“I discovered a continent and career I love”

Anna Těhlová, a 2017 graduate of the Urban School: Governing the Large Metropolis, is now the Co-founder and Coordinator of the Public Space Network in Nairobi, Kenya. Read the interview.

 

You studied at the Sciences Po Urban School: Governing the Large Metropolis. What led you to choose these studies?

I grew up in the Czech Republic. I learned about Sciences Po and how prestigious it is during an exchange programme in France in high school. I was already interested in human rights, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to contribute. When I was accepted to Sciences Po, I chose the Europe-Africa programme mostly out of curiosity, because I didn’t know much about Africa. I had classes on urban issues in Africa, and realized that urbanization in developing countries is a big issue that is very linked to human rights. I then spent my third year abroad at the University Stellenbosch, close to Cape Town in South Africa. During that time, I did two months of volunteering on a conservation project in Cameroon. It was this experience that made me even more interested in the continent, and led me to choose to do my Master’s at the Urban School: Governing the large metropolis. For my specialization, I chose African and Latin American cities.

What brought you back to Africa? 

After finishing Sciences Po, I wanted to return to pursue the path I started out on: development of urban areas in Africa. I completed my final internship in Nairobi, Kenya, at the community-based organisation Dandora Transformation League (DTL). The DTL organisation aims to improve public spaces in lower income neighbourhoods. The Dandora neighbourhood used to be known as a dangerous and dirty area, in which almost every open space was filled with garbage. However, DTL came up with an innovative gamification approach called the Changing Faces Competition (CFC) to engage youths from the whole neighbourhood to take responsibility for maintenance of these public open spaces. During CFC, youth teams compete to see who comes up with the best transformation of a public open space they identify. Over the last three years, the competition has mobilized over 3,000 youths who transformed over 120 spaces into playgrounds, community gardens and parks, and identified income-generating activities to cover the maintenance costs over the long term. Little by little, this approach completely changed the face of the neighbourhood, transforming it into a clean, green and safe place. 

In February 2018, DTL won the Dubai International Award for Best Practices to Improve the Living Environment in the category "Best Practice Transfer Award in Local Implementation – Urban redevelopment, and redesign of urban spaces."

It was eye-opening to realize that communities can come together to improve their spaces in areas where public authorities don’t have the capacity to do so, and I have become really passionate about this idea. It is why I decided to stay in Nairobi: to help create an enabling environment for these types of citizen-led initiatives.

Tell us about what you do now.

In recent years, there had been lots of discussion about the need to create a formalized network that would bring together different organizations working on improving public spaces in Nairobi. The chairman of DTL took the lead to put these talks into action and I started to work on formalizing this network together with him during my internship. Since I became really passionate about the initiative, I chose to stay in Nairobi to establish this network, which we named the Public Space Network (PSN). Today, I am the co-founder and the coordinator of PSN.

At PSN, we promote public-private-people partnership for sustainable public space management. Our goal is to foster collaboration in order to maximize impact. The PSN flagship project is the Nairobi-wide edition of the Changing Faces Competition. We have members who work with communities across the city, which enables us to expand the initiative beyond the Dandora neighbourhood.

The competition calls upon teams of Nairobians to compete for who can propose the best transformation of a public open space. It is a very bottom-up approach. We measure which project can bring about a general transformation of the cleanest and greenest spaces. There are many different categories (most artistic, most innovative, etc.) We are also trying to encourage women to participate with a category dedicated exclusively to women. We plan to launch the competition on the 27th of July and the winners will be announced at the award ceremony on November 2nd, 2018. Since we are still in the early stages of the start-up, I am working on a wide variety of things: project management, partnerships, communication, marketing, etc. 

What challenges have you faced and how did your studies at Sciences Po prepare you for this work?

In Nairobi, there is no one comprehensive policy in regards to public space management: there is a lot of non-sustainable planning and land-grabbing. Our goal at PSN is to bring together the diverse stakeholders to advocate for and develop a comprehensive policy that would ensure a sustainable management of public spaces, and to create an enabling environment for communities to become change-makers by connecting them to the right stakeholders - within the private and public sectors and urban professionals. Currently, with a group of stakeholders working on public spaces in Nairobi - including UN-Habitat and Nairobi City County Government, as well as civil society initiatives - we are drafting a public space bill. It is very helpful to have a legal and policy background from Sciences Po for this type of work.

I am really grateful to have studied at Sciences Po; the multidisciplinary approach is what led me to discover what I was really passionate about. Before starting my studies, I had never considered urban development or urban planning because I thought these sectors were quite technical, and I don’t have a background in architecture or engineering. However, at Sciences Po I discovered all the different careers in urban issues that could be attained without having this technical background. I also discovered the African continent thanks to my programme, and I learned urban planning from a holistic and multidisciplinary approach. I am also really grateful that I was able to spend my third year and the final internship on the African continent. These experiences led me to discover a continent and career I love.

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