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The announcement by Nairobi County governor Johnson Sakaja that he plans to build a nightclub in Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s most iconic public space, has left many Nairobians wondering whether this will be the final nail in the coffin of green spaces in Kenya’s capital city. Sakaja made the announcement without consulting Nairobians, despite a constitutional requirement that the public must be consulted and should have a say in county affairs. 

Uhuru Park holds a special significance in Kenyans’ hearts and minds. The park was built in 1969 and has since then not only been a place where Kenyans go for rest and recreation on weekends, but has also been the site of resistance to dictatorial rule. It was here that many protests against the regime of Daniel arap Moi took place, including those led by Nobel laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who in 1989 led a successful protest against the construction of a 60-storey tower in the park. It was here that mothers of political prisoners gathered to demand the release of their children in the late 1980s. Uhuru Park is also the place where thousands gathered to celebrate the end of Moi’s 24-year reign and the presidency of Mwai Kibaki in December 2002. In the public imagination, the park not only symbolises Kenya’s hopes and dreams for a better future, but also offers stressed Nairobi residents a place to rest and be with nature. A nightclub is the last thing Nairobi residents need in the park. It is akin to building a bowling alley in the middle of New York’s Central Park. 

It is clear that Nairobi’s designation as “the Green City in the Sun” is fast fading under the current leadership. Neither under Sakaja nor under any of the city’s former city managers have there been plans to build more public parks or playgrounds in the city. Nairobi has only six public parks for a population of more than 4 million, compared to London, arguably one of the world’s greenest cities, which has more than 3,000 parks and open green fields that are enjoyed by the city’s nearly 9 million residents from all walks of life. London’s parks were all planned with people in mind – with the idea that even the city’s toiling working classes need to experience nature, go for walks and breathe fresh air. 

Unfortunately, Uhuru Park is not the only place under threat of extinction. Under Sakaja and previous governors, almost every green space in East Africa’s most important economic hub has been destroyed to pave way for high-rise apartment blocks, many built by dodgy construction companies. The city that hosts the environmental agency of the United Nations is turning into an environmental disaster. The house building frenzy has seen once leafy green neighbourhoods turn into what many refer to as “vertical slums” as the surrounding existing infrastructure, including sewerage and water lines, cannot cater for this growth. Zoning laws that forbid high-rise blocks in certain residential areas are being constantly flouted. Water shortages have become commonplace in places like Kileleshwa, where residents have to buy water from vendors every week to meet their needs. 

Residents’ associations have demanded a stop to the reckless construction because of environmental concerns, including noise pollution, but the governor seems immune to their cries. Residents are concerned not just about the deteriorating quality of life in their neighbourhoods but also about the depreciating value of their homes as a result of dense construction and deteriorating services in their areas. But their pleas are being ignored and openly defied. In fact, President William Ruto, who supported Sakaja’s governorship under the United Democratic Alliance ticket, declared the other day that he is sanctioning the building of 30-storey apartment blocks in Eastleigh in Nairobi, an area that is already densely populated. It is as if urban planning is now the job of the executive and the governor, not of urban planners. (Remember, Ruto is also the person who told Kenyans that there would be no El Nino in Kenya, as predicted by the Meteorological Department, even as rains swept away homes and ruined farms.) 

Ruto has also said he plans to decongest Nairobi by building settlements outside the city. He obviously doesn’t understand that people move to cities to find work. Why would anyone move to a settlement outside the city if there is no work there? And even if this decongestion plan were to work (as it has done in cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, where new cities like Navi Mumbai and Gurgaon were built outside these cities to cater for the rising middle classes), there needs to be an efficient public transport system like the one they have in London where people living outside the city can easily commute to their workplaces in London. The rail network is so efficient that even people with cars prefer to use public transport. 

What Nairobi desperately needs is a plan. This became evident during the recent heavy rains when dozens lost their lives to floods that ravaged many parts of the city due to lack of adequate drainage and illegal construction on riparian land. The natural flow paths of rivers have been obstructed and nature is hitting back. 

Like most African cities, Nairobi – which was nothing but a swampy railway depot at the end of the 19th century during the building of what was known as the Uganda Railway – did not grow as a result of a grand master plan. Much of the city, especially since independence, has grown spontaneously and haphazardly. Even when there were plans, they went largely unenforced. As recently as 2015, the Japanese government invested in and worked with the Nairobi County to come up with a master plan for Nairobi but the Nairobi Integrated Urban Master Plan, which prioritised things like public transport, water and sewerage, has remained largely unimplemented. 

Poor leadership and corruption have further contributed to creating a hostile, anti-people urban environment that lacks vision. What’s worse, a recent government report showed that the building craze is driven by money laundering. This means that buildings are not being built to cater for people who need housing, but by a desire to stash away ill-gotten wealth. This could explain why many apartment blocks remain empty years after construction; they were not built to meet a demand. In any case, the majority of Nairobians cannot move into them because they cannot afford the rent or mortgage. 

So, what needs to happen to arrest the situation? First, there is an urgent need to professionalise urban planning and not leave it to the whims of political leaders. Urban planners, architects, engineers and environmentalists – plus residents – need to be brought in and consulted to plan the city in a way that caters to all income groups and to make the city more liveable. Zoning bylaws must be respected, allowing for more controlled development of areas. Local physical development plans must be developed. The governor needs to place a moratorium on all new construction until the plan is in place. Corrupt cartels dominating the construction sector must be dismantled. Heavy fines and penalties must be imposed on those who flout building regulations. There must also be greater effort to preserve the city’s architectural heritage. For instance, many of those art deco bungalows that were torn down in places like Parklands to pave way for apartment blocks or offices could have been preserved for posterity. Some building should be declared heritage sites. 

Nairobi, like many African and Asian cities, seems not to have learnt lessons from European and other cities where there is a growing “liveable cities” movement. In some cities, infrastructure, like roads, is being pulled down to pave way for green spaces. The current governor has failed to see that cities are not just about buildings – they are about the people who live in them. If people are not happy with their environment, feel suffocated because their neighbourhoods have become concrete jungles with no trees or green spaces where their children can play, then you are looking at a city that will die under the weight of a greedy, visionless leadership. Nairobians and the city’s managers must save Nairobi from what looks like an imminent death.