To the Mayor of Nairobi or; ‘How Not To F**k Up My City’
We require from buildings two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.
How do you plan for one of the fastest growing cities in the world? Furthermore, how does one develop plans for a satellite town of metropolitan (Greater) Nairobi.
I am a third-culture kid (TCK) which means that the lion’s share of my cultural identity was cultivated in my formative years – in Muthaiga, Nairobi. Then, three years ago, I had the pleasure of returning to Kenya after 13 years to visit my father and teach at the Mackenzie Education Centre (MEC ); an all-boys boarding school in Tala, Kangundo. And to any Kenyans reading this, I have Luhya heritage but teaching in the Kisumu-Busia region would have been too much of a travel hassle from Nairobi (poor transport, and only an airplane is reliable!). I address this because so may Kenyans ask why I taught centrally instead of in the West, where my tribal heritage stems. Kenyans really need to get over tribal affiliations.
Anyway, within a few days of being in Nairobi, four things struck me; 1) There was a rapid and seemingly unplanned expansion of residential areas, 2) Poor infrastructure, across the board, to meet the demands of said rapid growth, 3) A brazen disregard for the environment, and, 4) Non-existent forward planning stemming from a ‘money-now’ culture.
For the four months I was in Kenya I’d commute weekly to MEC and soon sparked a cordial friendship with my Dad’s driver to the point where he invited me for afternoon tea at his home. On this particular day he was also very proud to show me a plot of land he’d bought – some 200m from the house he was renting – and had begun work on the foundations of his growing family’s home. I, being interested in all things new and architectural, sprung up at the invitation and got even more excited when he told me that he was one of many to have begun building in the area.
What I saw, however, still haunts me to this day. Something of a tract town was forming on the Nairobi-Kangundo road. But this thing (for I can hardly call it a town) was spreading like a canker in all directions. I may not be an urban planner but I sure as hell know a mess when I see one; fresh tree stumps, potholed roads, dilapidated water towers, no discernible sanitation system, electricity (pilfered) from nearby pylons, mounds of rubbish, no transport connections, random out-crops of businesses, zero architectural conformity and poorly built properties. This was barely the tip-of-the-iceberg, to use that loathsome phrase.
I later had a chat with Papa and he explained that there were many peri-urban areas – a transitional area between urban and rural – experiencing fast, unplanned growth without adequate infrastructure. As a Dr. he had cases where people were getting sick from dusty roads and poorly-positioned landfills contaminating water.
Back at the school, MEC, I decided to engage the chaps in a debate about rural development. What I quickly came to realise is that how pro-America and anti-agriculture the next generation of Kenyans were. It’s as if everyone felt that it was ‘uncool’ to be a ‘country-bumpkin’. This way of thought also seems to be pervasive on a governmental level. There were many cases of industry being given permission to develop on rich agricultural land.
To this day, at my paternal homestead – the site of a large stables, county polo field, an arable farm and smal tea plantation – there is no local source of electricity (my grandfather used his own generators and solar-energy). For ‘shiggles’ Papa and I decided to ask the the KPA how much it would cost to put up three electric pylons in the Busia region and we were quoted, ‘1.3 million Ksh’ (€11,150). Of course every Kenyan farmer will have that kind of money lying around! UGH!
Some may say that what I’m about to write seems obvious. But if it is, how come nothing has changed in Nairobi for over a decade? Following is my advice to the office of the Mayor and City Council of Nairobi:-
Palpable urban evolution involves everyone, from street sweepers to the transport CEO.
Cities aren’t complete without some dirt. Some even thrive off grime: would Berlin and Bogota have the same bohemian vibe without a bit of graffiti? However, lasting pavement litter doesn’t add any charm. Enter the street sweeper: indispensable to keeping pavements ready for weekend promenades. The best kind of street sweeper is the social one. Oh, how about investing in public bins, regular rubbish disposal from said bins and putting up signs urging the public to keep their city clean.
I recently wrote this tweet to the Kenya planning commissioner. A small notch down the pecking order from the role of mayor, the responsibility of any city’s planning commissioner will inevitably be one of the most complex chores inside City Hall. It’s not simply a case of determining building heights but it encompasses a wholesale understanding of how the public interacts with the built environment and how intelligently planned urban areas can help provide for better public health, greater fiscal sustainability and more attractive places to live and work.
An appreciation of contextual / district-led zoning – the approach requiring new builds to maintain historic style and elevation of their surroundings – is essential, though many an overzealous planner has strangled the economic lifeline of developing urban districts. And while there’s value in careful deliberation, a planner with an understanding of the adage that ‘time is money’ is of value, especially at a time when so many bold ideas suffocate behind cobwebs of mindless bureaucracy. And also, don’t stoop down to ‘land-grabbing’ and bribery. It’s vulgar and, quite frankly, a rather bestial and uncivilised way of behaving toward one’s own citizens.
Please, please, please support local / small business owners. A good shop deserves as much retail respect as the most rarefied of urban boutiques. Little wonder that the independent shop owner needs to have a highly attuned set of skills to perform his or her duties. First and foremost is an almost miraculous knack for space management. Mr or Mrs Shopkeeper is also at the centre of the street’s sense of community. Much I as I love that Arab oil money, the last thing I want is an empty glass tower standing on a site (driving surrounding property values through the roof) that could have better served a few start-ups and maybe a ‘indie’ luxury boutique or two. Take note of One Hyde Park and the Shard in London. Greenwich Village, Cambridge (Mill Road), Hase-Kamakura and Menton are my picks for that perfect blend of luxury, affordability and a strong independent local community.
Nairobi seems to have fallen victim to cash-grabbing property developers more than others. I also blame corrupt city officials and the outsourcing of ideas, designs and labour to certain Chinese firms that don’t give a damn about sustainability of our roads and buildings. But there are MEDC examples too. Toronto’s waterfront is a jungle of ‘form follows function’ gleaming glass towers but soulless at the street level; in Hong Kong and Singapore property costs make it tricky for small businesses to take root.
However, that’s not to suggest that all property developers are out to take advantage of a growing market: smart ones know they need to build neighbourhoods too. The investment may be longer-term but taking the time to cultivate a community rather than simply throwing up a mixed-used tower or two and hoping they’ll take off is a business model that will ultimately meet with success. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at London’s Howard de Walden Estate and visit the west-central patch of Marylebone (especially the high street). It’s teeming with small-scale, diverse businesses and entrepreneurs that have given the area charm, amenity and character.
Nairobi’s transport infrastructure is a black-hole of utter shite (pardon my language). We have a ridiculous no. of road accidents. No one follows basic road traffic safety, police would rather ‘Toa Kitu Kidogo‘ (take bribes rather than enforce the law) and matatu (glorified minibuses) are, in my opinion, a hazard. I’m begging for someone in government with at least a base-level IQ of 70 to begin work on replacing the matatu system with a regular, on-schedule, transport system. Hell, unionise them if you have to and have the government be the central body behind the matatu fleet, but please control these people. It is not cute, quaint, or a cultural icon.
No city transport boss should have an easy ride. Politics pays a big part and clean hands are needed to tidy up the tangle of vested interests and murky tenders. And ideal transport CEO should have some ambition and not be scared to show some creative flair. I urge heads of transport in Kenya to visit Cambridge and look at the Stagecoach CitiBus fleet, head over to Zürich and look to the seamless ZVV trams network and, in time, ask some of Tokyo metro’s mass-transit muscle to help at the drawing board.
WELCOME TO NAIROBI, THE HEART OF AFRICA, YOUR PROUD HOME
The mayor’s office also needs to focus on advertising the merits of Nairobi – not only to it’s citizens, but also to the diaspora. Many of my kinsmen are leaving for England, Germany, the USA and Canada in droves and not coming back. And I regularly find myself being told of amazing places in Nairobi by foreigners. If it wasn’t for my French cousin I would never have known of Club Sound and, as a result, Kwani? My Japanese friend is the one who told me of a lovely tea club in Lavington.
And now onto something that will always spark debate…Kibera.
This is the main problem Kenyans have. Instead of approaching the Kibera slums with solutions, the automatic response is that it is an an awful place, with a plethora of problems, that should be wiped off the Nairobi map. I agree that there really shouldn’t be a slum in Nairobi. It is vulgar and unwieldy. So, what do we do?
Simple…Destroy, Re-build, Re-house, Re-educate. Begin by contacting Atelier Bow-Wow, Tadao Ando, Takefumi Aida or Diébédo Francis Kéré. Personally I’d have Kéré (more on him in my next post). Have them plan a completely new Kibera using local, cheap, sustainable materials and methods. Re-build Kibera, Re-house the former denizens and Re-educate them to make the most of their new lives. My reasons for picking three Japanese architects is because they’ve come from a heritage of having to build safe, reliable and cheap emergency accommodation for earthquake victims. Take a look at the Dojunkai that stood for up to 86 years after the Great Kanto Earthquake.
If things are to change, local governments should be working with local residents, community leaders, and urban professionals to define current trends, challenges, and opportunities. Through ethnographic field research, community surveys, expert interviews, mapping, and air quality testing, they have to start by first examining these area in terms of economy, transportation, health, governance, and land use. With hard work and a genuine community spirit, Nairobi and it’s greater metropolitan area can become the financial and cultural hub of the Sub-saharan region.