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Through participatory research and planning approach, the Kitui Learning Studio sought to provide a critical understanding of the lived experiences encountered by residents of informal settlements in Kitui Town, and the same to identify possible interventions that can have positive transformative impacts. This was premised on the position that to effectively plan for inclusive and sustainable urban development in Kitui, it is imperative to develop a good understanding of the town’s functioning, growth dynamics, and socio-political landscape including how residents relate to the town; socially, economically and spatially.

The purpose of the studio was to up-scale previous studio programs conducted by the Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and the Association of Africa Planning Schools (AAPS) in Africa (Kenya included), through shifting focus from an individual informal settlement approach to a town-wide approach. This was accomplished through use of various participatory research tools including: settlement mapping and profiles, participatory Geographic Information Systems (P-GIS), structure tallying, focused group discussions, household questionnaires, photography and observation. Drawing from the data collected, the studio engaged select members of the community in participatory planning and design workshops, upon which an integrated set of strategies but also with thematic focus, were developed.

The studio was conducted in Kitui town, which is in Kitui Central ward of Kitui County, Kenya. The town is the county’s administrative head quarter, and the largest in the county. Surrounded by agricultural rural communities, the unplanned town’s expansion has resulted in complex peri-urbanization; informal developments and spontaneous growth of informal settlements. It is these informal settlements which was the focus of the studio, with primary focus on the following settlements, categorized according to their spatial typology: (1) Spontaneous growth: Kalundu and Slaughter; (2 planned and degenerated areas: Mjini and Mosquito, and (3); hybrid form-a mix of informally planned growth and spontaneous growth: Majengo and Kunda-Kindu. Besides, given the interconnected nature between residential and economic aspects of urban informality, the studio extended focus to areas acting as informal work areas, especially the town’s main markets i.e. Kithomboani, Kunda-Kindu and Kalundu Markets.

The studio was implemented in two phases. The first phase of the studio involved participatory data generation and community engagement on data and its validation. This was followed by the second phase which focused on formulating interventions, which started with a day of community visioning and a week of rapid planning and design charrettes covering the following thematic areas, and which are the strategic interventions presented by this report: (1) Mobility and Connectivity, (2) Environmental Conservation and Improved [Open] Green Spaces, (3) Enhancing Access to Basic Services, (4) Access to Decent Affordable Housing for All, and (5) Investments in Public Markets and the Informal Economy.

The studio established that both planning and implementation of plans aimed at improving informal settlements and informal economic activities in Kitui have largely been ineffective. This is because previous attempts have been done at small scale, fragmented and highly selective in their focus, inadequate involvement of community members (beneficiaries), and their lack of integration with municipal management structures. The community leaders and residents involved in the studio specifically cited lack of political good will and commitment from previous local authorities and government, and piecemeal interventions by Non-Governmental Organizations as the major challenges.

To facilitate and enhance engagement between the county and community, and development partners, private sector, this report proposes an implementation framework which entails strategy and the respective priority interventions. The studio found the data and proposals as useful informing the formulation of possible transformation projects for the town. Due to the limited scope of the studio, the eventual implementation of the conceptual plan and design approaches and proposed policy guidelines assumes that working plans and designs, their costing and policy decisions can be derived from the outputs of this work.

Fundamentally, the studio established that numerous programmes and projects aimed at informal settlements upgrading have failed due to poor institutional integration. To overcome this, the studio recommends that all upgrading programmes and projects be aligned to the Kitui Town management. Part of this integration should ensure that communities and governments partner in local development. Such partnerships can be formally embedded within the Citizen Fora, as stipulated by the Urban Areas and Cities Act of Kenya.

The implementation of the studio was quite successful, with critical data and information generated, which offer a crucial basis for formulating interventions for urban informality in Kitui town. The studio, having been set-up as a learning platform for planning students, was instrumental in exposing students into practical participatory research and planning skills. At the same time, the studio acted as a tool for creating awareness among community members on the benefits of planning and demonstrated ways through which communities and government can constructively engage in planning for delivery of inclusive and sustainable development.

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