© 2022 Eddyburg
Susanne Kibue
4. Shelter and public space needs in informal settlements in Nairobi
29 Ottobre 2008
2007 Word Social Forum Nairobi
The abstract and the paper presented at the conference, WSF2007, Nairobi


Shelter is one of the basic needs of any society. The high urban migration rates to towns and cities in developing countries has often resulted in very crowded unplanned developments referred to as informal settlements. These are typically characterized by lack of infrastructure and other basic amenities. The relevant government and quasi government agencies charged with responsibility of housing provision are unable to cope with the high demand resulting in the relegation of the task to the users. Consequently, proliferation of poor housing and slums within the towns and cities in Kenya is currently a serious problem especially for the low-income earners.

This paper highlights the need to provide open spaces giving the historical basis of the courtyards in traditional set-ups. Traditional architecture for most communities also reveals the need for separate spaces for male and females and also the need for privacy. The government policy is cited as a necessary guide to aid in the development of a clear way forward towards the improvement of the situation. Finally, in keeping with the conference theme the Common Good and the need for justice and basic human rights is presented. The aims of any society is to achieve the common good which should contribute to the well being and dignity of each person in the society.


Nairobi is host to more than two hundred slum areas with the majority of people about two (million) more than half, 60% living in these slums in about 5% of the area. 40% of the population lives on about 95% of the area demarcated for residential use. The space in the slums is very densely populated and lacks the basic shelter and infrastructure conditions for living a full and healthy life. The slums are also characterised by people living in extreme poverty.

The largest slums are mainly towards the Eastern side of Nairobi and the rest on peripheral areas of high-income residential areas towards the North and West of the city. The pattern of development of Nairobi has its roots in the colonial history of the city and the division of zones for Europeans, Asians and Africans, which seem to persist until today. The European and Asian districts have now included the affluent Africans yet maintaining the same system and of zoning and low-density. The disparity in living conditions between the high and low-income is appalling and the gap only seems to widen with time.

There are many problems associated with the slum areas however this presentation will focus on the following four key areas, which broadly include:

- The Statement of the problem and the extent of the poor conditions,

- Requirement for open areas giving the basis of traditional configurations, the requirements for privacy needs,

- Government policy and way forward to improve the situation,

- The Common Good and the need for justice to achieve a better life for the dignity of the person

The Statement of the Problem of Informal Settlements

The high urban migration rates to towns and cities in developing countries has often resulted in very crowded unplanned developments referred to as informal settlements. These are typically characterized by lack of infrastructure and other basic amenities. The relevant government and quasi-government agencies charged with responsibility of housing provision are unable to cope with the high demand resulting in the relegation of the task to the users. Consequently, proliferation of poor housing and slums within the towns and cities in Kenya is currently a serious problem especially for the low-income earners. The solution to the housing problem is left to the people themselves using their own means.

However, in the midst of all the poverty and insecurity it is amazing to note the high potential of the slum dwellers to organize themselves to provide for their own shelter. Toepfer (UN-Habitat, 1999, v) indicates that ‘their physical and social reality also reflects the capacity …to mobilize resources, devise survival strategies and build social organizations even in the presence of enormous constraints”. This capacity of the residents makes upgrading policies implementable, as community involvement is important. The residents contribute towards the improvement of their shelters through community participation during the design and the management after the project is completed. The extent of the slums “..in terms of human suffering and its devastating impact on the life of people living in cities, are immeasurable.”(ibid,6)

Many other social vices emanate from the poor living conditions because of tight spaces and congested living that is inhumane. Due also to poor basic facilities the residents are prone to disease outbreaks and epidemics. There is a definite socio-economic cost to the country due to the negative consequences in the slum areas. The socio-political situation and advantages for the policy makers could be one of the factors that contribute to the apparent laissez-faire attitude.

Basic Space Requirements, Needs for Open Areas Giving the Traditional Configurations

In the traditional set-up the built-form is a reflection of the social structures of the group, the family organisation, and social networks. The built environment also depicts the values of the people their preferences, status, power, and roles. There are positive traditional values and constants in architecture. Every activity within the home setting has a particular place and meaning whether it is a public or private activity, whether it is clean or dirty and has to be at a different end of the house or homestead, all these happen due to the cultural requirements and dictates of a particular society.

There was clear and cohesive nature of the homestead configuration in traditional space, with a definite focus and interaction centre in the courtyard. The courtyard underscores the important need for open space for interaction of the residents. This is used for both working and for recreation for the different people in the homestead. The family and social networks are reflected through the forms used and arrangements of the dwellings. A key aspect that runs through these and many other African settlements is the use of the courtyard as a basic organizing principal around which all the various activities are arranged. It becomes a key unifying focus of the family and a hub for the various social day-to-day activities. The arrangement of the homestead is understood by all the members in terms of the hierarchy between them and the respect and values that are associated with it. Although the courtyard is a communal space the individual members are still able to have their own private areas.

There is clear separation in the socialisation and cultural instruction of the boys and the girls and enables them to accord high levels of respect to the elders. The homestead doubles as a school of social virtues necessary for the smooth co-existence between the members of the family. We find that the separate units for the mature boys gives them a lead in nurturing their independence at an early stage and allows them to become responsible individuals. For example having joined the ‘junior council of elders’ Kenyatta (1979) for the Kikuyu young men this helps them to get more formation before they get married.

Girls were looked after by the mother until they got married and a new home was only initiated on marriage. There was high respect for the marriage institution and house construction for a new home was a ceremonial process again with the collaboration of all the members of the family only when a new homestead was formed. This mutual interdependence is definitely lost with the more individualistic approach to life in the contemporary society. The home is a training ground, a school for both cultural and social values, which require adequate space.

Traditional space allows for good quality of space that facilititates for dignified living environments.

Basic Privacy needs that require to be addressed

The secondary level in the Hierarchy of Needs according to Cooper (1975) and Maslow (1954) includes the sense of ‘belongingness and love needs’ of an individual. Everyone requires this sense of belongingness and love needs. These are best addressed in the family setting. The fulfilment of this need ensures that each individual in the family feels part of it and can also experience the shared interaction with the other members. People even as they interact at the public level also need their own individual ‘space’. Individual privacy levels are also necessary for the overall well-being of the person. These are realities that are not possible within the slum areas.

When social networks at a public level and the need for mutual caring and protection are lacking crime and vandalism may occur. At a private level individuals also need time and space on their own for self-reflection and intimate conversations when these are frustrated withdrawal depression or illness does occur. It is important that the home provides for the two scenarios: interaction and retraction as required by the individual. If these are lacking in the home front the individuals will look for it elsewhere and perhaps in the wrong place, which can be serious for the young. This need indicates that ample space is required to provide good liveable home environments.

Privacy required includes both visual and acoustic, which are necessary. Basic and separate functional spaces are required, that is, for the basic human functions sleeping, washing, socialising, cooking and ablution. There are major privacy violations in for example one-roomed houses where the divisions are flimsy or non-existent as seen in many slum dwellings. Specific spaces are required for family living and for seperation of the male and females as well as the parents.

Government Policy and Way Forward to Improve the Situation

The urban Municipal Councils have the duty to provide the basic infrastructure as well as the legal backing to secure the land. More often than not the land is occupied illegally by slum dwellers and it is usually government land or municipal authority land or railway reserves (as is the case in Kibera) or lipellian wayleave (as is the case in Mathare). These people need some tenure for their land to be well re-located or the slums upgraded.

Proper policies need to be put in place to ensure that slums are eradicated without the inhuman clearance and evictions that have happened in Nairobi. Cognizance needs to be made that slums do constitute a percentage of the housing stock and a percentage of the populace of Nairobi, hence plans need to be made to improve the conditions without wholly relegating the problem to the users as community groups and to non-governmental organizations. NGOs seem to be the key players in most slum upgrading programmes and not the government or quasi-government institutions.

The UN Agenda 21 encompasses the broad based integrated approach to the provision of shelter and supporting infrastructure facilities. It is clear from many of the projects that do not involve the community adequately that the real problems are not addressed. Self-help construction in isolation does not assist in creating that sense of belonging and ownership, it is far from just an issue of provision of cheap self-help labour.

Infrastructure planning and development needs to be well designed and organized by professionals who need to give the appropriate densification. Architects and Planners also need to re-think clearly of the best possible way to deliver shelter and services to the low-income and also to ensure that the actual owners benefit. Several projects including Umoja and Dandora are clear examples of development for the poor that does not end up with them. Previous efforts by government agencies to provide for the shelter was ineffective as the original owners have sold out to middle and high-income owners and developers who have made major changes to the original estate. A lot of thought also needs to be made on a well-structured management system so that any proposed projects have. There are very few of the original allotees actually leaving in their houses. The mechanisms for the control of development very often seem to be unsuccessful.

Slum upgrading as an alternative provides for the possibility to improve the living conditions and also creates an opportunity to weave into such settlements the necessary infrastructure and utilities to give a better quality of life for the residents. It can also be the right time to design or enhance the spatial quality of the open areas used for social and public interaction. The need for public/open spaces in urban environments is highlighted these can be incorporated through design in slum upgrading projects and in proposed housing developments. Ample space is also important so that different members of a household are able to have their space.

Achieving the Common Good and the Need for Justice to Achieve a Better Life for the Dignity of the Human Person

The aim of any society is to achieve the common good that should contribute to the well being of each person in the society. Those that govern have an obligation to contribute to that mission of the common good through appropriate legislation or incentives that enable people to do this. Laws should be just as well as reflect the Natural Law.

Material goods are important in order for people to access education, cultural goods and peace. People’s freedom needs to be respected, they have a right to own property and to work and in this way contribute towards the Common Good themselves. Through work they should also be able to and have a right to create wealth to provide for their needs and to improve their state in life. They also need to have a good and decent environment in which to live a dignified life. This is where urban design and housing play a key role in enhancing peoples’ quality of life. Housing and shelter is one of the basic needs of any society. It is also one of the main agendas of the UN-HABITAT through their campaigns on “Shelter for All”.

The right to own property entails some form of security of tenure and access to land. Security of tenure also minimizes the possibility of vulnerability, fear of evictions especially for minority groups of people and enables them to invest.

When there are very apparent disparities.

In summary,

- Poor housing and slums constitute a myriad of other problems for the society including, moral, social, physical and economic decadence

- Security of tenure important in encouraging self-development of the slum dwellers

- Open spaces are important for social interaction and individuals also require private areas

- Role of the government and municipal authorities needs to be amplified especially in the provision of basic infrastructure and access to land

- The Common Good needs to be attained for the dignity of every individual in society. The disparity that currently exists in living conditions is an indication that unjust policies are in place.


Robbins E (2003): Immigration, Gentrification and the Neighbourhood in Oslo School of Architecture Yearbook 2003

UNCHS (Habitat) (1999): Informal settlement upgrading: the demand for capacity building in six pilot cities. UNCHS (Habitat) Nairobi

Kenyatta (1979): Facing Mount Kenya. Kenway Publications Nairobi


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