Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) is a multifaceted practice with work that transcends conventional architectural categories. Its varied staff includes “landscape architects, architects, planners, engineers, and a research and community organizing team,” said Chelina Odbert, KDI executive director and cofounder. “Because of that interdisciplinary makeup, we’re able to cross the spectrum from design to policy and even advocacy and activism.”
The 2021 Emerging Voices winner is a global firm, with offices in Los Angeles, Nairobi, Stockholm, and California’s Eastern Coachella Valley, but it’s deeply embedded in local contexts, often working on multiple projects in the same locale. For instance, over the past 15 years, KDI has collaborated with communities in Kibera, an impoverished part of Nairobi, on several public spaces aimed at addressing the area’s ecological and social needs. Those experiences informed KDI’s work in the Coachella Valley, where the practice has used participatory design processes to create parks, a multimodal transportation plan, and more.
Though the office’s work is defined by specific contexts, KDI has also extrapolated patterns and principles to create more general design guidelines. With the World Bank, KDI published the Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design, a report outlining ways to design cities to be more supportive of women as well as gender and sexual minorities.
KDI was started in 2006 by Arthur Adeya, Patrick Curran, Jen Toy, Kotch Voraakhom, and Odbert, who all met as students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. An initial two-week community-focused project in Kenya, where Adeya is from, grew into something longer-term with the support of the Van Alen Institute’s New York Prize in 2008. Since then, Odbert’s cofounders have stepped back from day-to-day involvement with KDI, but the practice has expanded to several dozen staff members, most in either Los Angeles or Nairobi, supported by a mix of philanthropic grants and government work. Regardless of how projects are funded, Odbert said, “they all have a central focus and theme of working in low-income communities of color, primarily, and have a clear equity focus and a set of goals for social, economic, and environmental justice.”
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