Nairobi, 5 October 2017 – A newly released report on the Mathare Slum in Kenya finds that public space can provide access to education, generate income generating activities and increased political engagement.

When one imagines public space, often it is a football field, a park or a town square. A new report just released by UN-Habitat explains that public space is this and much more.

The Youth, Informality And Public Space: A Qualitative Case Study on the Significance of Public Space for Youth in Mlango Kubwa, Nairobi report  is a study undertaken over two years with youth in the Mlango Kubwa (MK) ward of the Mathare Slum, home to be 38,000 people who are predominantly under the age of 30.

The study focused, amongst others, on the Mathare Environmental Conservation Youth Group (MECYG), an accredited UN-Habitat One Stop Youth Resource Centre, which has been working in the community for over 15 years. Though being situated in one of the poorest areas in Nairobi, they have had remarkable success in establishing a Centre and a football field, the only public spaces for this community.

“On any given day if you go to the One Stop [Centre] you will find a number of activities going on, from feeding children out the back, to the collecting and recycling of garbage, to the training of youth in technology,” states Tone Vesterhus, author of the report, “When you move on up to the football pitch you’ll often find children and youth playing on the field, one of the only spaces that parents feel is safe for them to send their kids.”

More than “hanging out”

These two public spaces are clearly more than a place to hang out, they provide a significant number of opportunities for youth who have very few. Through the activities that range from ICT-classes to political rallies, the research finds that the youth in MK have an immense political influence and a high standing within their own community.

The research focuses on respectively the quality of life of youth and youths political influence, and if and how public space can enhance these two. In terms of quality of life, it is found that public space plays a role as an enabler of education and employment opportunities, while also increasing the security in the village. The other track in the thesis examines the political dimension related to public space. It is found that through the claiming of public space and subsequent use of the claimed public spaces, the status and influence of youth is increased both within the community and vis-à-vis the formal political system.

The research also finds that access to the public spaces in the village is contested, and that segments of the youth population do not have equal access to them. Youth engaged in drugs, alcohol abuse and crime are not invited into the public spaces that have been created by MECYG.  This is a natural consequence of the spaces functioning as “safe havens” – spaces where the healthy practices are undertaken.

It is however these safe havens can help prevent unhealthy practices such as substance abuse and criminal activity through offering an alternative in employment and education. An important finding in the report is that access to public space can be vital for the chances youth have at increasing their quality of life, and hence securing and developing more such spaces on youths own premises is very important.

A liveable and sustainable community

“The youth that belong to and hold leadership positions in Mlango Kubwa have an immense influence on the production of space in the village. Their access to politicians and NGOs places them in a unique position where they are able to achieve substantial development in their community,” Vesterhus states. “While some would use such power to promote their own interests, the youth in Mlango Kubwa want to make a liveable and sustainable community for all children, youth, elders and coming generations in their village.”

This report has had the aim of examining whether public spaces play a role in improving the lives of young people. Finding out if public space is a prerequisite, or merely a prop in the development that has occurred in Mlango Kubwa has been an underlying question throughout the report.

While concluding that public space certainly does play a role in advancing this community, the political strategies and diplomatic abilities of the young people in the village are at the core of these advancements. Their use of public spaces within their strategies, emphasize how these spaces represent platforms for advancing both quality of life and political rights. In this respect, the answer to the overall research aim is that public space can, and does improve the lives of young people in Mlango Kubwa.

Contrary to the lack of social and physical mobility that is often experienced by marginalized youth, these youths are in the offices of government, at the UN and at international events outside of Kenya. At the same time, they recognize the crucial role of the spatial dimension within their own community. They use their access to institutional political space to advance their communities. They understand that for youth to prosper, they need environments within their own parameters that enables them to do so. The organized youth in Mlango Kubwa are fearless in their endeavor to develop their community for the people in it. It seems appropriate to conclude this thesis on an informant’s note on young people’s role in the urban Kenyan context:

“As youth we should keep on engaging in developing our communities by using whatever resources we get either from the government or through our organizations,” said Isaac Mwasa, Coordinator, MECYG. ”Our unity and ideas are what we have for now and we don’t have to bleed so that they lead, but we can lead our generation to a better tomorrow.”

For other reports on public space please see:
Youth Led Development: A Case from the Mathare Slum

Youth and their Needs Within Public Space