Conference Review: Steps Towards Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Open Spaces

Conference Review: Steps Towards Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Open Spaces

Résumé en français

Le thème de l'interaction émergente a été fondé sur la nécessité pour les professionnels de sortir de leur cadre professionnel et culturel et d'apprendre d'autres cultures et disciplines dans le but de développer des solutions holistiques à nos défis actuels sans frontières. Le thème visait à explorer les formes émergentes de résolution collective de problèmes, les réseaux d'idées et les stratégies sans frontières pour trouver de nouvelles solutions aux problèmes urgents du changement climatique, de l'inégalité sociale et de la perte de biodiversité. Les présentations ont été classées en trois sous-thèmes : ne laisser personne de côté, agir au niveau local, penser au niveau mondial et dépasser les frontières.

S'ils sont bien planifiés et utilisés, les espaces ouverts urbains peuvent contribuer à résoudre les problèmes que ces sous-thèmes cherchent à résoudre. Des espaces ouverts urbains bien conçus et adéquats renforcent la biodiversité, atténuent les effets du changement climatique et améliorent le bien-être physique et mental de la population des zones urbaines.

En outre, les architectes paysagistes jouent un rôle clé dans la conception des espaces ouverts urbains car ils sont les gardiens de la terre dans la préservation de l'environnement naturel tout en créant des espaces de réconfort, de loisirs et de communauté grâce à des solutions collaboratives.

The theme, Emergent Interaction, was founded on the need for professionals to reach out beyond their professional and cultural boxes and learn from other cultures and disciplines to develop holistic solutions to our current borderless challenges. The theme sought to explore emerging forms of collective problem-solving, networks of ideas, and borderless strategies to find new solutions to the urgent issues of climate change, social inequality, and biodiversity loss. The presentations were categorized under three subthemes: leave no one behind, act local, think global, and go beyond borders. When well-planned and utilized, urban open spaces can help resolve the challenges, the subthemes sought to tackle. Well-designed and adequate urban open spaces enhance biodiversity, mitigate the impacts of climate change, and enhance the physical and mental well-being of urban area’s population. Moreover, Landscape Architects play a crucial role in urban open-space design. They are stewards of the earth, preserving the natural environment while creating spaces of solace, recreation, and community through collaborative solutions.

CONFERENCE: IFLA World Congress 2023 + IFLA Africa 8th Symposium + AAL Annual Convention 2023
DATE: 29 - 30 September 2023
LOCATIONS: Nairobi + Stockholm + Online
ORGANISERS: Architects Sweden and Architectural Association of Kenya


Urban Planning
There has always been a dichotomy between city and nature, with landscape architecture acting as the mediator between the two. Urban green spaces have both local and global impacts. These spaces are vital elements in creating resilient and inclusive communities, as well-managed urbanisation and integrated design make cities resilient, green, and sustainable.

Life expectancy is related to one's living environment, and several studies have shown a causal link between it and environmental quality. Current trends in human settlements, industrial activities, and transport infrastructure have resulted in highly polluted environments and a significant reduction of green spaces. Urban public open spaces and walkable streets have been shown to contribute to better mental and physical health for urban populations.

Africa has the highest growth in terms of urbanisation and Nairobi, which has one of the highest growth rates of any African city, was once esteemed as a green city in the sun, attributed to the location of a wildlife natural park in the town and numerous green spaces. Over the years, human settlements have adversely affected the city’s biodiversity and green acreage.  Urban sprawl exacerbated by the demand for housing, employment opportunities, and personal economic gain has resulted in the decline of green open space and the value of these spaces ignored.

Figure 1a and 1b: Google Aerial View Comparison of one of the areas in Nairobi that has experienced significant densification (Source: Google Earth 27 March 2006 (left) and 14 April 2024 (right))

Poor waste management has also weighed heavily on the natural environment, with the Nairobi River basin bearing a large percentage of the waste burden.

This occurred despite the robust legal and policy framework being in place as policies and planning guidelines are not applied strictly to protect and conserve our resources. To restore Nairobi to its green status, effective enforcement of existing regulations is requisite for the protection of better urban environments. There is a need for intentional urban planning that increases public green spaces through initiatives such as the Michuki Park in Nairobi.

Figure 2a and 2b: Michuki Park in 2007 (left) and 2021 (right) (Source: Geroge Arabu)
Governance and Policy
Guided by Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda (NUA), resilient urban areas can be achieved through advocating for adequately well-planned and managed urban spaces.

Further, maintenance and governance ensure the provision of sustainable urban open space. Where they fall short, open spaces become derelict and, in some cases, are apportioned to other land uses.

The Swedish traditional environmental practices have nurtured the development of landscape architecture in urban areas, upholding simplicity and unity of the landscape and architecture, which is the bridge between culture, nature, and its species. Swedish Landscape Architecture supports the planning theory of density and proximity, with many small parks and natural walkways replicating the theory of circulation models with a compromise between designs and function. This model provides equitable access to urban open spaces regardless of the neighbourhood's economic level, resulting in better overall well-being for the population.

Figure 3: A pocket park Visualisation, Pallis, Sweden (Source: White View)
Figure 4: Transforming green spaces  (Source: Thomas Zaar)

Mainstreaming of the landscape architecture profession in Kenya and other African Countries is a critical urban planning tool.

Landscape architecture in Kenya and across many African countries has traditionally been regarded as a luxurious product inaccessible to the larger population. Most urban public spaces lack proper planning and design and are often called beautification projects. In addition, there are gaps in policy institutional and technical capacity that limit the influence of landscape architecture in the provision of adequate urban open spaces.


Landscape architects should advocate for and implement healthy cities by ensuring well-planned urban open spaces. The legal and institutional framework is crucial in ensuring that society's most vulnerable have access to adequate public green spaces.

The field of landscape architecture has often been limited to an art with outputs sometimes limited to beautification. However, the creation of sustainable urban open spaces requires scientific, social, and artistic lenses. Through the advocacy work of ASLA the Landscape Architecture profession was in 2023 recognized as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in the USA.

Further, Legislation and regulation of the landscape architecture profession are measures to ensure public health, safety, and welfare. Grading, drainage management, ecosystem restoration, biodiversity, and pedestrian circulation, all of which affect public health, should be designed and planned by a trained and tested professional. The professionals planning and designing public open spaces must be adequately trained and licensed.


Urban open spaces should respond to the needs of the local community, tap into local knowledge, and be contextualized to the project area's physical, social, and economic characteristics.
Participatory planning

Participatory planning is also crucial to ensure that the urban open spaces are contextualised to local needs and ways of life. Working in social and economically challenged areas demands great awareness and participatory methods to create sustainable and just environments. Design can be excluded; hence, there is a need to design with awareness and collaboration with the local community. Landscape architecture should not only produce beauty and ecology but also equity, justice, and inclusion. This can be done through temporary and permanent designs informed by local knowledge.

The recent redesign and construction of Uhuru Park in Nairobi City resulted in the reorganisation of the functions of the space previously provided, such as trade spaces and pedestrian links from the Central Business District to the Upper Hill-Community area of the City. During its design and implementation, public participation was limited, and hence, the resulting urban space is heavily influenced by the technical team’s vision. The question of whether this space meets the needs of Nairobi residents, remains unanswered.

Urban sprawl continuously impacts sensitive ecosystems near urban areas by gradually converting all or part of these areas into peri-urban regions.

The Indigenous people who inhabit these areas hold ancestral knowledge and expertise on how to adapt, mitigate, and reduce climate and disaster risks. A presenter suggested that we should not be looking to artificial intelligence (AI), but rather to ancestral intelligence!

In planning and designing such areas, stewardship is a committed and conscious approach to design and planning to provide long-term care of ecosystems, respecting the spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous peoples that live in and around them. It is collective creativity, where the professional, developer, government and local representatives participate in the design process.

Contextualized Planning

In the past, the focus was on creating vibrant, recreational spaces, collaborating with site-specific architectural design. Recently, there has been a shift towards the use of landscape architecture to bring about positive transformation in urban areas. Understanding the essence of a place is crucial, as landscapes are shaped by time through cultural and natural processes that work together. Every landscape architecture product should be different because every site has unique values, users, and features. The fundamental principles in creating exceptional spaces are identity and belonging, time and memory, transformation and revitalisation, water management, mobility, and social spaces. Landscape architects are responsible for treating everything carefully, developing projects independently, and creating poetic and meaningful spaces.

Further, landscape architects should be at the forefront of planning landscapes that address their local challenges, such as African landscape architects addressing food insecurity in Africa. Landscape architects practising in Africa must investigate the landscape architecture typology suitable for the continent. The productive landscape frameworks should be customised for urban and rural areas as these distinct areas have different human settlement patterns and unique food insecurity challenges. Embracing a productive landscape framework with a goal of food security will address the food insecurity challenge while simultaneously creating nature-based solutions for climate change challenges and providing urban green space.


Landscape architects need to ensure that the principles of landscape architecture are incorporated in nontraditional landscape architecture spheres. Collaborating with others is crucial in delivering holistic urban areas. Further, regions and countries should seek to understand the profession's status and attributes in other countries and draw lessons from these.
Landscape Corridors

Transport planning should be integrated with landscape planning as urban roads and streets are vital elements of the urban fabric, and this would subsequently increase the surface area of green spaces while creating linear green space links between the different urban open spaces. Integration of green infrastructure in transport planning starts at the policy and government agency levels.

In Sweden, landscape architects engage in the road design process, providing solutions to tackle issues such as emissions from transport corridors, the provision of suitable green infrastructure, and pedestrian safety. Overall, it has resulted in better and safer urban areas. In Kenya and South Africa, landscape planning is incorporated in the final stages of most infrastructure projects. Hence, many transport projects lack adequate and suitable green infrastructure.

Further, most transport corridors are connectors of two places instead of a service to communities they go through. Urban roads should be communal spaces harmoniously catering for all users, i.e., pedestrians, cyclists, traders, and vehicles. This can be achieved by collaborating with professionals in the urban design space and treating roads as places instead of corridors. Landscape Architects in Kenya provided these views and other landscape planning inputs to the committee revising the Kenyan Roads Design Manual. If incorporated, landscape planning will be a mandated core part of road design.

Landscape planning within road corridors provides opportunities for biodiversity enhancement. Conventional road greening leans toward grassing, which creates a limited ecological ecosystem. By developing suitable planting plans, landscape architects create urban corridors with diverse species, creating a vibrant ecosystem for flora and fauna.


Africa is currently experiencing exponential urban growth, which, if not professionally managed, will result in a significant reduction of urban green spaces. Landscape architects are uniquely positioned to help tackle the threats to green open spaces from the negative effects of rapid urbanisation. No single profession can provide wholesome solutions.

Moreover, efforts to ensure sustainable urban growth will only succeed with collaborations between landscape architects and other built environment professionals and the support of political leaders.

Landscape Architects should not shy away from political and public engagement but rather be more vocal and bolder so that the role of landscape planning is understood. Equal effort should be put into both the production of excellent work and communicating the impact of landscape planning to the public.


The conference adequately addressed all the subthemes, with many presentations cutting across the different topics. Overall, more presentations focused on the Leave No One Behind and Act Local Global subthemes. Some of the key takeaways include:

i. Legislation and policies create a framework through which professionals and citizens can advocate for a better urban public. Professional licensure is critical in maintaining exacting standards, fostering innovation, and safeguarding the health, safety, and welfare of communities. However, the existence of a legal and policy framework requires effective enforcement to achieve any tangible results. Gaps in governance often result in inadequate and poorly managed urban open spaces.

ii. Professionals should strive to understand local needs and integrate local knowledge to create designs that benefit all components of ecosystems. Design should be contextualised to address user needs rather than to only meet aesthetic criteria. Present and future challenges can be tackled by integrating participation from the grassroots to the highest governance level. There is also a need for integration between the culture and natural environments, as history is a rich resource, and the tradition of mobilising society to tackle challenges should be emulated to make better urban green spaces.

iii. There lies an opportunity for the creation of green spaces in urban elements whose primary function is the provision of infrastructure such as urban roads and  agriculture. Transport corridors provide opportunities for significant public open spaces to develop along side green infrastructure; hence, landscape planning should be a critical component of transportation planning, supported by advocacy and the creation of policy-requisite frameworks.

iv. Collaboration is critical to achieving successful projects and should not be limited to professionals in the built environment but rather also strive to build partnerships across industries and with the public.

Landscape architecture plays a critical role in shaping the urban environment and can positively impact the quality of life of individuals and communities. Landscape architects have the opportunity to mold the green fabric in both rural and urban settings with their skills and training. Urban open space solutions should aim to achieve harmony, just like in nature, where species have interdependent relationships while mitigating adverse impacts.


Adeya, A. & Mulligan, J., 2023. Shifting Landscapes: Emergent Interactions from Kibera to Coachelle to Stockholm and Back. Nairobi, Stockholm, s.n.

Drougge, A., 2023. Common Premises Over Time in Swedish Landscape Architecture Moving from a Collective to an Individual-Based Society, What Does Landscape Architecture Serve in Sweden? Stockholm, s.n.

Carter-Conneen, T., 2023. Impact of Landscape Architecture Licensure and STEM Designation. Nairobi, s.n.

Folkesson, J., Mmanyi, H. & Rita, J., 2023. Beyond Corridors: Paths to Better Cities of Tomorrow. Nairobi, s.n.

Kariuki, R., 2023. The Dichotomy of Conservation of Natural Biotic Environments versus Human Settlement and their Significance and their Significance to the Present and Future Kenyan Environment. Nairobi, s.n.

Linnet, J., 2023. Atmospheric and Site-Specific Space. How to Create Sustainable, Green and Social Aware Projects, Fit into a Local Site-Specific Context. Stockholm, s.n.

Mehta, H., 2023. Incorporating Ancestral Intelligence in the Planning and Design Process. Nairobi, s.n.

Petrella, L., 2023. Shaping Cities and Space - Accelerating Urban Development Towards Resilient and Inclusive Communities. Stockholm, s.n.

Sebang, G., 2023. The Case of Landscape Architects as Healthy Places Change Makers. Stockholm, s.n.

UN-Habitat, 2023. Shaping Cities and Space-accelerating urban development towards resilient and inclusive communities. Nairobi, s.n.