Chelina Odbert and Jennifer Toy
Productive Public Space: Exploring Hybridities in Informal Settlements
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 www.kounkuey.org.
Chelina Odbert and Jennifer Toy are founding members of the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI, www.kounkuey.org).Odbert and Toy formed KDI as an alternative to standard client/patron models that would address the relevancy of design practice to low income settlements in the developing world. Their goal was to create a vehicle through which to identify socially and environmentally urgent projects, and work with local communities to design and implement solutions. Odbert graduated from Claremont McKenna College and received her MUP from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Toy graduated from Harvard College in the History of Science and has worked as a science journalist. She received her MLA/MUP from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
Van Alen Institute wishes to acknowledge The Rockefeller Foundation for its generous support of Productive Public Space. Kounkuey Design Initiative wishes to thank the following: all individuals who participated in the Dine and Define events for their insights and support; Jenny Beorkrem (Ork Posters), Prem Krishnamurthy, Adam Michaels and Molly Sherman (Project Projects), Leah Murphy, and Mindy Watts for their contributions to the poster campaign; Gonzalo Cruz, John Gendall, Tina Garpenthin, Grant McFadden, Joe Mulligan, Byron Stiggie and Keiko Yamimoto for their assistance with project development; Timothy Brown, William DeMoraes, Pippa Brashear, Andrew Kahn, and Luke Clark Tyler for their help with the exhibition; and the Odbert family, the Toy family, Claudia Kahn, Steve Malkenson, Adam Meagher, the community of Soweto East, and the Soweto Youth Group for their ongoing participation in the work.
Alfredo Brillembourg, Co-principal, Urban Think Tank, Caracas, Venezuela
Andrew Blum, Contributing editor at Metropolis and Wired magazines
Stephen Davies, Senior Vice President, Project for Public Spaces
Thomas Gluck, Partner, Peter L. Gluck & Partners
Judith Heinz, Principal, WRT
Victoria Marshall, Principal, TILL Design
Deborah Marton, Executive Director, Design Trust for Public Space
Sarah Williams, Co-Director, Spatial Information Design Lab, Columbia University
Rosten Woo, Executive Director, Center for Urban Pedagogy
Meredith Block and Bret Ericson, Regional Program Coordinators, Blacksmith Institute
Miquela Craytor, Deputy Director, Sustainable South Bronx
Mark Laska, CEO and Founder, Great Eastern Ecology
Joe Mulligan, Environmental Engineer, Buro Happold
Elliot Sclar, Director, The Center for Sustainable Urban Development, The Earth Institute, Columbia University
Steve Malkenson, Director, Malkenson Foundation
Helen Ng, Housing Portfolio Manager, Acumen Fund
Jennifer Peckman, Consultant, Corporate Citizenship
Janice Perlman, Founder and President, Mega-Cities Project
Peter Slatin, Founder and Editor, The Slatin Report
Byron Stiggie, Environmental Engineer, Buro Happold
Yasmina Zaidman, Director of Knowledge & Communications, Acumen Fund