Urbaninform: Giving a Voice to Best-Practices from Informal Cities

Screenshot from urbaninform.net

Screenshot from urbaninform.net

by Valentin Schipfer

Having introduced a blog on Rio de Janeiro’s favelas in my last post, I’ll present another  new web-tool which serves as a communication channel for places, namely UrbanInform.net. It gives  a voice to social investments in urban informal settlements.

The website’s creators are three architects  from Zurich/Switzerland. As the provision of proper housing, infrastructure, and public services has become the major challenge for municipalities, informal settlements are considered legitimate bottom-up responses. Planners and officials today aim at avoiding eviction and integrating those settlements into the city. This integration corresponds with a different attitude towards bottom-up urban economy. Green and social entrepreneurship strengthen the equitable urban development. Civic society and private industry are playing an increasingly important role in urban governance. It is the urban population that is constructing the city, doing business, cooperating, socializing and organizing it. Theory is all well and good – what does this look like in practice?

The two initiators are fascinated by the flexibility and adaptability of self-built and self-organized systems which have proven to be most resilient to the current economic crisis. Therefore urbanInform wants to associate this immense know-how developed bottom-up with professionals and experts on a global level. urbaninform connects new urban economies with urban design strategies, formal with informal actors, bottom-up with top-down organizations, and micro with macro scales in order to support an equitable and sustainable urban development.

The map view of urbanInform’s mini docs.

Most of these ideas and social innovations have not reached a large public before. Thus they chose to set up this website which is accessible even for people with low bandwidth. Since the website’s launch in September 2009 projects from informal settlements related to the tool scale (techniques), the architecture scale (design) or the working scale (strategies, finances or urban design layout) can be presented there. UrbanInform calls them “Mini Docs”. To maintain an easy upload and access these mini docs are kept in a simple flash format.

During a short period of time the website became very popular among local stakeholders, NGOs, city officials, architects, urban design students, and other actors – mostly from the southern hemisphere. More than 100 currently listed projects are meeting questions like: How can we reconfigure existing production modes and re-urbanize finances, resources and social capital? How can we redesign sustainable urban economies? How can we redirect city building into a sustainable practice?

In 2009 and 2010 urbanInform has launched two competitions looking for social businesses, green businesses and good urban governance as new domains combining entrepreneurship with social and ecological values. To provide you with an example of a mini doc, the winner of the latest first prize is presented here. You can now choose to either watch the mini doc by clicking here  or to read the following three paragraphs.

Kibera – the biggest slum in Sub-saharan Africa.

The Kibera Public Space Project from Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest informal settlement in Nairobi/ Kenya is led by the Kounkuey Design Initiative which tries to transform the impoverished community by collaborating with residents to create low-cost and productive public spaces that improve their daily lives. In 2007, Kounkuey Design Initiative and engineering partner Buro Happold designed the simple, stone and wire-mesh gabion system—with input and costing advice from Eco-Build Africa and the residents in Kibera—to create flood control for a viable recreation and economic space.

The pavilion as a flexible space for the community.

Together with Kounkuey Design Initiative participating residents constructed a shade pavilion to serve as a flexible space for the community. The pavilion can accommodate more than 200 residents. Operable tin panels open and close to regulate air and light, and are used as a drying rack for harvested water hyacinth. The roof of the pavilion funnels rainwater into two 10,000-liter tanks. The water is then sold by the community group that operates the site. Since its construction, both a school and a church have requested the use of the pavilion for their activities and now rent the space from the community group.

“Grow Kenya’s” compost from collected vegetable waste.

Income-generating activities were introduced at the site in order to pay for maintenance and operation. Each enterprise contributes a percentage of their profits to a site maintenance fund. The small urban farm is used for group members to grow and wholesale vegetables to local kiosk operators. In this same space a business called “Grow Kenya” produces compost from collected vegetable waste from kiosks around Kibera that is in turn packaged and sold to residents. A third group, “Kiki Weavers,” is a women’s weaving cooperative that harvests water hyacinth, an invasive weed choking the nearby Nairobi dam, to create, sell and export eco-friendly baskets and crafts. The implementation of the project was completed in March 2010. In case you have not clicked on the mini doc’s link above, I’d like to invite you to have a short look on urbanInform’s website . I am sure you’ll find something new to you.

“Kiki Weavers” – a women’s weaving cooperative.

In order to return to the question about UrbanInform’s role in social place branding, I would like to add a few words. I am going along with Anholt’s suggestion that brand management for cities  should be treated as a component of regional policy as well as that cities should find clearer domestic agreement on societal goals and install a climate where (social) innovation is prized and practised. Thinking a couple of steps ahead: This could also be seen as an invitation to talk about existing and well functioning projects like the one above. Why not giving a stronger voice to socially innovative programs, spreading its know-how on the one hand and stimulating the image of the place on the other? In my eyes a good idea! UrbanInform is ideally suited for this.  It spreads practices from informal cities which probably could be adapted to problems elsewhere. In addition it could be a helpful tool for the last steps of the brand management process – the communication of the progam’s/project’s success and stimulate the place’s image.

Apart from that I am convinced that sooner or later the urban societies from the northern hemisphere will look for know-how from self-organizing communities satisfying local needs with local materials– especially in times of change. Entirely in accordance to the trend that global movements from South to North are not limited to humans, cultural practices and cheap commodities anymore but expand to governances treating poverty alleviation, social exclusion and violence. UrbanInform.net will be a welcome addition!

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3 Responses to Urbaninform: Giving a Voice to Best-Practices from Informal Cities

  1. Pingback: Pick of the Day: African Cities and the Evil of Global City Development Paradigms « Places.

  2. Pingback: 7 best-practices of places jolting people into action « Places.

  3. Pingback: More Innovations from Informal Settlements! « Places.

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