NAIROBI — Urban planning has historically been a top-down process where technical experts create designs that are then authorized by municipal officials. However, this design process often excludes those who are impacted the most, such as people living in poverty in urban slums. Urban planning in Dandora, a low-income residential neighborhood in Nairobi, is no exception.
Global Recognition of Dandora’s Urban Planning Issues
The initially well-planned neighborhood has gradually degenerated to almost slum status. This deterioration was partially exacerbated by a cycle of unrealistic planning expectations, municipal mismanagement and subsequent apathy among the residents of Dandora because of this breakdown. Today, Dandora is infamous for containing the biggest dumpsite in East Africa and has one of the highest crime rates in Kenya.
This critical failure in urban planning in Dandora demonstrates that bridging this collaborative gap is important for community empowerment and success. This was emphasized by a special panel organized in July 2017 by the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) in conjunction with the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. UNDG noted that “panelists and participants at the event agreed on the need for inclusivity, sustained political commitment and national ownership alongside the need to have gender equality and integrated planning, budgeting and monitoring.”
Video Game Makers Create Innovative Method of Urban Planning in Dandora
A partnership called Block by Block, founded in 2012 between the Swedish video game company Mojang and U.N. Habitat under its Global Public Spaces program, is tackling this issue by upgrading 300 public spaces in developing communities around the world. Mojang is the company behind Minecraft, an immensely popular virtual platform where users manipulate textured blocks to build constructions in an endlessly generating environment. U.N. Habitat coordinates participatory design workshops of 30-50 residents that live near these public spaces where they utilize Minecraft to co-create visual representations of these spaces that reflect their needs. These are then shared with city officials, urban planners and architects.
One of these workshops came to Dandora in 2015 with the intention of designing a model street in the neighborhood. The project took place every Saturday over the course of a month. The Dandora Transformation League selected a group of 26 residents for the project, encompassing people of different ages and genders, as well as street vendors and people with disabilities. This was important in identifying the broad spectrum of issues that needed to be addressed in the existing space, such as inadequate safety and security, an untidy environment, a lack of greenery and a lack of leisure opportunities, especially for children.
This collaborative action in urban planning in Dandora also transformed the community’s own perception of itself. For example, after final presentations of the new designs, both the mayor of Nairobi and head of the urban planning department “were just amazed to see that young women from slums could actually design as architects or urban planners,” according to Dezeen.
Streets Transformed by Successful Projects
The success of this project cumulated with the opening of the completed street on April 18, 2018. The renovated street, appropriately renamed Badilisha Street (meaning change in Swahili), addresses many of the issues that were initially brought up by residents during the workshop. Improved lighting has made residents feel more secure and street vendors are willing to operate longer hours. The opening of drainage lines has solved issues of flash flooding, overflowing sewage and mud. The paving of the street block has created a space for children to skate, and relationships between neighbors and the local administration have greatly improved.
This transformation that Block by Block has brought to urban planning in Dandora is one step in creating sustained improvement in fragile communities. Since 2012, Block by Block has started projects in 30 other locations across the globe. Some of these include a series of workshops in Hanoi where a group of teenage girls brainstormed ideas to improve safety in their neighborhood, 50 teenagers in Palestine who designed a park for East Jerusalem, and a decrepit marketplace in Kosovo that was turned into a public square. Overall, Block by Block demonstrates that technology that enables collaboration at all levels is a powerful force for global development.
– Emily Bender