Thinking Big by Designing Small

Kounkuey Design Initiative is learning from the urban design movement’s failures and in the process, discovering new ways to collaborate with communities.

Story by Lyra Kilston

Photography by Ye Rin Mok

Published on

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At the edge of California’s Salton Sea, a community arts event called Projections kicked off on a warm evening last November with poetry readings and music performances ranging from heartrending Spanish ballads sung by a weathered man in a cowboy hat to teenagers grinding out speed metal. As the sun set, flocks of pelicans skimmed the calm, dark sea looking to roost, and families gathered outside the Yacht Club for homemade tamales, tortas and fiery Mexican street foods made and sold by Delicias Laguna Azul, a new collective of food vendors who had set up temporary stalls on the parking lot.

Inside the oddly named Yacht Club, a renovated community center that once boasted a marina during the area’s brief midcentury boom, meeting rooms displayed the artwork, traditional embroidery and folk art of local North Shore residents. In the next room, “The Salty Bottom Show” screened, a charming DIY news program produced by children and teens about their home on the northern shore of the beautiful, polluted Salton Sea in the Coachella Valley. Once it got dark and the desert stars blazed, people left the Yacht Club and walked down a long dark road marked by candles glowing in white paper bags to watch artworks and shadow scenes projected onto the walls of abandoned buildings, a reanimation of the decaying structures.

Shadow scenes are projected onto the walls of abandoned buildings at a community art event.

The many talents of North Shore’s residents were celebrated that night — a welcome change from their everyday lives in a place just 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles and a short drive from the golf courses near Palm Springs, yet notorious for DDT-tainted water, a shore lined with fish skeletons, high asthma rates and poverty.

“The residents talked a lot about the negative external perception of this area,” Shannon Scrofano tells me over the sound of laughter as people watched a cutout paper shadow projection on the wall of a former store. “So we worked a lot on self-image-making and the reasons that these people choose to live here.”

For the past two years, Scrofano, a multimedia designer, artist Evelyn Serrano and their colleagues from Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), a nonprofit public interest design organization, have been commuting from L.A. to work with North Shore residents on the cultural projects displayed that night. They’ve run the youth workshops that produced “The Salty Bottom Show,” published four issues of a bimonthly print and online community newspaper, El Progreso, which celebrates the local history and developments in the community, encouraged local economic development like the antojitos vendors, and worked with residents to create a logo for North Shore that features a large “O” to represent a space of potential. Scrofano, Serrano and half a dozen North Shore residents proudly wore T-shirts with the logo on it that night.

Women make Mexican street food as part of Delicias Laguna Azul, a new collective of food vendors who set up temporary stalls outside the Yacht Club.

But KDI’s most ambitious project is a five-acre public park that Scrofano, Serrano and their colleagues are working with residents to design and develop. It will be the community’s first public park.

In workshops, Scrofano says, residents focused on articulating the positive facets of their home. “We’re going to see those things — the beauty of the stars and the sea, the birds and the fish — reflected in the artistic aspects of the park,” she says.

Conceived in part as a way to engage the community while the park is in development, the cultural programs and opportunities to perform have resonated deeply with residents. That night, Maria Galaviz Luna, the local poetry instructor, became emotional as she told me how her students came to her class every Tuesday night after long days working hard in the fields, quickly washing the dirt from their faces before sitting down to write poetry. Some of them had never learned how to write in Spanish. Her pride was apparent as she watched them read to the audience sitting in folding chairs beneath the fading sky.

During the performances, the audience was rapt and warmly supportive of their neighbors. The satisfaction in what they had built and all that was coming was palpable. “These programs are the heart, and the new park will be the body,” says Ailin Vasquez, a North Shore mother of three who often hosts KDI and community meetings at her house. She smiles widely before finishing her thought. “It’s overwhelming how this park is going to change this community.”

A student of Maria Galaviz Luna shares a poem she wrote.

Despite the Coachella Valley’s dry desert climate, an aquifer enables agriculture, and thus, a population of around 3,400 people in North Shore. Ninety percent of its residents are Mexican or Mexican-American farm laborers (of those, an estimated half are Purépecha, an indigenous group from the state of Michoácan). The unincorporated town is surrounded by groves of date palms and citrus, but lacks schools, grocery stores, parks and until recently, a presence on maps.

“We are a small community … we often feel abandoned and ignored,” Ailin’s husband, Lucio, a pastor and member of the Mecca-North Shore Community Council, tells me in the Yacht Club’s art gallery. “Over a year ago, we heard about people from Los Angeles who wanted to help us, to empower this community.”

In the spring of 2016, the five-acre park will break ground, providing North Shore with its first soccer fields, a shaded pavilion for gatherings, play structures, an area for food and craft sellers, a skate park, picnic areas, cultural programming, community-designed public artwork, and a bike-share system. Making the new amenities possible in one of California’s poorest regions are philanthropic dollars raised by KDI from foundations including the California Endowment, Artplace America and the Surdna Foundation. (The Surdna Foundation is also a supporter of Next City.) “We need space for our kids,” Ailin says. “Otherwise they just play in the dirt.”

Right now, an empty field of pale soil and dry brush is all that is visible of the park. But a large yellow sign posted by the street reads “El Parque.” Some of the letters on the sign have already faded from the harsh Sonoran Desert sun. Parks take time to build, especially in a place with no precedent.

Learning to “Know Intimately”

The “K” in KDI stands for Kounkuey, a Thai word meaning “to know intimately.” The word is fundamental to the nonprofit’s approach to community design. I first met KDI’s executive director and co-founder, Chelina Odbert, at its main office, a small room covered with models and site plans in a century-old Beaux Arts building in downtown Los Angeles. Odbert, 38, has a tangle of brown curls and tends toward comfortable clothing accented by a piece of simple, folky jewelry. In spite of overseeing several complex projects at a time, she has a calm demeanor and a warm, easy smile. She was raised in Sacramento, but L.A. has been her home base on and off since college.

She was in her first year at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) when the idea for KDI began to take shape. By her final year at the school, Odbert and five of her classmates had begun doing projects under the name KDI.

“I didn’t want to be a traditional planner,” she explains. “I wanted to use design as a means for promoting social justice and equity. We were all seeking alternatives to traditional design careers.” Ten years later, three of the original six members — Odbert, an urban planner, landscape architect Jennifer Toy (who left and recently returned), and Nairobi landscape architect Arthur Adeya — are still with KDI.

Odbert glimpsed the importance of gaining intimate knowledge of a community during a studio course in the favelas of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. She recalls noticing a small fenced playground in the derelict neighborhood and assuming local families were happy to have such a space. But when she asked a resident about it, he explained that the playground was reviled. No plans had been made to maintain the space and drug dealers had taken it over. “I realized then that design alone was not enough,” she says. “Building something and leaving it there wouldn’t guarantee impact. You have to build in the economic and social sustainability too.”

After the light bulb went off, she began noticing just how many well-meaning yet unsuccessful urban design interventions were out there. Odbert, along with Toy, spent her final year of school studying failed urban improvement projects around the world, especially slum upgrades in developing countries.

KDI’s first project together was a two-week independent research trip to Kenya, where co-founder Arthur Adeya was from. The plan was to talk to residents of Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera, and explore how to best make use of their design training. “Going in, our big question was: Can our skills as designers be useful in non-traditional places, to mitigate environmental degradation or poverty?” Odbert says.

While they knew that a participatory planning process with the affected community was essential, they quickly learned that 14 days in a new place wasn’t going to tell them much.

Kibera has hosted countless iterations of international aid groups, many of which fly Western professionals in and out for a quick experience of “helping.” The cynicism of the residents about another batch of foreigners dropping in for a quick solution was understandable. “We tried to gather a group of residents together to hear their thoughts about what they needed most from their neighborhood, and some would only come if we paid them, which we were not in a position to do. They had been through these processes before, many times, with very little payback,” Odbert says. “The moment for real breakthrough was when we showed up again.”

Showing up over and over again defines KDI’s approach of “knowing intimately.” “We always begin by asking questions, not just about the particulars of a space and what residents want, but more broadly about how residents live, how their community is structured, how do they define community, who are leaders, who is typically excluded, etc.,” Toy says. “It’s so important to understand the existing assets and weaknesses of a community, because without that understanding, any proposal is unlikely to be supported.”

While in Kenya, KDI also worked to define their methodology for what they call “Productive Public Spaces.” In order for a new public space to be sustainable, they realized, it had to have economic and social benefits embedded within its physical structure. Several criteria were determined for Productive Public Spaces: The sites are formerly underutilized or even unsafe; they are conceived, constructed and maintained by the people who use them; they are income generating, sustainable and socially beneficial; they would not be realized by other channels; they employ strong design to make beautiful spaces; and they act as catalysts to improve the social, economic and environmental lives of their users.

“Public space can work a lot harder than it typically does,” Odbert says. “We are always asking: ‘What else can this site provide for you?’”

In Kibera, KDI’s ability to create Productive Public Spaces was honed. Due to the density and lack of space, no project had the luxury of meeting just one goal. The first space they took on was a trash-filled flood zone that residents avoided due to mud and crime. Over four years, KDI worked with several community groups they had reached out to during their initial research trip, such as the Soweto Youth Group (young adults working as waste collectors), to design and build multiple improvements to the site — flood-control walls made of stacked rocks, a bridge, a multipurpose hall, an office, Kibera’s first playground, a water kiosk, an amphitheater, public toilets and showers, and vegetable beds. The site was then able to generate income from several of the above amenities, as well as from hosting a women’s weaving collective and a composting business — transforming it from an unusable eyesore into a self-sustaining community hub.

Nine years later, KDI has completed seven public space projects in Kibera, with three more in progress. Each is unique, yet follows the same method: very close communication and collaboration with a community leading to a multilayered design solution.

From the beginning, KDI invested in young local designers, planners or architects as interns or assistants in order to build a local team. Today, 12 of the 13 staff members in KDI’s Kibera office are Kenyan, and a Coachella Valley office is underway. It’s no longer outsiders coming in to improve conditions, but local coordinators, designers, engineers and project managers working to better their own city. Ibrahim Maina, a Kibera native and project manager for KDI, has been with KDI since the beginning, in 2006. “I chose to work with KDI instead of another NGO because KDI creates team relationships with the communities, and I really love that aspect,” he writes in an email. “Through workshops and meetings, KDI has enhanced a good relationship with the Kibera community and created trust, which has really helped to introduce or replicate their ideas to other villages.”

Sticking to nimble, low-cost design solutions and collaborative partnerships, KDI has completed a remarkable number of sustainable projects in its first decade, and increasingly, the international aid community is paying attention. In 2014, UN-Habitat invited KDI to join an expert group working toward new policies and directions for public space. The resulting report, “Global Public Space Toolkit: From Global Principles to Local Policies and Practices,” was published in 2015.

Different Continents, Similar Struggles

While working in Kenya, Odbert sometimes wondered what KDI’s methodology would look like closer to home. At first, she imagined applying it to impoverished communities in dense U.S. cities, but then a colleague told her about the growth of unpermitted trailer park communities of poor seasonal agricultural workers in the Coachella Valley. Local authorities were trying to close down the trailer parks because of severely unsanitary conditions like crumbling structures and pools of raw sewage. By 2009, Odbert was back in L.A. and ready to see the Coachella Valley in person. She drove out to the North Shore and started talking to people.

After about a year of listening and connecting, she was able to determine how KDI could be useful.

“I heard word for word the same stories in Coachella that I heard in Kibera,” Odbert says. Despite the vast differences, both sites suffer from unpaved roads that turn into mud slicks when it rains. “In each place,” she says, “parents told me that when it rains their children wear plastic bags over their shoes until safely out of their neighborhood, so their schoolmates won’t only see the mud on their shoes.”

Children play on a new playground in St. Anthony’s Trailer Park in the Coachella Valley.

Odbert brought me to KDI’s first project in the Coachella Valley, a public space completed in 2013 for St. Anthony’s Trailer Park, just a few miles drive along an orchard-lined road (actually named Grapefruit Boulevard) from North Shore. As we turned off to reach St. Anthony’s, she was happy to see that the formerly pot-holed dirt road had recently been paved. Loose dogs roamed the perimeter of around 100 trailers, huddled together around a central courtyard of packed dirt with a playground, raised garden beds, a wooden stage and benches for events, and a shade pavilion developed by KDI with a group of resident volunteers. As we parked, Odbert waved excitedly to Maria Redondo, a resident who had been deeply involved in the planning process. Maria hurried over to give Odbert a hug and updated her on the neighborhood news in rapid Spanish. One layer of the design solution KDI put in place at St. Anthony’s was partnerships with local nonprofits and schools to offer onsite nutrition and gardening. Watching children clamber over the red-and-white ladders and slides of the play structure and seeing edible nopales cacti growing in the garden beds, it’s hard to believe that when KDI began meeting to discuss the residents’ needs just a few years ago, this same area was an empty trash-strewn lot, as underused as the empty El Parque site in North Shore.

Tipping the Scales

While projects in Kenya and Coachella develop, KDI is expanding farther into other neglected, park-poor zones of Southern California, some of which are just across a freeway from multimillion-dollar homes in L.A. They tend to look for slivers of underutilized spaces hidden in plain sight. “We’ve committed to working in areas where it may be harder to do permanent work for political, economic or social reasons,” Toy says. The decision to work in these marginal spaces has led them to more experimentation with temporary installations. “We’ve started with the idea of putting ‘facts on the ground’ in these places — pop-up projects that can demonstrate what is possible,” she says. “We like to show solutions first because it makes the problems harder to dismiss and the obstacles easier to overcome.”

On a hot weekend in late October, I visited one of their pop-ups, a Halloween and Dia de los Muertos party in a vacant lot in South L.A., one of an estimated 3,000 such lots in the area. It was the fifth event held by Free Lots Angeles, an initiative of six Los Angeles nonprofits, including KDI, which temporarily transforms empty lots into vibrant community spaces.

After meetings with residents, held at a nearby parenting center, KDI heard that the primary need was safe places for their kids to play, afterschool activities and exercise areas. They worked with neighborhood participants to transform the shadeless lot with bright, candy-colored paint, demarcating zones for playing and dancing. They co-designed a meandering aqua path on the ground and AstroTurf-covered mounds to mimic hills — both additions evoking a natural landscape without necessitating water, a key maintenance issue in drought-era L.A. During the party, food and drinks were sold near a Dia de los Muertos altar adorned with family photographs and edible offerings. Children made drawings at arts and crafts stations or played games; a Zumba class got people dancing; bands played and residents collaborated on a mural.

Arts and crafts stands were set up for children and adults at a community art event in the North Shore.

Many of the vacant lots in the area have been that way since the 1965 Watts Rebellion. “There were so many empty lots to choose from,” Naria Kiani, KDI program associate, says. “And the city often wasn’t even sure which department owned them.” On the neighboring streets, many businesses seemed shuttered and the streets were quiet apart from a couple of preachers standing on opposite corners, melodiously shouting Spanish scripture into megaphones. But a big green sign on the corner, made for the event, read: FUN FOR ALL, and for one weekend, the neighborhood had its park.

KDI has also just begun a yearlong pilot program for Play Streets, an initiative of L.A.’s Department of Transportation and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets program. Through the program, KDI will investigate how residents like to play on a street when cars are cleared away. KDI’s hope is that by the end of the year they will have developed a one-size-fits-all kit of supplies that any community can borrow from the city to turn a street into a place for all ages to relax and play.

After all, the goal of making unusable public spaces “work harder” applies not only to muddy flood zones in an informal settlement in Kenya, or empty desert in Southern California, but to pavement within cities that’s monopolized by cars or fenced off and neglected. “The thread,” Odbert says, “is that we see a lot of value and potential in underutilized or overlooked spaces in our cities. Each project may look really different on paper, but they’re all addressing very similar problems by applying the same solution process. It’s the physical, political and economic specifics of each context that create the unique outcomes.”

Ultimately, KDI’s ambitions are to gradually improve living conditions on a larger regional level, not just park by park. “One project, no matter how great, won’t solve the big problems … they must be linked to a large strategy of problem solving,” Odbert says. When KDI began working in Kibera, one of the first things they tackled was a master plan for the whole neighborhood that addressed water pollution, public health and unemployment. But knowing how hard it would be to gain support for such grand-scale plans motivated KDI to choose a different tactic. Odbert and her colleagues worked with residents to create a network of seemingly discrete sites designed to meet specific local needs and sustained by well-trained local staff. While unique to Kibera, the network was a template that other communities could adapt. As a small firm, this is the way they work large: by listening to person after person, densely layering spatial and social improvements, and eventually tipping the scales.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Lyra Kilston is a writer and 4th-generation Angeleno. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, Time, and Wired, among other publications.

Ye Rin Mok is a photographer based in Los Angeles.

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