We recently had the opportunity to talk with another ISCS member from Africa, Ms. Priscilla Kabiru of Kenya. She is an urban and regional planner and was kind enough to share some of her thoughts and experiences with us.
ISCS: What is your work?
Priscilla: I am an urban planner. Although I must say urban planning is a largely misunderstood profession. Most of the time I am confused with an architect or surveyor; and it can be hard for people outside of the industry to grasp the need for city extension plans, spatial strategic plans, etc. It is therefore challenging in some instances. However, it is also exciting given that when making plans we do a sort of 3600 analysis of the project location, including the economic, social and environmental aspects and we also make future considerations, presenting one with the chance to create a positive all-round impact both presently and into the future.
ISCS: What was your role at UN Habitat and how did it prepare you for current independent work?
Priscilla: I was an urban and regional planner working within the Somalia program with different efforts such as projects specializing in internally displaced persons (IDP) and refugee returnees’ reintegration using urban planning as a facilitating tool for that process. I assisted with site plans for mass shelter construction; land subdivision and city plan layouts. We also were able to create a positive impact in facilitating the formation of structures of local governance in these situations. Somalia has been dealing with internal armed conflict for quite some time with various degrees of stability. On one hand there was a bit of a blank canvas to work with due to lack of any type of formal precedents, but the rapid growth of some cities combined with variable migrant populations added other pressures that make urban planning difficult. As a planner I was given an opportunity to work with amazing teams to help guide the direction of growth and create some sense of order in this chaotic environment. It was a one in a million chance for me as this opportunity gave me challenging experiences in urban planning that are quite unique when compared internationally. It has given me a different outlook on tackling urban planning challenges.
ISCS: Where do you work on your projects?
Priscilla: So far, most of the projects I have worked on have been in Kenya, specifically the Nairobi-metropolitan region and Somalia – Mogadishu, Kismayo, Baidoa, Bossasso and Gabiley.
ISCS: Did you always want to become an Urban Planner?
Priscilla: In general, I would say that my professional interests have always varied between technical fields focusing on science and technology and the creative “artsy” world. I remember wanting to be a neurologist and later a pilot (Priscilla still aspires to learn how to fly a plane), then a civil engineer. At some point I recall, I even wanted to be a music DJ (laughs). After doing well in high school, I got an offer in the school of Planning and Architecture where I found a balance between science, technology and art. Since then I have enjoyed the study and practice of urban planning.
ISCS: Could you describe for us an evolution of you urban planning and design work from when you first started until today?
Priscilla: I am still quite new in the profession and in many respects just getting started, but I hope that I will maintain my ability to always view a situation or project as new with its own unique problems rather than always relying on prescriptive past applications.
ISCS: Why are renders in architecture and planning important today?
Priscilla: By visualizing the result beforehand gives the developer/ designer a chance to make realistic adjustments to the plans. As for the clients, including investors, they are able to visualize how their financial resources will be utilized. This has made the relationship between developers, designers and their clients better, since from project conception they may enjoy a unified vision.
ISCS: What considerations do you make for material, technology and product selection?
Priscilla: The different environmental factors such as weather and climate of the geographic location of an area greatly affect the choice of materials to be used for construction. Also, with my experience working in Somalia, the duration for setting up a structure greatly affects the type of material used since some cases are emergency or transitional – in cases of shelter provision. In terms of technology, the available resources, including the financial budget and the number of skilled personnel; the materials to be used and the type of surface upon which the construction is being done are all factors considered.
ISCS: What influences outside of construction affect your work within construction?
Priscilla: Top of the list? I would say the political climate in Kenya. For instance, in the past year, we have conducted two elections. This greatly influenced our construction industry, where studies show the real estate growth slowed down in comparison to the preceding years. This was due to the political instability due to the possibility of change in government, which made many investors and developers wait out on projects until the matter settled.
ISCS: Where do you get your news from and how does it inform your work?
Priscilla: I get most of my news from the Internet and specifically social media and professional platforms with networks such as LinkedIn. This helps give me a global outlook on different news, development and research. By doing this, I get challenged on my ideas and approaches and I’m able to adjust them accordingly when appropriate.
ISCS: Do you read design and architecture magazines?
Priscilla: Yes I do. I find them interesting and refreshing and are an avenue for learning new things and getting new ideas and perspectives not only for my work but also the environment in which I live in. For example, ISCS recently shared an article from ‘The Architect’ magazine that described the different design concepts for the new Standard Gauge Railway terminals in Kenya. I found it enlightening to know the different meanings behind the terminal stations.
ISCS: What would you like to see organizations like ISCS focus their educational efforts on both designers and constructors on
Priscilla: I would propose urban planning based on two facts. Firstly, many studies and research reports indicate that there is a high rate of not only urban growth due to population growth, but also due to urban migration. Also, most of the global population dwells within the urban centers and this will continue to be the case as the world continues this path of urbanization. The need for proper planning and design is therefore more important than ever before. Secondly, most of the designers and constructors work in urban areas. Educating them on the urban issues and urban needs would be, or course, complimentary to their work.
ISCS: Do you talk about your work with people outside your office?
Priscilla: Yes I do. Mostly because my friends are also within the same field of work, so to speak – civil engineers, construction managers and architects etc. Also, as an urban planner, I love picking the minds of people in different professions who live in or are linked in some way to urban areas to get the non-technical perspectives of what works and what does not work in urban systems.
ISCS: Do you think there is an increasingly ‘globalized approach’ to architecture and urban planning that affects work in Kenya? In what ways does Kenya affect world architecture?
Priscilla: Yes. Globally there has been the uptake of adaptive architecture and urban planning, where more architects and planners are influenced by not only the environmental aspects of places, but also the cultural and historic aspects, which influence designs; this is also the case in Kenya.
Architecturally, Kenya presents to the world the diverse local building cultures that were there historically, practiced by the different communities. Kenya has 42 tribes within its borders each with their own unique practices, including house and homestead design. Material use is also different, as each of these tribes has adapted to the geography, climate and even social influences of a community. Through studying these practices, architects and other construction professionals have a source of inspiration for their works.
ISCS: Which project of yours are you most proud of looking back over your career?
Priscilla: While working at UN-Habitat, we developed Urban Profiles for two towns, Kismayo and Baidoa in Somalia, which act as spatial strategic plans. The profiles contain the social infrastructure present, geographically located on the town’s maps and the needed infrastructure, a process that was done in consultation with the locals and government. I am very proud of my contributions to this greater work. Given that Somalia still relies on humanitarian aid, these profiles have helped channel aid more effectively thus a reduction in redundancy of the provision of some services as it was before.
ISCS: Which planners from the past have inspired you the most?
Priscilla: From the past, it has to be Jane Jacobs (American-Canadian journalist and author). Though professionally she wasn’t a city/town planner, and was a writer, she was an urban activist and worked for public spaces in cities and community- based planning approaches that would better the lives of everyone.
ISCS: What advice do you give to people considering a career in planning?
Priscilla: If you would like to contribute into making urban areas and spaces that work for people, go for it!
ISCS: What are you most hopeful of regarding the future?
Priscilla: Technology. In using technology, there is the constant innovation and evolution of products, materials, analysis and research tools to influence and steer development into a sustainable future. Technology should always be used to help us plan and build more sustainably.
ISCS: Thank you for your time today Priscilla.