Log into your member account to listen to this article. Not a member? Join the herd.

Be careful what you wish for, as you may not be equipped to handle the reality.

Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja’s remarks that the county intended to remove height restrictions in Nairobi and continue granting permits for the construction of skyscrapers, including those reaching up to 75 storeys, was a perfect example of this adage coming true.

In March, Sakaja said that over the next 25 years Nairobi would have at least 10.5 million inhabitants, and that the only way to avoid what he called “urban sprawl”, Nairobi would have to “rethink and redesign many of its neighbourhoods”. 

Sakaja said: “A city of 696 square kilometres will not expand. You must use available technology to ensure sustainable housing even as we raise height restrictions in different parts of the city. We can only go up. 

“The process of review of these plans which will bring together urban planners, residents’ associations and other professionals must take these facts into consideration.”

Sakaja’s next statement appeared calculated to rattle residents of Nairobi’s former leafy suburbs such as Kilimani, Kileleshwa and Lavington, where many have opposed the county’s rezoning plans to allow the construction of ever more high-rise apartment blocks and office buildings.

The residents of such areas have appeared to be the most vocal against the mushrooming concrete jungle in neighbourhoods that had hitherto been cushioned against such developments for the longest time by zoning laws that City Hall believes to be redundant.

 “I have heard people complaining that [in the] areas of Kileleshwa and Lavington, our homes were one-storey, now apartments have come. Nairobi is 696 square-kilometres. In 2050, it will have a population of 10.5 million. Will we expand Nairobi? No, the only place we have to go is up,”said Sakaja.

If the governor’s intention was to provoke the residents of the former leafy suburbs, it worked. 

However, when they hit back, they came with the support of their fellows from all points of the county’s map, from wealthy neighbourhoods, poor ones and all the ones in between.

The reaction from professional bodies in the built environment and residents’ associations across Nairobi was fast and furious. They called a well-attended press conference at which they made a point of showing a united front, with residents’ associations from Lavington to Pipeline and from Runda to Langata represented. 

In a joint statement read by the president of the Architectural Association of Kenya, Florence Nyole, the group said they agreed with Sakaja about the need to accommodate Nairobi’s projected growth of 10.5 million by 2050. However, they said that the governor’s approach “blatantly disregards the correct legal procedure and good order”.

As such, they were opposed to Sakaja’s declaration concerning the rezoning of some areas and the elimination of height restrictions on buildings within Nairobi County. “We further wish to unequivocally state that the Physical Land Use Planning Act (Plupa) 2019 is the ultimate planning law in Kenya. It clearly provides a hierarchy of plans and guidelines on how ground coverages, skyline limits, plot ratios and land use are arrived at through both technical processes and public participation.”

The group said that while the governor had the right to initiate zoning at the county level through the respective County Executive Committee Member, the County Governments Act of 2012 explicitly stated that such decisions must be aligned with relevant plans. 

One such plan was the 2014 Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Plan (NIUPLAN). This plan, they said, identified a number of sub-centres as critical zones requiring further detailed planning. The group said bids for the planning of Woodley Estate, Ruai, Kasarani, Embakasi and Kibera had also been released but that to date this process had not moved forward.

Additionally, they were of the view that before even thinking about the removal of height restriction, the governor should prioritise the expansion of critical infrastructure including sewerage and water reticulation, solid waste management, public transport networks, schools, health amenities, open green spaces, fire and emergency services, as well as other social and physical infrastructure. 

Their view was that development control should be guided by physical land use plans, observing that, since the NIUPLAN has yet to be implemented, and neighbourhood Local Physical Development Plans (LPDPs) were non-existent, the county should prioritise the formulation and implementation of these plans. “Only then should the formulation of a development control framework in harmony with national and regional development plans be considered.”

The group said that the recent flooding, gas explosions in residential areas, sewer bursts worsening traffic congestion, limited-to-no water provision, constant electricity outages and rampant insecurity in Nairobi were clear indicators of the dire consequences of unplanned and haphazard development. 

Within a month, a combination of factors, including the weather and pressure from professional bodies in the built environment as well as residents’ associations across Nairobi, have combined to ensure that the governor’s comments boomeranged spectacularly.

In the interim, Nairobi and many other parts of the country have suffered torrential rains accompanied by devastating floods that have wrought havoc in the Metropolitan region, leaving several dead, many without basic necessities and a number of properties extensively damaged.

The damage caused by the floods and the robust opposition to the governor’s removal of height restrictions goes back to a question of planning and the provision of basic urban services which have not kept pace with the rapid growth of the city. As a result, a reluctant governor has been forced to walk back some of his pronouncements.

On Wednesday 24 April, Sakaja declared a ban on all pending building development approvals in the county until a thorough review of ongoing projects across the city is conducted. Sakaja also announced an immediate ban on all excavation activities within Nairobi County.

Although Sakaja said nothing about the campaign against his removal of height restrictions by activists, the heavy rainfall and floods in the capital may have played their part in the  decision as they posed a serious risk to vital infrastructure. 

This risk to infrastructure was dramatically displayed on 7 May  when a five-storey residential block in Uthiru, Nairobi, collapsed. Fortunately no deaths were reported. The collapse of the building added to the public outcry and Sakaja was forced to implement a two-year old County Assembly Resolution to conduct a structural audit of residential buildings in Nairobi. 

The governor had originally given short shrift to this resolution which stemmed from a motion brought by Nasra Nanda, a special-elect member of the county assembly representing the opposition ODM party. Following the Uthiru incident, in a classic case of stealing the opposition’s clothes, Sakaja ordered an audit of all buildings constructed in the city over the last two years.

Making it sound like it was his original idea, Sakaja even declared that he had taken the decision on the basis of feedback that his administration has been receiving from stakeholders within the built environment sector.

The audit was set to begin on 13 May  and would be undertaken by a multi-agency committee which has been given a timeframe of between 30 to 60 days to conclude the process and submit a report for implementation.

The question, however, is how the county got to a place where planning was considered non-essential in the first place; what does planning mean in the context of Nairobi?

Speaking to the Elephant, former Director of City Planning for Nairobi and later Kisumu, Patrick Adolwa said, “Everybody has an opinion to what they think a city is and how a city should be managed and it can be very personal to everyone.”

A straight shooter who pulls no punches, Adolwa said that in his opinion, “Some of the people purporting to run the city now cannot even begin to understand how complex this space is. And so they think city planning is reduced to building heights. You cannot reduce this complexity to a story about heights.

“This is the most complex space in Kenya. It requires to be given the thinking that it deserves and the resources that it deserves. And yet, even after approving NIUPLAN in 2014 we refused to implement it. 

“So we can come to public meetings and churches and say, oh this place is going to be five storeys. This place is gonna be 15 storeys, it can even be 75. This is not child’s play.”

It was Adolwa who initiated NIUPLAN which fell under his docket following his appointment as director of City Planning in 2001. “The only priority I had was to create a new master plan for the City, because the 1973 strategy was coming to an end. 

“But nobody supported us, no one wanted to put a buck on our table. No one wanted to give us political support. It took some foreigners in the form of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), to give us money for our plan, but then again, that’s what  always happens. 

“It speaks volumes that every time we want to do a very strategic thing, we don’t raise our own internal funds, we ask someone else to help us. It speaks about what your attitude towards planning is. It is dismissed as some mundane business that is not core business.” Adolwa says that this is why it took more than a decade for NIUPLAN to come off the board.

Adolwa observed that when the colonialists built Nairobi, they set about establishing urban systems based on some rudimentary plans. “They just walked around and said: That’s the railway station, that’s the residential camp, that’s the administrator’s office, etc. It was a simple thing. Then in 1948 something quite phenomenal happened. The first major plan for Nairobi was unveiled. This plan structured Nairobi in a certain way. It was a segregated plan with spatial apartheid built into it and dividing the city into areas such as Karen for Europeans, Ngara for Asians, and Eastlands as the African quarter.”

This residential segregation has been reduced since the attainment of independence and the exodus of the European and Asian populations, although ethnic partition has not been completely eradicated. 

Adolwa maintains that despite the racism and apartheid inherent in the plan, the physical structure of the city was sound. “It worked. It had proper neighbourhoods, proper systems, self-contained neighbourhoods with schools, community amenities, etc. It also had the right sizes of roads, the right population densities.”

The 1948 plan for Nairobi was a containment policy; it was not a development promotion plan. It was a development containment plan, meaning that they were minimising development to only what was serving the needs of the white elites.

African migration to the city had to be based on a purpose, meaning that an African coming to the city had to be coming to work; families were not allowed in Nairobi, in the city. This is why there exist houses that were rentals based on bed space, because they were not supposed to house families. These were essentially bachelor quarters.

After independence, the city’s affairs were under new management as it were. This new regime soon expanded the Nairobi city boundaries by two-thirds. After expanding the boundaries of the city, the first thing that they did was to approach the World Bank for water funding as water was the main problem that they had in Nairobi.

But the World Bank wanted to know on what basis it was being asked to fund water which led to the development of the city’s 1971 Metropolitan growth strategy as the Bank required a framework within which funding for water projects was to be made. An example of this was the funding that brought about the Ndakaini dam 50 kilometres north of Nairobi. The reservoir has a storage capacity of 70 million cubic metres and is the source of the city’s drinking water supply.

At independence in 1963, Nairobi moved from a structure that in the 1950s had incubated about 50,000 people with several restrictions — including many based on race — to an unfettered situation where people no longer needed a permit to enter or reside in the city.

According to Adolwa, what followed next was “systems overload”.

The city had schools that were designed for neighbourhoods under certain planning standards that, for instance, provided schools and other community facilities for every neighbourhood, pegged at 5,000 people per neighbourhood.      Almost overnight these neighbourhoods had to contend with populations of more than 15,000 people. With the systems overloaded, dysfunction was bound to set in.

Adolwa said that the colonialists brought their European planning systems with them; they already understood urbanisation whereas it was a new concept for Africans to learn. 

“Europe has been in the urbanisation process for centuries. Towns like Stockholm have been in existence for a thousand years. It follows that in Europe they understand certain things and have the urban culture ingrained in them, whereas for us it was new concepts to learn.” 

Adolwa said that at independence in 1963 Kenyans had yet to internalise urban living skills and found themselves suddenly in a place where they had to make the best of their situation.      He said the independence generation of urban Kenyans didn’t have the knowledge or the skills to maintain their new urban environment. They found working roads and a functioning water and sewage system, but because they did not bother to maintain or modernise them for the new reality, the rot began to set in. 

“By 1969, the systems were falling apart and people could not understand why it was falling apart. They thought: these things were supposed to be permanent. They did not understand that maintenance was required” 

Adolwa said Nairobi suffered most because it became a Primate City, the city to which everybody went to the exclusion of other cities.

But this also had to do with the political economy and the governance of the day. Adolwa says this is part of the reason why devolution would eventually become an issue, because people, everything was about Nairobi. 

“So Nairobi attracted all the resources of Kenya, including human resources. I can tell you in 1,000 years, Stockholm has only attracted 1 million people. But in 125 years, Nairobi has attracted four million people. Now, that explains to you where the chaos is.”

The current planning problems, combined with a lack of affordable housing and failing infrastructure in Kenya, and in Nairobi in particular, are by no means new.

An article written about the same problems nearly 50 years ago rings as true today as it did then. Writing in the Weekly Review back in 1975, journalist Philip Ochieng quoted Kenya’s Third Development Plan On Housing. 

The plan, Kenya’s third since political independence, covered the projected growth of the economy over the five calendar years from 1974 to 1978. It laid out the government’s long-term objective as being to build a national stock of housing as rapidly as possible. This housing had to be “of a minimum standard with basic standards of privacy and security, providing a healthy environment for all.”

Ochieng wrote: “For a housing unit to conform to the standards required by the government, it must have at least two rooms plus a kitchen and a toilet; and the government must sanction the design, construction and the materials with which it is built.”

The article said that the government was committed by the plan to ensure that no unauthorised housing settlements went up anywhere. This would improve the substandard structures of the time which were mostly mud and thatch. The plan was also to remove all the slums as soon as satisfactory alternatives were found. 

Moreover, the plan called for there to be basic infrastructure including roads, sewage, recreational facilities, etc., in the areas in which houses were to be built in order to get rid of “the unacceptably low standard of environment” extant in so many urban areas. 

To accelerate housing construction, the plan intended to retain and develop all public and private agencies and to direct funds through them in such a manner that a maximum number of units – in all income brackets and in accordance with needs of each bracket – were built.

Ochieng wrote that it was fair to assume that the problems which attended the implementation of the previous plan would continue into the life of the 1974—78 Plan.

“These problems”, he wrote, “include the high rate of urban population growth, the bounding increases in building costs – which problem is worsened by the inflation now afflicting the capitalist world – and the fact that up to 40% of urban dwellers cannot afford to rent even the lowest costing units now being erected by councils and the National Housing Corporation.”

According to the mayor of Nairobi at the time, Margaret Kenyatta, Nairobi’s population in 1975 stood at 650,000 and was set to increase at an annual rate of 7 per cent. 

This meant that by the turn of the decade, 1979, Nairobi’s population would have topped the 1 million mark. The other larger towns of the time – Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru and Thika – might not have been as populous, but they were estimated to be growing at a more or less similar rate.

Ochieng’s article pegged the annual growth rate of urban areas to the increasing number of primary and secondary school leavers, saying that the annual influx into towns was composed mainly of such school leavers. 

“If planners do not make a careful and scientific analysis of these unknown demographical shifts from rural to urban situations in search of greater economic opportunities, they cannot provide towns with adequate social services as time goes on, particularly in housing.”

The plan recommended that the number of persons acceptable in a housing unit with the minimum requirement of two rooms was five. At the time, however, the fact was that many units with only one room accommodated far more people than five and the number appeared to increase every year. 

Ochieng wrote that, with this in mind, overcrowding would remain the order of the day for a long time to come. 

“Moreover, although the two-room unit is the aim, such areas as Muthurwa, Bahati, Makongeni, Makadara, Kawangware, Mathare Valley and Kunguni, which are made up of one room shacks, cannot yet be demolished for the simple reason that nobody can at the moment provide their residents with sufficient alternative accommodation.”

The article said that not many of the residents could afford the two-room alternatives being offered and yet it was in those areas that the worst living conditions were to be found.

Writing about low-cost housing, Ochieng observed that although shelter is listed among the most basic needs of human beings, homelessness is still the lot of hundreds and hundreds of Kenyans.

“As is to be expected, lack of housing affects mostly those with similar social problems. Those with little or no income or those who received their incomes by antisocial means, for instance, thieves, beggars, prostitutes, etc. 

“This observation can be misleading. It is not just that these people cannot afford any shelter at all, it is also because the construction of houses commensurate with their pockets is beset with problems, which often look insuperable.”

Reading this 49—year-old piece, it is clear that little has changed and Nairobi’s failure to properly plan housing developments and infrastructure, remains its plan to fail.