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Nairobi: The city of haves and have-nots stuck in colonial times

A slum along the railway line in Nairobi’s Kibra area. [File, Standard]

As political rhetoric whipped the electorates’ emotions during campaigns for the just concluded General Election, promises to transform Nairobi City by the candidates were in plenty, with a particular focus on rethinking the planning of Kenya’s capital.

This is in the face of concern that the city of over 4.4 million people and East Africa’s key economic hub, hasn’t reached its potential, amid a wide gap between the rich and poor.

The city’s social stratification is historical and has never functioned as it should. This is attributed to Nairobi’s failure to change from a design that was developed even before Kenya’s independence.

It began in the colonial days when the city was segmented into racial zones, with special areas demarcated for the Europeans and a few others for rich Asians.

This was mostly in the west and southwest of the city. A handful of spots were left for Africans, a balkanisation that was commonplace in many colonial cities - mainly in the east.

“The earliest formal planning illustrates a colonially segregated city based on race. The first master plan for Nairobi as a railway town catered for the European employers in the railway and the European and Asian traders and abandoned the Asian labourers or coolies and Africans,” notes Iglus, an action-research programme for urban systems, in an article titled The ‘Unbundling’ Colonial Planning Legacy of the Highly Urbanised Nairobi City.

But when the colonialists left, racial segmentation gave way to social stratification, which holds to this day.

Consequently, those areas that were occupied by Europeans, whose access was restricted, were now home to the affluent of the city. These areas continue to enjoy high-end services.

Colonial capital

The Africans, who came to the city as servants, were thrust to the east of the city (Eastlands), most of which is high-density today.

“The settlement of African natives in Nairobi started when there was a need for their labour in the emerging ‘urban settlement’,” the article by Iglus says.

“The dominant land use in the 1920s Masterplan for Colonial Capital was residential and is based on the garden city concept of separating standards for each race. The provisions were unequal and only furthered the racially guided urban strategies of domination by Europeans over the native Africans.”

Housing inequalities, lack of proper sanitation for many, poor road infrastructure in some sectors and lack of connection to the sewer line for a big number of housing estates are problems that have been bugging the city for years. As the city population increases, originally blamed on rural-urban migration, these problems grow even bigger.

Previously in the 1940s, there were restrictive urban policies on the mobility of the native Africans into Nairobi city.

African males were not allowed to have permanent residences, so they migrated from rural Kenya to Nairobi city to work, accumulate wealth and then returned home to retire, Iglus notes. Post-independence, when these restrictions were dropped, the population ballooned beyond the wildest projections. This was more immense in areas formerly set aside for the African labourers.

An aerial view of Nairobi's Kibra slums. [Davdi Njaaga, Standard]

But so much was retained from the colonial days that even with the departure of the colonial powers, there was little difference felt.

“Nairobi, like most Sub-Sahara African cities, is an archetype of a British colonial city. Its Central Business District (CBD) still has the same urban form of a ‘replica of London’ with narrow streets, gridiron layout and a ‘green city in the sun’ as in the colonial period,” says Iglus.

Nairobi City, which covers an area of about 700km squared, had only 8,000 people in 1901, 118,000 by 1948 and 343,500 by independence. The city was 3.1 million strong in 2009 and had a population of 4.4 million in 2019, according to census data. This population triples during the day. This means that change in planning, to accommodate the needs of an increasing population settling on an area that was not expanding, was necessary.

The Nairobi Metropolitan Growth Strategy of 1973 expired in 2000. In 2014, the Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Master Plan (NIUPLAN) was launched to create a plan for the city that would transform the city by 2030.

“The formulation process has ensured the plan is aligned to global commitments to sustainable development as well as best practices whereas locally, the plan is referenced to Kenya’s Vision 2030, Nairobi Metro 2030 (2008), and The Spatial Planning Concept for Nairobi Metropolitan Region (2013). The Constitution of Kenya (2010), The Physical Planning Act, The County Government Act (2012), The Urban Areas and Cities Act (2011) and other applicable statutes form the legislative framework within which NIUPLAN is prepared,” wrote Nairobi’s then Governor, Evans Kidero.

Nairobi leads the urban hierarchy, according to the 2019 KNBS report, with up to 29.6 per cent of the total urban population of Kenya. Many of these people live in congested areas.

Nairobi has 11 administrative sub-counties with the most densely populated being Mukuru Kwa Njenga location with 242,849 people. It is followed by Embakasi, Kariobangi South, Umoja and Kasarani. “These administrative locations are located in the densely populated sub-counties in the East of Nairobi namely Embakasi, Kasarani, Mathare, and Njiru sub-counties,” says KNBS. “However, Kangemi is in Westlands sub-county.”

Much of Nairobi City’s urban area is classified as unplanned settlement, driven by the rapid population growth, and urban poverty, NIUPLAN report noted. Sprawling informal settlements hamper the spread of the city’s baseline social services and eventually lead to the deterioration of quality of life therein, the report indicated.

“In the early 1990s, it was reported that over half of the city’s population lived in those unplanned settlements. Recently, this large and rapid growing population of Nairobi City has begun to trigger environmental degradation and cause some negative impacts on human health and the economy,” it said.

The plan was meant to address problems of rapid urbanisation, with an observation that urban sprawl and construction of roads and other city infrastructure had led to the loss of forests and other natural areas.

Green spaces

A cycle that involved the conversion of the city’s outskirts to agricultural uses, “which in turn were threatened by further urban growth” followed. The growing population had also been blamed for the loss of natural vegetation that made up the city’s green spaces, with unplanned development hogging up any idle space.

The informal settlement, courtesy of inappropriate land allocation, which had forced “poor people to settle in fragile and unsavoury areas where they face hardships due to lack of proper housing and public services and where they are vulnerable to environmental change”, was also to be addressed.

It was noted as the main part of the concern that people living in Nairobi informal settlements, particularly slums, “usually find themselves in city’s most fragile areas, such as flood plains, steep slopes, river valleys, or adjacent to sewers or dump sites”. These are problems unheard of in the rich areas, formerly set aside for Europeans. “The Dandora municipal dumping site, which receives most of the city’s solid waste, is only about eight kilometres from Nairobi City centre and is surrounded by low-income residential area. This situation exposes slum residents to floods, landslides, and health risks from contaminants.

In addition, they lived in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation, inadequate and unsafe water, make-shift shelters, and unstable social networks. They also face a high degree of tenure insecurity since most of these settlements are illegal, exposing them to the constant threat of harassment and eviction,” the plan indicated.

Constant Cap, an urban planner who is the senior product manager at Code for Africa’s Sensors.Africa citizen science programme, says NIUPLAN has not been put into use yet but acknowledges the importance of the launch of the plan and political goodwill to address a problem that hurts the city.

“The vision is realistic but in order to achieve it, there is a need to follow the development control plans and local area plans,” he says. “But there needs to be an integration of bodies not at the county level (at the national government level) which will be part of the plans made and executed by county government.”

In a previous interview, Mr Cap said the city had “planned growth in a skewed manner,” faulting a top-down planning model that did not adequately involve the citizens living in the areas being planned.

He says that the planning of informal settlements needs a special focus with issues such as land tenure and density considered because no two informal settlements are exactly the same.