Nyeri: Town that doesn’t aim for the sky

An aerial view of Nyeri Town. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

In their heydays, when they forayed into various towns, former retail giants Nakumatt and Tuskys did not set foot in Nyeri.

The absence of the then two retail behemoths was one of the reasons many locals claimed the town’s growth had stunted. The other reason was, and remains, Nyeri’s reluctance to ignite a race for the skies.

While the town’s central business district (CBD) is not as big a sprawl as Nairobi’s, Nyeri hosts a significant number of low-rise buildings that sit smack in the middle of the town.

Some are one floor high and have been in existence for nearly a century. One of them, Osman Allu, a shop run by Vindchad Rajpashann is believed to have been built circa 1900.

A section of the town in which buildings have remained at modest heights for years, coupled with top retailers’ shirking the responsibility to serve the town, has led many to feel the town has failed to grow.

“Not much changes. At least not as much as one would expect,” says Zipporah Muthoni who remembers going to school in the 1980s, and buying from the same shops she frequents today - as well as eating from some of the hotels that still maintain their old look today.

Is Nyeri town now, after years of watching Nairobi’s Upper Hill, Westlands and CBD race for the skies, about to surprise sceptics and naysayers?

“In terms of embracing skyscrapers, Nyeri is still far considering that it is an urban area within a rural county with minimal regional service and economic functions,” says Joseph Njomo, a principal physical planner.

Demand for skyscrapers in the town remains low and it may take a while before it grows.

“Various kinds of developments are demand driven and skyscrapers are not an exception. Development of skyscrapers is driven by the need to control urban sprawl, optimise the use of space and accommodate a variety of functions by providing a high ratio of rentable floor space and tapping into the fresh air,” Njomo says.

“Again, with many people embracing ICT and working mostly from home, demand for more working space may not be much tenable soon.”

Njomo says skyscrapers also contribute to the ambience and competitiveness of major urban areas. This mostly happens in the fast-growing cities where demand for formal working space is high.

Nyeri has not reached that point yet. Nyeri-based civil engineer Lee Muritu says the town suffers an excruciating dearth of businesses, which leads to low demand for houses.

This, coupled with a sentimental attachment to the property by owners such that some of the older people do not want to cede their buildings for further development, could be blamed for the town’s slowed growth.

"Almost everyone in the town is a sole proprietor. This leads to a reduced need for space as businesses are smaller. This means there is little demand for higher, more efficient buildings as everyone is practising subsistence business,” he says. "Most plots of land in Nyeri are owned by a few old people who won’t sell."

This, says Muritu, happens to other mid-sized towns in the country, with skyscrapers not easy to come by.

Bernard Wanjohi, a land surveyor, concurs, noting that most of the property owners in the town are not receptive to change, holding on to their houses with an emotional attachment that is hard to overcome.

“Most of them (the owners) are rigid,” he says. “There is a clear lack of ambition. Many of the landowners would rather invest in buying land to sell or building rentals within the outskirts of town.”

If these people were given incentives to build high rise buildings in the CBD, says Wanjohi, they would still not do it. The CBD thus remains isolated.

But there is a bigger problem, he adds. Many of the buildings stand on land whose leases have long expired. The process of acquiring new leases is considered either too tedious or expensive.

As such, the property that finds itself in this situation remains in its status quo, the less said about it the better.

"A lot of these buildings exist on mostly expired leases. There is a mystery behind acquiring leases, seen as a complicated process, and is expensive," he says.

Wanjohi says many of the people who occupy some of prime parcels of land in the town are not the registered owners. They will not, for this reason, build permanent or high rise structures.

"Some of the registered owners are in Nairobi,” he says. “Others are dead. So some people choose to occupy the space they find and in which they can work and make a living.”

Wanjohi is not optimistic Nyeri town will be a place for skyscrapers or where high-rise skyscrapers will sprout to compete with Nairobi’s dazzling skyline.

"Nyeri’s situation is not likely to change soon,” he says. “Not in the next five years. Residential high rise buildings are built every day but in Nyeri CBD, only three buildings have come up as high-rise in a long time."

While Nyeri does not look bothered by the lack of imposing high-rise buildings, the clout that such buildings bring to a city are unparalleled.

"Emergence of skyscrapers signifies a competitive urban area in terms of providing various functions ranging from service, administrative, non-farm commercial activities and serving as regional, economic hubs with a wide coverage of linkages that tend to centralise around it,” says Njomo.

Wanjohi notes that skyscrapers show growth and modernisation of a town. However, construction of the same is not a priority in Nyeri, he says.

Whether some of the old low-rise buildings will pave way for news kings of the sky remains to be seen, with some of the oldest structures truly iconic and mentioned among the most notable landmarks of the quiet Central Kenya town.

However, some of the old buildings can remain intact and be preserved as heritage sites, even when they sit in the middle of the town.

Nyeri is not short of historical structures, with The Treetops in the Aberdares, the hotel which housed Queen Elizabeth II in her final night as princess before she was crowned queen in 1952.

The town is also home to the graves of Lord Baden Powell and his wife, the founders of the scout and girl-guide movements. “The approving authorities may put more emphasis on densification should the owners apply for the redevelopment of the current low rise buildings," says Njomo.

“Alternatively, there may be emphasis on conservation of some of the buildings, particularly the first ones to emerge in the town as part of the town’s heritage.”

Osman Allu and company may as well be here to stay. Even as locals complain that town that has refused to grow tall, Nyeri seems keen to amble on, unperturbed, silently making gains in other fronts.

Finally, Naivas set foot in the once neglected town and once impassable roads have been re-carpeted, with experts saying the race for the skies is not an immediate priority.