People in the park at night in front of water
People enjoying Uhuru Park in Nairobi, Kenya, just after the beginning of the new year, January 1, 2019. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Nairobi Should Rethink Its Colonialist Approach to Urban Design

The road being built in Nairobi is for the rich. Even if it will no longer traverse the city’s major park, it’s not the future-thinking urban design that Kenya needs.

Following a public furor, at the end of last month, the Kenyan government backed off a plan to build a 17-mile, four-lane expressway through the historic Uhuru Park (Freedom Park), one of the few remaining public parks in Nairobi. The construction of the road will proceed but it will circumvent the park. Nonetheless, the road still has opponents, and with good reason.

Announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta in mid-October, the expressway is expected to cost 62 billion Kenyan shillings ($620 million), with the government directly shouldering a quarter of the cost and the rest extracted over 30 years as a toll charge from motorists using the expressway and paid to the China Road and Bridge Corporation.

Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, was originally premised on a neighborhood concept, with approximately 30 percent of the city devoted to open public spaces. Over time, many of these spaces have been lost to urban sprawl while some are threatened by encroachment. Uhuru Park, one of six major remaining open public spaces, has itself lost land to a football stadium, a high-end hotel, and a members-only golf club.

In the 1990s, Wangari Maathai (who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004) famously led Kenyans in successfully blocking government plans to build a 60-story skyscraper in the park. Thanks to her efforts, the park today is still as she described it in her memoir, Unbowed: “A large green swath … Its lawns, paths, boating lake, and stands of trees provide millions of [mostly poor] people in Nairobi with a natural environment for recreation, gatherings, quiet walks, or simply a breath of fresh air.” Thanks to outcry from Nairobians, it has been saved again, but even if the road will no longer traverse the park, it is still controversial.

The government claims the road is necessary to alleviate the city’s horrendous traffic congestion, which is estimated to cost the country’s economy up to $1 billion a year. However, it is unlikely to do so. Building more and wider roads does not necessarily lead to less congestion: While more road space creates more capacity, this does not account for what economists call induced demand—basically, more people will choose to drive, undoing any gains in speed and time.

It is a phenomenon Nairobians are familiar with. For more than a decade, the government has been implementing an ambitious road expansion program, gobbling up many tens of billions of dollars, yet the roads seem to fill almost as fast as the country can build them. In that time, the number of registered vehicles has more than tripled. Despite some improvements in average traffic speeds, the city still has, according to the World Bank, one of the world’s longest average journey-to-work times.

People taking boat rides at Uhuru Park in 2018. (Sayyid Abdul Azim/AP)

As the government builds more roads and as incomes rise, more Nairobians are ditching walking. According to the Project on Integrated Urban Development Master Plan for City of Nairobi, of the nearly 4.8 million trips made each day in Nairobi in 2004, half were on foot. Ten years later, that had fallen to 40 percent, many turning to public transport or motorcycles, whose numbers had exploded. Among the rich few who can afford cars—which includes most of the city’s politicians and decision-makers—walking or biking are almost never considered. According to one study, no trip to work by bicycle was reported by people from households earning more than $480 per month.

It is therefore unsurprising that discouraging car use as a means of eliminating congestion is not really considered. Lip service is paid to ideas like pedestrianization of streets and car-free days, but there is no indication of any actual seriousness in implementing the proposals.

When it comes to mobility, the city has always prioritized the needs of its wealthiest residents above all else. Nairobi’s love affair with the automobile and the classist segregation of public spaces it represents has a long history. Jacqueline Klopp of Columbia University and Winnie Mitullah of Nairobi University point out that “European settlers and officials ‘planned’ the city of Nairobi around personalized transport which facilitated physical segregation in terms of mobility.” By 1928, the city had the highest per-capita car ownership in the world.

Little changed after Kenya secured independence in 1963. The new black elite yearned for the trappings enjoyed by the whites they were replacing and among these were cars. Following the colonial lead, they built roads for themselves and thought little of their poor countrymen who were forced by poverty, and as they saw it, backwardness, to walk.

Ever since, roads and cars have become synonymous with modernity and development. Visions of a futuristic Nairobi, like these videos posted on Twitter by the permanent secretary in the State Department for Housing and Urban Development, always seem to picture development as fewer people and more cars and roads.

As more Kenyans have taken to the roads, and clogged them up, the classist entitlement has manifested itself in the phenomenon of “overlapping” pioneered by matatus, the privately owned minibuses that form the backbone of the city’s chaotic public transport system. Overlapping is simply driving on the wrong side of the road, or on pedestrian walkways or through petrol stations to avoid a traffic jam. Senior government officials (and enterprising private citizens) have illegally arrogated themselves police escorts, strobe lights, and sirens to enable them cut through the congested roads. But even without these accoutrements, it is not rare to find the rich denizens with their trademark giant SUVs, simply flashing their hazard lights and taking off on the wrong side, safe in the knowledge that many cops are too scared of to whom they might be connected to stop them.

The apartheid on the roads is also replicated in policy: roads for the rich and not much else for everyone else. The proposed expressway is, by the government’s own admission, a road “for Kenyans who are able to afford it.” This amounts to little more than a public subsidy to allow the rich to escape congestion, rather than a serious attempt to deal with it.

Nairobi needs to get over its infatuation with the car. The way to do it is to focus on the needs of the majority who still walk, bike, or take matatus, and to encourage more to do so. That means, rather than expressways, the city should be building walkways and bike lanes and pedestrianizing the business districts. The city should also be investing in mass transit, not just talking about it. Rather than drive, the default should be to walk or to take mass transit. The good news here is that the vast majority of city residents are already ahead of the curve. It is government that needs to catch up.

However, like all breakups, it will not be painless. It will need a fundamental restructuring of how the city works. Take jobs, for example. “Nairobi is a city built for car owners, who can reach about 90 percent of jobs within an hour,” says a 2017 World Bank study. From central Nairobi, only 20 percent of all jobs are accessible within an hour using the matatu network, and only 5.8 percent within 45 minutes. By comparison, the same study noted, 54 percent of jobs in greater London were accessible from the city center using public mass transit. So planning must take into account the spatial distribution of jobs and match it to where the people are.

Given the vast amounts invested in transport infrastructure and in residential or commercial building stock, some with an expected lifetime of over 100 years, cities can get locked into development paths even when they recognize that change is necessary. It is thus important to realize that decisions on building expressways today have the potential to railroad Nairobi into a path that continues to benefit its wealthiest, at the expense of everyone else, for decades to come.

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