In today’s world it is common for us to associate cities with features like buildings, roads, cars and spaces. It is, however, important that we don’t forget the most important element in a city – its citizens. What is a city without its citizens? Probably a ‘lost city’ or ‘abandoned ruins’. Yet, more often than not,  we in the built environment profession neglect to prioritize people or the user experience in our day to day work.

We have seen buildings in Nairobi that must have their bulbs on all day because of poor natural  lighting and other buildings with poor foundations collapsing. We have seen highways built without any thought as to the people who may have to cross them and we have plenty of neighbourhoods built without any space for children to play. It took us 16 to 20 deaths to realize that Thika superhighway needed pedestrian crossings.

While planning our cities and towns, we may come across certain challenges that we can turn into strengths. We ought to be innovative and come up with diverse designs, ideas and concepts that are centered around the human person. These include historical factors of an area, demographic trends (urban growth), cultural elements (have you ever known that one of the reasons tuktuks are more popular than bodabodas at the coast is related to culture?), social issues (crime and unemployment) and the increased demand for infrastructure.

Some key considerations:

  • Social justice

Inasmuch as we must respect the right to private property, we have to cater for different income levels and ensure dignity for people of lower income levels. We must ensure that they have access to decent social services with opportunities for self growth. As planners we cannot simply leave them at the mercy of market forces.

  • Going beyond Return of Investments.

It is very tempting and easy to justify land uses based on short and medium term financial returns. However, we must recognize that there are some land uses that have qualitative value to human beings. These include schools, parks, libraries. Although they do not bring as many returns as flats or offices (especially libraries),  their value to the society is immeasurable.

  • Aesthetics

We have to make our cities and towns attractive to the human eye and heart. This requires creativity. Attractive urban environments  help reduce stress levels. It is said that the ‘trust’ hormone oxytocin, which is suppressed by stress, is more dominant in communities that are walkable and experience better social cohesion. Oxytocin has an impact on  people’s levels of empathy.

Transportation Planning

Bruce Appleyard once conducted an experiment where he asked children to draw their homes, schools, friends’ houses and places they liked and hated.  The results showed that those who lived in areas with heavy traffic hardly even knew their own neighbourhoods and vice versa. (A similar experiment was done in Kenya by the Aga Khan University where kids from the Parklands and Korogocho neighbourhoods were asked to take photos of places they liked. All the photos from Parklands were taken from either inside a car or a building while all those from  Korogocho were taken outdoors!

Aesthetics and greenery are also related to the health of  citizens.

Enrique Penalosa once stated that ‘Every detail in a city should recognize that human beings are sacred’.

It is therefore important that we consider vulnerable populations in our planning. A good example is in mobility. If we prioritize planning for the most vulnerable, we will eventually have a safe city. Plan first for children, then persons with disabilities, then women, then the elderly, then those using public transport and finally those who move themselves in cars. In Kenya we tend to do the opposite as if roads are the only indication of a developed city.

Imagine if Apple thought that we needed bigger computers so that we could have more powerful computers. The reason why we are able to have notepads and smartphones is because someone (Steve Jobs) incorporated the user experience, i.e the human person, in the first place.

People centric planning also requires us to go the entire journey with the people.  Participation is not just ‘informing; or ‘consulting for views.’ Prof Elijah Ndegwa of the department of Urban and Regional Planning once told of how he was involved in preparing a plan in Migori where at the end the people declared that we are the ones who have done this, the planners did it with us, but it is ours. It is important that we appreciate different levels of participation depending on different circumstances so as to avoid  people concluding that ‘they came to plan for us.’

The values of local people must also be taken into account. In conservation circles now there is an ongoing argument as to why local communities are viewed as ‘poachers’ and ‘dangerous for wildlife’ yet they have lived with the wildlife for centuries.  

We therefore have to spend time on the ground, with the people, in order to have a proper understanding and appreciation of who we are planning with. It is said that if you walk on a street you become more familiar with the surroundings than if you drive on it as driving provides only a very conical perspective.

Safety through design is also an important consideration. As Janette Sadik Khan once said ‘you get what you build for’ – with 39% of our traffic fatalities being pedestrians, why don’t we dedicate the same proportion of money to them in our transportation and safety planning? Do we install traffic lights to control right of way or speed? Can we have narrower streets in communal areas (proved to be safer)? Can curb extensions help drivers see pedestrians more clearly or force them to slow down?

Interestingly, a 2009 study by Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner from the University of Toronto compared 1980 and 2000 traffic statistics and noted the failure of the fundamental law of road congestion that increasing roadspace reduces congestion. Their studies concluded that extension of most major roads is met with proportional increase in traffic.

What can young people or ‘youth’ do?  

First of all, discard the victim mentality that has been ingrained in us by older people. We are not a mass of young people with nothing to do or waiting to be given any work for some small pennies. In this room we have the intellectual cream of Kenya.  You may have heard in my bio that I previously worked at Strathmore University. Do you know that it was started by a 23 year old (who later became a lecturer at this great institution as well)?

There are various ways we can influence our cities. One is through tactical urbanism; small experimental changes that can be implemented to make long term differences. Tactical methods are decentralized, bottom-up, extraordinary agile, networked, low cost and low tech methods. When Janette Sadik Khan experimented with closing off Broadway in NYC from vehicles to make it more walkable – that was a ‘tactical method.’ Rather than carrying out complex studies beforehand – try it out temporarily, if it works, make it permanent. Wayfinding techniques (directional signs), artistic approaches towards pedestrianization (like coloured zebra crossings or urban murals sending certain messages) are also good tactics. We can think of many more within our neighbourhoods and communities.

We have to recognize that mega projects will not necessarily solve our problems. Cities are organic beings, and not inorganic objects. This table, for instance, will remain a table forever unless someone intervenes to make it something else (in philosophy they say it has the ‘potency’ of being something else). But cities change whether you intervene or not. Technologies change – for example, we had horses for transportation, then bicycles, then cars. Now we are even talking about self driving cars and drones, among others. We therefore have to  constantly make incremental changes where necessary and not sit back assuming that we have come up with ‘ultimate solutions.’ Many times we hear very simplistic and ignorant headlines like ‘xyz will finally solve the problem of traffic congestion in Nairobi’. How can that be when the number of vehicles are constantly on the increase? Why don’t they say ‘xyz will provide more efficient and sustainable mobility options for the people of Nairobi’?

The need to read widely cannot be overstated. Sunday Nation Columnlist Sunny Bindra talks about how he always has a book in his hand. When he is waiting for someone in an office or coffee shop he can easily get 10 to 15 minutes of reading. For us, as students, we can easily utilize the time we spend in traffic opening our minds by doing the same. You will be surprised at the amount of knowledge outside the classroom that you will get. This also helps to shed light on where we have come from as a city, where we  are and where we need to go.

Finally, we need to really look into taking charge of our cities and towns. It is not always encouraging to hear that ‘external partners’ have come to do ABC for us, especially in urban development. We have seen other sectors facing all sorts of challenges because of this. In this room there are enough intellectuals to guarantee a sustainable future for East African Urban Development. We know our local needs, we are highly innovative people and we are capable of using modern approaches of engagement in our projects.

Thank you.

*This was a keynote address given at the launch of the Young Achievers Competition under the Core Awards on the 22nd of September 2018 at The University of Nairobi


2 thoughts on “Putting People at the Core of Design

  1. Inexpensive, practical and dynamic solutions to common problems that come from the people themselves, on trial basis. If something is not working, we must change it.

  2. Great Work Planner Constant Cap its very encouraging to hear that ur giving overwhelming support towards realization of Urban Design, where its about adding value and linking the other proffesions to the society

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