productive Public Space: Exploring Hybridities in Informal Settlements

Fellowship Term: Spring 2008
Project Area: Land Use and Development

Productive Public Space: Exploring Hybridities in Informal Settlements explores alternative models for poverty alleviation, quality of life improvement, and environmental remediation through the production of public space in slums. Chelina Odbert and Jennifer Toy, founding members of the Kounkey Design Initiative (KDI), have spent over two years working with community members in the slum of Kibera, Nairobi, to design and implement the concept of productive public space—an open space, created in collaboration with its client community, that links physical improvements to self sustaining micro-enterprise activities.

Home to between 700,000 and 1,000,000 residents, Kibera is the largest informal settlement in Sub-Saharan Africa yet it occupies a space just two-thirds the size of New York City's Central Park. In 2006, KDI conducted a series of community workshops in Kibera that foregrounded the region's critical need for youth employment opportunities, trash collection, improvements to water quality, and flood prevention. Through these workshops, Odbert and Toy identified an opportunity for intervention in the wide, trash-covered banks of the polluted rivers that cut through the settlement. According to Odbert and Toy, the riverbanks are technically commonly owned space, and if free of trash, are large enough to house community amenities such as composting toilets, a community garden and a children's playground. 80% compostable and 15% recyclable, the trash represents an untapped revenue stream that can potentially generate sufficient income to cover operation and maintenance costs for the site's amenities. In the Summer of 2007, KDI installed their first "activity node" in Kibera as a demonstration of the viability of productive public space, and they are currently undertaking subsequent phases of the project.

During their fellowship term, Odbert and Toy have used their work in Kibera as a platform for further developing and expanding their concept of productive public space. Odbert and Toy organized a series of roundtables with a wide range of professionals—architects, planners, economists, environmental experts, funders, public health practitioners and policy makers—to critically explore the significance of public space in informal settlements. Among the institutions represented at the discussions were Acumen Fund, the Blacksmith Institute, Buro Happold, the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, Design Trust for Public Space, Great Eastern Ecology, Malkenson Foundation, Metropolis, Peter L. Gluck & Partners, Project for Public Spaces, Sustainable South Bronx, Urban Think Tank, TILL Design, WRT Design and more. The roundtable conversations served to generate a collective definition of 'productive public space' and a working model of its forms, uses and applicable contexts both nationally and internationally.

As a culmination of these conversations, and as a public statement about KDI's community-driven processes of definition and design, Odbert and Toy additionally commissioned a select group of artists and graphic designers to create poster series that illustrate and advance new ways of thinking about public space in informal settlements and low-income areas. Contributing artists include Jenny Beorkrem of Ork Posters (Chicago, IL), Prem Krishnamurthy and Adam Michaels of Project Projects (New York, NY), Leah Murphy (Philadelphia, PA) and Mindy Watts (Philadelphia, PA). The posters will be reproduced and distributed throughout Nairobi, New York and other major cities as part of an awareness campaign this summer; the originals, which range in media from woodcut to newsprint to silkscreen, will be on view at Van Alen Institute from Thursday, April 10 to Friday, April 25, 2008.

For more information about Kounkey Design Initiative, visit