Socially activated spaces in informal settlements

Socially activated spaces in informal settlements – Be inspired

In a nutshell

The Emthonjeni project forms part of VPUU’s greater mission to upgrade public spaces in informal settlements to reduce violence and inequality and thus improve greater quality of life for residents living in informal settlements. The isiXhosa word Emthonjeni is referring to ‘being at the fountain’ – a place by the water. Traditionally, communities gather around an Emthonjeni to fetch water, do washing or simply spend time catching up on latest news and chatter. Such a place also exists in informal settlements: public taps.

What we do

Residents in urban-context informal settlements do not have access to running water in their homes. Typically 25-50 households share a public tap. This is the only place people can get water for drinking, washing and cooking. Public spaces play an important role in everyday life – it is seen as a ‘breathing’ space in between the dense housing setting. The goal of the Emthonjeni project is to drive social cohesion, improve safety and access to specific basic services by optimising the use and functionality of the existing spaces in between the dense houses. While the Emthonjeni can be used as a multi-functional place, in our work it is mostly promoted as a space for Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes and water collection point. Safe walkways link the space to other nodal points, such as ECD centres.

How we do it

Following a participatory approach, the community and the VPUU NPC as project partner identify public spaces at water taps. These spaces are mapped on a spatial ma of the overall settlement. Through a participatory discussion and design process specific spaces are prioritised and designed with the community members to function as Emthonjeni’s. Local members construct and landscape the Emthonjeni under professional supervision. Once the Emthonjeni is completed, opportunities for activation are vast: space for vaccinations, health awareness, safety meetings, youth programmes, training ground. We encourage local ECD centres to use it as an outreach space.

What we have achieved

The Emthonjeni project has taken route in 2 large informal settlements benefitting 30.000 residents. To date more than 20 emthonjenis/ public spaces have been implemented in those settlements. The concept has been replicated by a number of organisations and municipalities, primarily as an upgrade of the function of water collection and washing point.

Within the Emthonjeni projects the individual spaces are part of an overall public space system in informal settlements that link key facilities with each other and thereby being part of a systemic approach.

Community Ownership
Participatory conceptualization, design, implementation, operation and maintenance are key success factors that lead to community ownership. A high degree of transparency, integrity, promotion of voluntarism and accountability are factors that have contributed to the high acceptance in the communities we work in. Implementation is measureable and accountable to the funding partners and the community. Employment of local labour whilst at the same time working with local volunteers, who gain access to skills development is important to ensure sustainability and long-term community ownership.

Strategic Partnerships
The complement of local partners, strategic and research partners, combined with an integrated VPUU Team provides a holistic and participative process of design, active decision-making and practical problem solving. Joint learning is intended at all levels of engagement with community, state, partners and VPUU Team. The collaborating partners are the community, specifically, neighbours around the existing public space, Early Childhood Development (ECD) partners and forums, Neighbourhood Watch representatives, Safe Node Area Committee (local project leadership), Municipal Line Departments and VPUU NPC as the intermediary organisation, funders and interested and strategic stakeholders.

What we have learned

To achieve lasting change in building integrated communities, it is imperative to promote:

  • Community Ownership
  • Strategic Partnerships
  • Implementation at local level to test methodologies, processes and outcomes towards improved quality of life
  • Monitoring of Emthonjeni
  • Coping strategies for residents are supported through the ECD programmes
  • Creation of a public space network in an informal settlement via a safe walkway
  • Intermediary facilitation between community and public sector
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