The world needs new ways of thinking and approaches to achieve sustainability. Tinkering – adjusting and moulding of existing landscapes through small scale “urban experiments” that can result in dramatic shifts in the way the landscape works as a system – where designing for multifunctionality provides innovative solutions to the problems of sustainable development in the context of rapidly changing conditions. This approach can both guide the design of new, and redesign of existing, urban structures, as well as promote innovative integration of grey, green and blue infrastructure.

Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, is part of The Urban Natural Assets for Africa (UNA) initiative that aims to bring together communities, local and regional government, scientific researchers and urban planners to identify challenges and solutions to urban development.

Designed to do just that was a three day Urban Tinkering Walking Workshop. Different stakeholders came together and walked along a 3km stretch of the Auji River, identifying sites where innovative tinkering solutions could be applied to overcome urgent challenges. For example, when the Auji floods, many residents living along its banks have to leave their homes. An estimated three thousand children whose schools get flooded have to stay at home for several weeks. Other problems include poor management of waste water and solid waste. Illegal dumping into the river contributes to contaminating the water and the pollution passes through the food chain via the fish that are caught and eaten locally. Another concern is the overgrown vegetation along the river banks that poses a threat to the safety and security of women and girls when they are walking nearby.

Urban Tinkering and other methods such as participatory photography were used during the workshop to help the diverse group of participants bring together their different types of knowledge and experience. Inspiring and informing each other, their collective insights helped to generate innovative ideas for low cost, nature-based solutions that can be implemented over the next few months.

The following gives a visual snapshot of some of the highlights from the workshop.

Identifying challenges using Urban Tinkering principles

The photographs were taken by small groups who together identified challenges and offered possible solutions that integrate nature and people’s needs.

1.Integrate grey, green and blue infrastructure

Use the urban living system (green areas, rivers etc.) and the built environment (roads, buildings etc.) together to better meet all the integrated needs of cities.

2.Fail-safe to safe-to-fail

A “safe-to-fail” approach means trying new things by approaching an issue from a variety of angles, with the expectation that some might fail. This allows for a number of emerging opportunities previously not available under a “fail-safe” approach. Redesigning activities to have a “safe-to-fail” approach means there will be a higher probability of failing but that the consequences of failure will be lower.

The advantage of walking along the river and bringing together people who have diverse types of knowledge and experience is that the discussion over any one challenge includes many different perspectives. In one group, the idea of covering over part of the river to prevent illegal dumping raised a worry about losing vital species of plants that filter and purify the river water.

3.Build on what you have on the ground

Use the existing landscape and diverse local knowledge to create innovative and context specific solutions to existing challenges. Auji River has multiple functions and values for those who live and work along its banks. One group discussed making the community more aware of the consequences of pollution to their own well-being and therefore improving knowledge about ways to restore the river.

4.Nothing is useless

Re-imagine the use of existing urban elements and identify valuable shifts in how they work. Shifting infrastructure functions create the opportunity for design adaptability and innovation, allowing infrastructure elements to serve multiple, often unrelated, functions that address context-specific challenges.

5.Informality as an opportunity

Informality is common in African cities, especially where rapid urbanisation overtakes the ability of planners to keep up. Urban tinkering allows for greater levels of flexibility and adaptability in planning. Therefore, urban tinkering unlocks the innovation in informality which can be used as an opportunity.

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