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To Build a Great Public Space, You Need More Than Good Design

In low-income neighborhoods, even the best-designed parks and community centers go to waste if no one uses them. The nonprofit Kounkuey Design Initiative is taking that challenge head-on.

A child plays skips through a sidewalk in Los Angeles, where the Kounkuey Design Initiative is creating pop-up play streets in low-income neighborhoods. (Kounkuey Design Initiative)

The late urbanist William H. Whyte famously observed the designs that ruin public spaces, from excluding places to sit and gather to creating dead zones. But even the best-designed public spaces can be a waste if no one uses them. This is especially true in low-income communities.

“A pitfall is thinking that design can solve all the problems,” says Chelina Odbert, the cofounder of the nonprofit Kounkuey Design Initiative. “As architects and planners, we like to think that our skills cover a lot of different disciplines, and that's true. But design alone is never going to be enough.”

Low-income residents are among those who benefit the most from public spaces. Parks can provide a safe space for children to play, and community centers can host civic programs for residents. Squares and plazas can be used for public gatherings and marketplaces, boosting the social and economic quality of life. But architects can’t just parachute into a neighborhood with a public park and expect to fix everything.

The Kounkuey Design Initiative has a different approach. With more than a dozen projects currently in progress, the organization works in the Americas and in Africa to build what they call productive public spaces for low-income communities. They do those through participatory design, engaging with the neighborhoods from start to finish. (Kounkuey is the Thai word for the idea of knowing something intimately, which Odbert says embodies KDI’s mission.) It was one of five winners of The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, which recognizes innovative grassroots efforts that help underserved communities.

One project involves collaborating with residents in Los Angeles to turn vacant lots into public space. (Kounkuey Design Initiative)

CityLab caught up with Odbert after the award ceremony on Thursday. To understand why projects succeed or fail, she looked back a few years, to when she was still a graduate student at Harvard University. While working on a research project in a favela in Brazil, she came across a park, seemingly out of place amid the crowded homes and unpaved alleyways. Odbert was ecstatic, but not for long.

With the scarcity of space for gathering or play, you would expect residents to want a formal open space like this. But that wasn’t the case here, was it?

At first I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is amazing! This must be a wonderful transformative project.” So I started asking the people who live in the houses right around it. The first guy I talked to lived directly across the street from it, and he said that, actually, this park is the worst thing that's ever happened to this neighborhood.

He said that the park itself was not a bad idea, but when it was built, nothing else was thought of. There's no maintenance, no activities programmed, so really the park has just become a place for other people to appropriate for their own needs—and most of that appropriation is done by criminals or people doing things that negatively impact the community.

What does that say about the limits of design in public space?

When you ask residents what their biggest priority needs are, things like housing are generally somewhere on the list, but they're never at the top. The problems are always much bigger than just the physical. They're economic, and they're social, so design can play a critical role, but it can't be the solution on its own.

That was the sort of project that propelled what we do today into action. We said that we can never just build a park, or a school, or anything else, and walk away, because it will not lead to sustainability. We need to consider mechanisms for these public spaces to generate enough income to pay for themselves, to pay for their basic upkeep, and to ensure their basic needs. Then we need to work with the residents around this space to be sure that they have the social capacity to keep the space running.

How does that kind of public space look and function?

Our work in Kenya shows how that can be done. Kibera is a very large urban informal settlement in Nairobi, where about half a million people live in a space the size of New York's Central Park. There, we've been building a network of productive public spaces along the river system that runs through the settlement. The river is really what people use to move waste away from them.

What our work does is reclaim waste spaces along that river and transform them into a productive and remediating space. Each public space, about the size of a small park, might have eight or 10 different things happening, and half of those would generate income. A typical project might have a greenhouse or a garden where the vegetables are sold. It may have a clean water tap where water is sold to local residents, or it might have basic thing like toilets and showers that people don’t have in their homes. It might also have things like a women's craft cooperative, where they weave and sell goods.

All of those things earn a small amount of revenue, which feeds into a site maintenance fund and also allows community members to boost their household income. We're not just designing the space. We're designing the programming for the space. And so we are saying, what are the talents and resources the community has that can be used as income-generating activity, because that is a priority? Our idea is that as this network grows—we’re building our 10th one—you begin to reclaim that river bit by bit.

When KDI builds a community center in Kenya’s biggest slum, the whole community is involved from start to finish. (Kounkuey Design Initiative)

You’ve also worked in Los Angeles, where gang activity often happens in open spaces. How do you transform these places into, say, a playground and convince the public that it’s safe for their children to play there?

We’re working really closely with residents and groups like the Watts Gang Task Force. Together, we’re deciding where we will have the highest probability of successfully transforming a space that's seen as dangerous into a safe space.

Then the things that actually change behavior are simple things like activating a space with programming that the community wants most. In the case with the park in the favela, there was a lot illicit behavior there because nothing else was happening. It can also be as simple as making sure that lighting and sidewalks are present. And by design, it's not a space that works for those illicit activities anymore.

But they can also become part of the solution, because our work puts community members at the center, and that includes people who may also happen to be members of gangs.

How so?

In East L.A., people who are gang members have been the people helping us to change the street into other uses. That project is called Play Streets, and it's about creating temporary public spaces. It's a partnership with the L.A. Department of Transportation and the mayor's office.

We designed this sort of mobile kit of parks, or park in a box, that gets deployed on a street and transforms it into a play street for people of all ages. In Boyle Heights, a community group identified a particular street that’s known to have a lot of gang activity, but that's exactly why these residents want to do it there. They determined that this street needed the most impact.

When we started to deploy the pop-up park, the residents told us, “You see those guy bringing out the basketballs hoops, those are the gang members.” They were the ones who brought the balls out for kids to play with. It's just little things like that. By not excluding them or directly saying we're trying to get rid of you, and by recognizing that these are also members of the community who want to see improvements, they are part of the solution.

KDI has several projects in the works, but they spread across only a few areas. What’s the strategy there?

We can't just work in 20 different places at once; we really need to root ourselves in a place over time and build networks of projects, of people, and of political will. That way, our impact never just ends with the people that live in a 1-mile radius of the project. It can grow to affect policy change at the neighborhood, city,  and regional scale. All of these problems that we’re talking about—environmental degradation and poverty—those are not challenges that are solved by one group project. Our work as designers is build out those systems that begin to tip the scale at that larger level.

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