17 Jan 2016

What Kenya’s biggest slum can teach us about saving cities from floods

Try navigating the soggy, waterlogged slopes of Kenya’s largest slum, with its hundreds of thousands of ramshackle houses, and you’ll quickly realize why Kibera is named after a Nubian word meaning "jungle."
Pasted and propped along the banks of the Nairobi River in Kenya’s capital, Kibera’s illegally constructed houses are packed together so densely you can barely see a sliver of the red dirt holding them up.
Though estimates vary greatly, between 500,000 and 1 million people likely live in this 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) settlement. The poorest are forced to build atop the banks of the river, which overflows with a slurry of fast-moving raw sewage and trash that inevitably destroys homes and claims lives during the rainy seasons that occur twice a year.
Until recently, residents’ only protection against this often lethal water channel were the construction of hundreds of crude hand-carved drainage canals snaking from Kibera’s high ground to the marshy, undeveloped basin of the Nairobi River and other feeble measures, such as blocking floodwater with trash.
Then in 2015, a small group of architects, designers, and engineers at Kounkuey Design Initiative decided to combine their expertise in urban planning, sustainable design, and community outreach to solve the grand challenge of preventing flooding in Kibera — and hopefully beyond.

Flooding found us

Headquartered in Los Angeles, California, KDI has as its mission answering the question, "Could design be useful in big challenges of poverty and environmental degradation?" says executive director and co-founder Chelina Odbert. Current projects range from building community hubs such as recreation areas, shared gardens, and market kiosks in Haiti to engineering toilets that transform human waste into sellable fertilizer in Kenya to providing holistic development plans for villages in remote parts of Ghana.
While KDI has almost a dozen projects across the United States, Caribbean, and West Africa, its work in Kibera has been the most extensive, with seven public-space projects focused on income generation, food security, water and sanitation, and women’s empowerment. But KDI’s approach of creating productive, community-anchored public spaces wasn’t an option in much of Kibera.
"There is no abundance of available land," says Odbert. "In fact, there is almost no available land. If it’s not built upon, it can’t be."
The only open spaces in Kibera were located in "places where people are dumping trash, places that are insecure," says KDI associate director Joe Mulligan. "All of those places are along the river."

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