Firm leadership: Chelina Odbert, co-founder and executive director; Joe Mulligan, associate director
Location: Los Angeles; Eastern Coachella Valley, Calif.; Nairobi, Kenya; Stockholm, Sweden
Year founded: 2006
Firm size: 50
Education: Odbert: Master of Urban Planning from the Harvard Graduate School of Design; Mulligan: Ph.D. from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology; M.Phil. in Engineering for Sustainable Development from the University of Cambridge
Firm mission: For far too long, the design disciplines have reinforced the inequities that originate from systemic racism and other imbalances of power, creating disparities in the built environment that impact health, wealth, opportunity, and life expectancy. KDI uses design, planning, and advocacy to undo those disparities. Partnering with historically disinvested communities, we work to advance equity, improve quality of life, and bolster resilience.
Origin of firm name: “Kounkuey” is a Thai word meaning “to know intimately.” One of the foundational principles of KDI is to design from a standpoint of knowing a place deeply. And the best, most accurate, and most reliable way of doing that is to partner with residents directly. One of our cofounders is Thai, and when we were discussing names, no English word seemed to capture the essence of our mission. When she offered “Kounkuey,” it was perfect.
First commission: It started as an independent research project at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Six classmates wondered if our design training would be useful in addressing some of the biggest challenges of our time, including urbanization, poverty, and environmental degradation. After two weeks of research in the dense, informal settlement of Kibera, Nairobi, it was clear that research without action was part of the problem. So we created a commission for ourselves: a new park, or productive public space, as we called it, that would provide much needed open space for recreation and gathering, but would also address urgent needs such as water and sanitation services, income-generating opportunities, and enhanced watershed management. As we advanced the design, we also worked to secure the funding and operational support to make the commission a reality.
This productive public space has become a model for our practice. We have gone on to design 10 other productive public spaces across Kibera in what has become a community-wide network of public space, and we have adapted this approach in other geographies.
Defining project: We have been working in California’s Eastern Coachella Valley since 2011, and this long-term initiative— comprising more than a dozen discrete projects—has been a defining engagement for our firm. Though this region is most recognized for the music festival that bears its name, the Eastern Coachella Valley tells an entirely different story: communities of predominantly Latinx agricultural workers with high rates of poverty and acute public health challenges stemming from environmental pollution. We have heard from residents about their needs and visions for their communities, and we have responded with projects that include a network of productive public spaces, transportation infrastructure, affordable housing projects, and an environmental justice campaign. Layered together, these projects create a cumulative effect on the built environment and improve the quality of life across the eastern part of the valley.
Another important project: The fundamental aim of KDI is to make the public realm more equitable and inclusive in communities around the world. As a starting point to that approach, our practice pushes back against the assumption that public space is accessible to everyone. Because cities and neighborhoods have been designed for far too long by the narrowest demographic—able-bodied white men—it follows that the majority of spaces we use today work best for able-bodied white men. Those not in that demographic tend to face various forms of exclusion, either overt barriers or ones of implicit subtleness.
In 2019, the World Bank commissioned us to research and author the Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design. We present quantifiable evidence of the ways in which gender disparities leave everyone worse off, and we provide actionable guidelines to make the public realm work better for women and gender minorities. This has become a seminal project for us because it expands equity for women along with other underrepresented groups. Critically, it does this at a scale that no single project, no matter how well done, could ever achieve. The handbook is already being used by municipal and national governments around the world to create new standards for how public realms are planned and designed for a more inclusive future.
Design aggravation: Fences around “public” spaces.
Currently reading: Richard Rothstein’s The Color of the Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. It is an exhaustively researched overview of the racist approaches to city planning that resulted in the patterns of extreme inequity that KDI exists to dismantle.
One thing everyone should know about your studio: The majority of KDI team members are people of color. Throughout 2020, during the much-needed reckoning around diversity in the design professions, one thing we heard often was that firms would hire more BIPOC employees if only there were BIPOC applicants. One thing we know for sure: the applicants are there.
Special item in your studio space: The Wobble! In Los Angeles, over 80% of the neighborhoods that do not have access to public space are low-income communities of color. To respond to this disparity of access, KDI partnered with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to design and launch a “Play Streets” program in 2015, which transforms streets into temporary, recurring neighborhood-based public spaces. As part of that initiative, we designed what we called a “Wobble,” a lightweight, durable, interlocking element that can be configured and combined in any number of ways for communities to make play elements and street furniture. We have the early prototypes in our studio reception area, inviting visitors and staff to wobble away the stresses of the day.
Most urgent political question facing architects today: How to develop cities and neighborhoods without leaving others behind. For all the real and urgent challenges architects face—climate change, climate risk, infrastructure, energy—the question of gentrification looms large. Each of these challenges needs to consider gentrification because we can’t solve these big problems for only some people.