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Slum upgrading


Jack Campbell Clause.

Landscape architects are central not marginal to efforts to improve the slums of the world. Their skills in spatial thinking and collaboration are vital.

Jack Campbell Clause won a Landscape Institute student travel grant in 2012 and used it to visit one of the largest slums in the world, Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. As a student at Leeds Metropolitan University, Jack explored the role landscape architecture plays in slum upgrading. He recently returned from the two-month stay in Kibera where he worked with Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) to design to deliver ‘productive public spaces’ in the slum.

In the shadows of Nairobi City, the Kibera slum informally and illegally houses at least 250,000 of the breadline labourers who fuel the booming African metropolis. Due to its size and central location Kibera is one of the most well-known slums in the world. It is by no means the worst.

Some 60% of Nairobi’s residents live in slums yet those slums only take up 5% of developed space. Squeezed into tracts of land that escaped development, riverbanks and waste tips are the first to be used in the desperate rush for shelter.

The lack of government interest in improving standards is at the root of the problem. In the past the government has refused to acknowledge the existence of slums like Kibera, let alone to legitimize these informal settlements. Recent developments suggest a change in attitude. There is new interest in improving slums like Kibera. The government is supporting and even initiating improvement programmes. There is a new understanding of the importance of slums. The contemporary view is that investing in the living conditions of the labourer is in the interest of the city.

My Experience

To begin to treat the issues present in Kibera I first looked at the basics of landscape architecture. What we do as landscape architects is to design and programme space. Space requires a movement, internally and connectively. We also protect and enhance ecology and community. These elements have formed the basics of the approach that I have come to use; I call it MSEC (movement, space, ecology and community). Applying these themes to site and process, and developing each in relation to the others, helped me to address the key requirements of slum upgrading. (Although these themes were developed specifically to handle slum upgrading, I have also found them helpful in other contexts).

Dysfunctional informality and squalid density are barriers to formal development and improvement of Kibera. The streets are narrow and broken, making access and transport of materials tough and costly. Access to services or facilities is hindered.

Demands on space are the highest in the city. The space required to build or create the missing infrastructure and services simply does not exist. Shanty housing is a lucrative business in Kibera, with the cost of developing a makeshift shack recovered by one or two months of rent, even if that rent is some of the cheapest in Nairobi. The only perceptible open space is that which Kiberians see as ‘unbuildable’ – typically rubbish dumps and sites that are flooded regularly.

There are no waste-removal services (or any other services) for the residents of Kibera. The natural environment has to bear the brunt. When it rains the earthdug drains and rivers form a surprisingly successful waste-removal service, dragging the mountains of stinking rubbish downstream into the Nairobi Dam, the trash depot. Interestingly the eutrophication and explosion of water hyacinth that covers the dam removes much of the nitrogen. The result is a water quality at the overspill that is much improved. This variety of eco-service, although functional and innovative of sorts, is a severe threat to human and environmental health.

Movement , Space , Ecology and Community

The categories of MSEC cover a number of roles that a landscape architect practising in the slum environment can take.

Movement — Kibera definitely does not have fluid movement systems. Far from it in fact. The odd car crawls over the bumps and puddles of one of the very few mud tracks. Getting in, out and around the slum is done primarily on foot.

Improving ‘movement’ is a real key to allowing the kind of self-initiated upgrading that is needed. Incrementally enhancing movement and the systems of movement, opening them, building them and introducing elements of planned systems allows people to start to access both their material needs and also their supportive needs. Improvement of movement systems means the creation of a platform on which community-initiated slum upgrading depends.

Landscape architects’ understanding of landscape character and movement is very valuable here. We understand the stories told by ‘place’ and the importance they have to life. To retain the street patterns that have developed out of an incremental logic and tell an important, progressive story is important not as a sentiment but as a freedom and right.

Nairobi is rolling out a massive roadbuilding project. Kibera is likely to be split in half by a highway that requires 60m of reserve. Sensitive planning may enable this to be less destructive than the current proposal indicates. Engaging with the affected communities and discovering inventive solutions is the way to find sustainable options. One proposal is to make the road into a bridge, creating public open space below it; again this can act as a platform for communities.

Space — There really is very little space in Kibera. Reclaiming and reprogramming space is challenging but brings about great change. There is a ripple effect that is felt well beyond the nearest members of the community to the space Multifunctionality resonates with slums, as does entrepreneurial business. If space in Kibera is designed to possess both these qualities, then the chance of the site’s survival increases dramatically.

When I first walked around Kibera visiting the project sites, I noticed that it was the playgrounds that burst with (noisy) success. KDI, the organisation that I interned with, has programmed a playground element into each of its four productive public-space projects. The playgrounds are in constant use and are a relief to the next generation of Kiberans. As the landscape architect of the fourth KDI site, the responsibility (and enjoyment) of designing the fourth playground fell to me. Using simple materials like bamboo, hyacinth rope, drums and tyres I proposed a musical playground.

Ecology — The ecology of Kibera is evidently in tatters. The shift required to start to build a healthy residential environment relies heavily on ecological improvements. Good planting and understanding of the residents perception of their ecology are critical. How can we design, in tiny spaces, alternatives to using the river as a sewer? Can we design places which remind people that a healthy river means a fruitful and healthy life?

In Kibera I collaborated on a riverbank remediation project with two engineers, one informal-settlement construction specialist and the Ministry of Environment. KDI, which ran the project, was keen to approach the project from a landscape-architectural standpoint, working with the natural systems to mitigate the effects of soil erosion, flooding and trash build up. Our solution incorporated protective measures on the riverbanks that provide space for flood volumes and the use of a Community Cooker (a Kenyan invention that turns waste into fuel) to incinerate trash collected in the reserve pools.

Community — Community is the key to progressive, sustainable slum upgrading. The radical urbanist Stewart Brand wrote, ‘The main thing is not to bulldoze the slums. Treat the people as pioneers’. The residents of Kibera and other slums are some of the most determined urban inhabitants. They are individuals but they rely on one another heavily. They have a proven ‘communal mentality’ in the informal systems that govern their society.

Landscape architects are communicators and have been using community participatory design principles for decades. Can we mobilise to capture all this human energy into a discernible, constructed landscape that brings the living standards in these crucial urban environments out of its nightmare?

At KDI I helped design workshops for slum residents that could really communicate the breadth of options available to them and solicit the design input that would make sustainable places.


As a landscape architect I have had trouble coming to terms with the question of what our profession can do realistically to improve slums. Slums form largely out of a failure of urban governance in the face of massive urban migration. Informal housing develops as a survival strategy. The slum is defined by its issues: squalid environment, unemployment, crime and drugs. Yet dealing directly with these problems may not be the most practical approach.

People generally move into slums out of choice, not free choice, but choice nonetheless. Slums offer the cheapest and most basic shelter, support, and provide a platform to grasp at dreams. These dreams, however, are a struggle to realise, and what may have looked like hope, in the offers of slum living, can become a captive system of injustice and discrimination.

Much of the required improvement needs to be provided by external bodies - governments, road authorities and health ministries - but the energy of the residents can also become a force here. What we can provide to slum environments is the framework that allows the residents to pioneer the slum-upgrading process. Much of this framework needs to come in the form of social programs and communication strategies. But importantly for us, a vast amount of the slumupgrading framework needs to be physically built and to progress through community engagement.


Of the eight billion people on earth, one billion are slum dwellers living in the growing shadows of our ever-expanding cities. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, one billion more people will be added to this figure, making ‘slums’ one of the critical issues we face in the first half of the twenty-first century.

Facilitating slum upgrading can and will be done by a great number of professions. Among the built-environment specialisms, landscape architecture is often considered ephemeral or as a luxury. Yet this profession is instrumental in offsetting the impending threats of climate change, possibly the largest challenge of our generation. Slum proliferation and the associated hazards could be just as catastrophic if they are not met with an equal amount of urgency.

Our design skills are required. By approaching slums as the new frontier, landscape architecture can be the integral force in remediating and protecting our cities and their populations into the future. Through the training in spatial design, the core understanding of how people move through landscape, and providing solutions based on ecology and culture, our profession can expand.

My First Impressions

Walking into Kibera there was immediately a break down in my urban conditioning. Forms in the slum become jumbled and disordered as the shanty buildings stagger away into the distance. The texture and material make-up becomes somehow homogenous, composed of anything cheap, available or discarded by others; mud, corrugated iron and wooden off-cuts.

Roaring, wailing Nairobi quickly dissolved into a dull, background drone as the formal metropolis was left behind. What became audible was the clattering and banging of makeshift, informal industries, masked now and then by blasting reggae, hip-hop and gospel music. The formal city’s unyielding smell of diesel-plus-dust is replaced by fresh whiffs of frying dough (the best mandazi – Kenya’s answer to the morning croissant, consisting of sweet dough fried in deep oil and usually generously sugar coated – in Nairobi) frequently, and in contrast, interrupted by rancid wafts of open latrines, decomposing organic waste, or, barbequeing cow shin (my personal worst).

My eyes and feet are tested to collaborate effectively over the broken, muddy tracks. People are everywhere. I am learning a new code of street conduct. Whose tracks I follow depends on a judgment made of the owner’s readiness to get their shoes mucky (It is not just stepping into mud I’m worried about!). While uneasily keeping one eye on my feet and one on the corrugated iron rooftops that jut out at head height, I must also be attentive ahead, anticipating the next obstacle to evade; puddles, dogs, children, big holes, careering carts and the occasional staggering drunkard.

The awful living conditions, children playing in sewage and the ever-inquiring eyes draw out my guilty conscience. The disparity in wealth is so evident that it is stomach turning. But, through all the darkness there’s warmth here. Kibera is marvellously independent in character. Kiberians that I’ve met have been remarkably positive and proud of belonging to their community. Slum dwellers possess a positively charged determination to achieve, and be happy. When I walk through Kibera I can feel a swelling, ferocious energy radiating. It fills me with excitement.

Educational perspective

By Chris Royffe
At Leeds Metropolitan University we encourage postgraduate landscape architecture students to choose topics and sites for their major projects that are both personally challenging and professionally relevant. Professional relevance is sometimes interpreted as serving the current needs of the landscape profession but we believe this can be very limiting and that we should be confronting topics and sites that are not necessarily in the mainstream of landscape practice at present but are never-the-less significant and can assist in pointing the way forward for the profession and for future generations of practitioners.

For a number of years students at Leeds have been able to ‘top up’ their postgraduate diploma qualification to an MA award by undertaking a research-based dissertation project. For some students this seemed overly constraining and recently we extended the menu of opportunities and particularly encouraged students to choose topics in design and practice settings and to reflect on processes and products from their direct experience. The dissertation project has now evolved into a ‘personal focus portfolio’ through which the student can demonstrate their abilities in practice, contextualise their actions and reflect on the outcomes.

Jack’s Kibera project is a perfect example of the value of postgraduate study in a practice setting, a project that is creative, innovative and demanding in terms of research, highly relevant on a personal level and more generally in terms of human needs.

His major design project focused on developing a theoretical construct for the role of landscape architecture within the slum environment. He explored opportunities and constraints and presented a range of guidelines of relevance to both the macro and micro scales. Speculative solutions were proposed informed by research into cultural, environmental and technical issues.

As well as presenting this theoretical project for assessment on the landscape architecture course Jack also used it to help gain him (against stiff competition) the internship offered by Kounkuey Design Initiative. The opportunity to work on landscape projects in Kibera has also provided the practice setting for his MA personal focus portfolio. Jack has been able to test out some of his theoretical design thinking and reflect on the implications of carrying this type of work forward.

Working in a team with other student designers was also the catalyst for four students including Jack entering the 2012 AECOM Urban SOS competition. Winning the competition and receiving sponsorship and investment as part of the prize has created further opportunities to continue design development work in Kibera and to submit a portfolio that tells the story of this exciting and hugely relevant project.
Chris Royffe is principal lecturer in landscape architecture and urban design, and course leader of the PGDip/MA in landscape architecture at Leeds Metropolitan University.

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