Slum residents contribute to participatory design of community hall_1Nairobi, 21 August 2015 – In a landmark project initiated by UN-Habitat and coordinated by the Global Network for Sustainable Housing, the University of Cambridge has engaged a team of researchers to design a community centre in one of Kenya’s biggest and oldest slums.

The team of Cambridge researchers and students has been working on a project to design and build a new community centre in the heart of Mathare 3A – one of Kenya’s oldest and largest slums. The project involves the use of participatory design as a way to make the community’s involvement central to the process, and its future users are now raising funds to build it.

In addition, it is hoped that the community centre project will provide a scalable model for future projects with other communities and both international and local institutions.

Project Manager, Maximilian Bock, from the Cambridge University Department of Architecture, said: “The aim of participatory design is not to change the rich culture that already exists in Mathare, but rather to understand it deeply enough to design a space that is useful to and reflective of the community.”

Adapting the participatory process

With only a limited period in Mathare to find out what the community members wanted from their new facility, the team adapted the often time-consuming participatory design model into a very visual process.

“Using wall charts, pictures, models and coloured stickers,” lead designer Elizabeth Wagemann said, “We were able to find out what residents thought of other community centre projects, the potential risks to the hall, how they hoped to use the facility, and what skills they could contribute to constructing and managing it.”

The construction drawings now prepared by Wagemann, Ana Gatóo and her team present a new community centre building that has been deliberately tailored to meet the needs and wishes of the residents of Mathare 3A.

“Involving the community from the beginning is important in ensuring that, once it is built, the community will manage, maintain, and above all make use of it,” said Bock.

Slum residents contribute to participatory design of community hall_2Balancing sustainability and community acceptance

“From an environmental perspective, wood is a good sustainable material, but among the local community in Mathare, wooden structures are seen as a fire hazard. In contrast, concrete buildings with multiple floors are seen as aspirational,” he said. “One of the challenges for us was to balance the need for environmental sustainability with the need for local acceptance.”

Gregor Herda, the project coordinator for UN-Habitat, said: “We have to start thinking differently about how we promote new approaches to housing construction, both from a materials and design point-of-view. Scepticism towards uncommon materials is a natural reaction. That is why there is no better way of introducing these materials than by way of an iconic public structure.”