Environment & Urbanization

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A special approach to slum upgrading: the Special Planning Area in Mukuru, Nairobi

David Dodman
18 Oct 2017

The idea of a 'Special Planning Area' might not immediately be alluring. But for the residents of Mukuru, one of the largest 'slums' in Nairobi, this mundane phrase hides the potential for a radical transformation in their homes and lives.

A 'peace wall' in Mukuru, one of the largest slums in Nairobi, Kenya (Photo: Urban ARK)

More than 100,000 families live in Mukuru, a densely packed informal settlement squeezed between factories to the south-east of Nairobi's city centre. But although people have lived here since the 1980s, housing conditions are extremely poor and there are no formal water or sewerage connections.

The 647 acres of land are divided among 230 different owners – preventing utilities from making connections. Discussions with community members highlight a wide range of threats: ranging from poor sanitation, inadequate access to water, flooding, and fire outbreaks.

However, all this might be about to change. In August 2017, the Nairobi City County (NCC) officially declared Mukuru as a 'Special Planning Area (SPA)' – putting a stop to any further development in the area for a two-year period until a Mukuru Integrated Development Plan is produced.

Urban planners often designate areas as being 'special planning' or 'special development' zones when there is a need for substantial redevelopment – for example, to revitalise an inner-city or for comprehensive redevelopment of a waterfront area. But taking such an ambitious and comprehensive approach to upgrading informal settlements is novel and exciting.

The use of an SPA clearly indicates the significance with which upgrading Mukuru is taken by a range of key stakeholders, notably NCC. It provides a sound legal basis for the planning process, which in turn strengthens the case for the plan's eventual implementation. And it provides a rallying point for an alliance of actors to work together in identifying challenges – and the solutions for these.

Mobilising Mukuru

Muungano wa Wanavijiji, a social movement of Kenya slum dwellers, has a long history of mobilising in Mukuru's neighbourhoods, collecting data through member savings groups, and lobbying for investment in basic services.

A report on living conditions in the area, which also drew on a research project (involving SDI Kenya, AMT, the Universities of Berkeley, Nairobi and Strathmore, and the Katiba Institute), challenged NCC to upgrade Mukuru. The county had been working closely with Muungano in other pro-poor urban development projects in Nairobi and responded positively to the documented concerns.

Central to the SPA has been the creation of consortiums to address different issues within Mukuru. These consortiums echo the internal organisation of NCC – ensuring that all the actions identified fall within the responsibilities of local government departments and their budgets.

These thematic consortiums cover water, sanitation and energy; finance; land and institutional arrangements; health services; education, youth and culture; environment and natural resources; housing, infrastructure and commerce; and community organisation, coordination and communication.

The planning for all these areas follows a similar process – and is brought together through regular coordination meetings between the different consortiums, and between the consortiums and NCC.

Mukuru has been divided into 13 segments, each composed of about 8,000 families, within which there are 'cells' of 10 households, and 'clusters' of about 100 households that form the basis for community engagement and planning. Each consortium has committed to holding three consultations in each of the 13 segments, all of which are coordinated through one of the consortium teams.

This helps to ensure that the vast reserves of community knowledge inform the planning process, and that the proposed solutions meet the needs of Mukuru's residents.

The Mukuru we want

The views of children and young people are treated as particularly important and are being gathered through approaches that engage with them in interesting ways, such as an essay competition with the topic 'The Mukuru we want', and training in film-making. 

The Urban Africa: Risk Knowledge (Urban ARK) programme has been working with SDI Kenya, the consortium lead for 'community organisation, coordination and communication', to help provide approaches to understand the nature and scale of risk in Mukuru.

Community engagement, led by Mtafu Manda from Mzuzu University in Malawi, demonstrated the use of community-centred methodologies to identify risks, prioritise these, and develop action plans to address them. It will help to ensure that expert-led and technical assessments or risk do not override those that are the priorities of residents. This approach to risk will be incorporated within the cluster planning process in the coming months.

The SPA process is still in its early days, and faces many challenges. Not least among these is the need to ensure that the lives of all community members are improved – recognising the different needs and concerns of business owners and informal workers, of house owners and tenants, and of women, men, boys and girls.

But the level of interest and excitement point to the potential for transformative change – and to new directions and approaches to improve the conditions of low-income and informal settlements around the world. 

David Dodman (david.dodman@iied.org) is director of IIED's Human Settlements research group, and a co-investigator of Urban ARK. This blog was originally posted on Urban ARK.

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