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The Kenya partnership of Slum Dwellers International-Kenya Affiliateand Centre of Urban Research and Innovations (CURI)-University of Nairobi (UoN) launched and commenced field activities for the Kitui Learning studio in the first quarter of this year. The studio is part of a broader collaborative programme implemented by Slum Dwellers International and the Association of African Planning Schoolsunder a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)signed between the two organizations, ‘in order to promote initiatives, plans and policies which encourage pro-poor and inclusive cities and towns in Africa.’ Through this framework, the partners have previously implemented similar studios in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania,Uganda and Namibia.

The on-going collaborative studio programme is financed by the Cities Alliance through The Catalytic Fund (CATF) of 2014, under the theme “Creating Momentum for Change through Innovative Information Generation and Engagement at the City Level in Africa”.  Besides Kenya, there are other three learning studios running under this fund in Namibia, Zambia and Uganda.

The learning studios are designed to build partnerships between informal settlement residents, local planning schools, and the decentralized or devolved government.  

Drawing from past experiences, the Kenya partnership designs and executes these studios in a way that a foundation is set for future engagement, in order to build on the positive outcomes that stakeholders find important to sustain over a longer period, beyond the planned studio period. This is interpreted as a strategy to manage community expectations that arise during the studio process. In doing so, more sustainable platforms of co-production and collaboration among various stakeholders are nurtured, where in some contexts such platforms lacked entirely.

The Kenya partnership has been working together on similar projects, including a studio in Mathare Valleyand undertaking a joint research in Mukuru informal settlements in Nairobi.Previously, these projects focused on individual informal settlements, and as observed, they also targeted informal settlements located in Nairobi, Kenya’s largest city.

However, following the access to CATF, the Kenya partnership has up-scaled focus; to municipal-wide scale and introduced studio activities to intermediate cities, the first being Kitui. It should be noted that intermediate cities and small towns dominate the geographical distribution of urban centers (in terms of their numbers) in Kenya, and their increasing aggregate population is significant in reducing Nairobi’s primacy-the city accounted for 33 percent of Kenya’s urban population in 2014. For example, Kitui is the administrative capital and the largest urban centre of Kitui County, with a population reported as 109,568 people, with a sex ratio of 96 during the 2009 Kenya census.

Kenya’s intermediate cities like Kitui face similar challenges-though at a different scale-as those experienced by the large cities. Such include: inadequate or even total absence of formal urban planning and design, inadequate infrastructure and housing, environmental degradation and urban sprawl, informal settlements and weak urban economies. Nevertheless, these towns are anticipated to feature prominently in the structural transformation expected of urbanization in the country and counties; but, only if they are well planned and managed. Among others, this justifies the renewed focus on intermediate cities and small towns.

From October to December last year, the Kenya partnership engaged in preparatory activities for the implementation of the Kitui learning studio. This resulted in a joint work plan for engaging the informal settlement communities and the county government of Kitui. Besides, the overarching objectives of training planning students and enhancing community participation in planning, the Kenya studio will also contribute towards generating basic data on informal settlements of Kitui (as a baseline survey); engage stakeholders in developing a concept for town-wide informal settlements strategy; and engage stakeholders in participatory planning sessions for select precincts in order to demonstrate various planning and design options for intervention. The studio will also focus on various aspects of the town’s informal economy and will build on on-going planning and development interventions in the town.

On the 5th February this year, the partnership held a meeting with the Kitui County Ministry of Lands, Infrastructure & Urban Development, with the aim of introducing the studio to government and therefore to seek a buy-in from the devolved government. This meeting was a major milestone for the studio.Led by the Chief Officer in charge of lands, infrastructure and urban development,the Ministry welcomed the project and pledged support to the process, including assigning a planning officer as a studio focal point. The county government particularly pointed-out the relevance of the studio in strengthening community participation and collaborative environment for government-community engagements for informal settlements improvement and overall, in enhancing equitable urban development.

After the successful meeting with the county government, the studio team embarked on community mobilization and preparing for collaborative data generation. This culminated into formation of community planning teams; and data collection exercise that ran for two weeks from 7th -18th March, covering the 5 major informal settlements of the town (Kalundu, Majengo, Kunda-Kindu, Mjini & Mosquito), ‘pockets’ of informal settlements, and major market areas, including street markets. The two week exercise actively involved the participation of planning students and an academic staff of University of Nairobi, SDI-Kenya urban planner, community leaders and research assistants, the studio facilitator and young planning professionals ( as  studio assistants) and in consultation with county government’s focal point officer.

The field work entailed training of community members who later teamed up with students to form a joint field team, administering household questionnaires and profile questionnaires for settlements and markets; settlement mapping, photography and sketching, interviews with key informants and targeted focused group discussions. Before field work students had also reviewed some background information, including documentation of recent planning processes in the town.

Mapping exercises and community focus group discussion during the leaning studio

The benefits of this critical phase of the studio did not only accrue to students, but also to community members. Among other lessons, students were exposed to practical (often not taught) and diverse issues of the country’s urban context. For instance, they witnessed to the fact that what is often referred to as an informal settlement-that is often generalized by images of shacks- is indeed non-existent in Kitui; but rather, sub-standard housing characterized by brick walls and an evident heterogeneous spatial-economic landscape defines what the town regards as informal settlements. 

On the reciprocal, the community members were also part of the learning process. A number of the community members supporting the data collection had their first opportunity to interact with geographical information such as satellite images and maps, a process that evidently impacted on their perceptions of what urban planning means to informal settlements.  And it was evident that the focused group discussions facilitated deeper engagement on various issues facing the communities and the town as a whole.

After the successful joint data collection exercise, the studio proceeds to data analysis, compilation of lessons learnt, and preparing for data engagement with the communities and county government.

By Baraka Mwau

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