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Looking Down at Nairobi's Explosive Growth

Urban development aside, more than half the city’s population still lives in slums.

The population of Nairobi has doubled since 1986 to 3.5 million, partly due to the Africa-wide trend of rural residents flocking to cities in search of employment. As expected with such an influx, the Kenyan capital has seen vast areas of land transform into jammed neighborhoods, as seen in this satellite comparison from the past three decades.

First, here’s Nairobi in January 1986 spotted by the USGS’ Landsat 5 craft:


And here’s the city this January as imaged by Landsat 8:


A couple things to note: Karura Forest in the north, formerly surrounded by lush vegetation, has been put in a tight box of buildings. Massive development has sprung up along the Mombasa–Nairobi Road, which last winter was the scene of a three-day, 30-mile-long traffic jam. The main body of the city has become hugely colonized, and Kibera—one of the biggest slums on the planet—has burst from its previous boundaries into neighboring territory.

While all this growth might seem like a good thing, 2.5 million of Nairobi’s residents still live in shack-jammed slums like Kibera. Here’s more from NASA, which has highlighted these images on its Earth Observatory:

The booming population in Kenya has sparked concern among some analysts, who say that the influx of people will bring rising rates of youth unemployment and poverty. “If Kenya’s rapid urbanization is left unmitigated, the country could see even higher rates of unemployment, specifically within its youth population,” wrote Raphael Obonyo, a representative for the World Bank Group….

Roughly 60 percent of Nairobi’s population occupies just 6 percent of the land, according to Kibera UK. The city’s largest slum, Kibera (the light-colored patch north of Nairobi National Park) is made up of small, tightly packed structures.

Kenya’s government has recognized these challenges, according to its National Bureau of Statistics, and is working toward creating a national urban policy. The government set forward its plan in Kenya’s Vision 2030, which aims to transition to a “newly-industrialising, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens in a clean and secure environment.”

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.