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Kounkuey Design Initiative

Kounkuey Design Initiative is a non-profit based in Kenya and California. Using extensive community engagement, KDI reveals systemic needs and enlists the community in constructing solutions.

The Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) began when six Harvard Design School students nearing graduation asked a question: Can we use our skills towards social justice rather than at the big design firms we are expected to join? One of the six, Arthur Adeya, was from Kenya, so they decided to investigate answers in Kibera, a large informal settlement in Nairobi which is home to over half a million residents.

When KDI began work in Kibera in 2006, they recognized this was not their community and they did not want to impose their assistance, nor create an innovative design to address a problem they identified in a vacuum. Instead, they sought guidance from experts: the residents of Kibera. They also came up with a name for their organization: Konkuey, a Thai word that means, “get to know intimately.”

In depth conversations and collaborations with residents led to The Kibera Public Space Project. This network of community hubs, created from waste spaces such as hazardous dumping sites in partnership with community groups, transformed these areas into welcoming public spaces with basic amenities like clean water, toilets, schools and playgrounds as well as income generating assets such as community gardens and small-business kiosks. There are also social development services provided such as technology training. The combination of small businesses and training mean that the transformed spaces were financially and operationally self-sufficient by year two.

KDI seeks to create what they now call ‘Productive Public Spaces’ wherever they work—and always through the same process of deep community engagement. In fact, their goal is to empower the community to the point that KDI is no longer necessary.

In 2011 the group began work with residents of the St. Anthony trailer park in the Coachella Valley of California. The valley is one of the most fertile agricultural regions of California, with a rich Native American history, yet it shares similarities with some of the poorest communities in the world. The 88,000 people who live in this unincorporated stretch of land lack access to basic services and often live in dilapidated trailer parks where water is contaminated with arsenic. Replicating the process used in Kenya, KDI worked with the residents to begin a network of Productive Public Spaces. The intent is to create spaces for meetings, education, small business development–and where new community interactions can flourish.

In 2020, KDI came out with The Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design, a groundbreaking document to help build more gender-inclusive cities. Drawing on their years of experience working with underrepresented communities, KDI shares guidelines on how to make projects more gender inclusive and recommends tools to involve all persons in design and planning.

KDI’s work and process illustrate how designers can catalyze new developments in public space often with minimal resources.

26 | Making Public Space Productive


Social Design Insights would like to thank all those who make our weekly show possible: Baruch Zeichner, our Producer and Sound Engineer, Donna Read, for producing our video content, and Leah Freidenrich, Director of the Curry Stone Foundation. Our theme music for 2017 is "Sorry" by Comfort Fit. The break music is "Sweet Sweet Mbombo" by Orchestre Baba National from the album "Kenya Special (Selected East African Recordings From the 1970s & '80s)."