Kenya's urban development strategy ripe for re-engineering

An aerial view of Nairobi's skyline showing parts of Kibera slums and Central Business District. [Davdi Njaaga, Standard]

The government in 2022 inaugurated a task force on Re-engineering and Transformation of Urban Development whose overall goal is to come up with ideas on how to make our cities and urban areas more resilient, functional and efficient.

The task force is expected to analyse the state of urban development planning and urbanisation, recommend changes to Urban and Metropolitan Development policies, recommend reforms to reinvigorate Kenya’s urban development as well as develop financing models that can attract local investors to fund urban infrastructure projects.

Our urban centres need all these and much more to function well and deliver services to residents. But even more urgent is how to address challenges facing urban planning and effective application of the law on urban development.

Currently, most of the medium-sized and small towns lack development plans and those with development plans hardly implement them. The prevailing situation is unplanned development, infrastructure and housing constraints, environmental degradation, public health crisis, among other challenges.

Although development control is undertaken by county planning departments, there is no clarity on the procedure to get urban development plans approved in many instances. Unfortunately, even in urban centres where there are clear procedures and guidelines, corruption, inefficiency, negative political interference and reliance on discretionary decisions make development control a nightmare.

Attempts to implement electronic permit systems have been mainly ineffective as they are manipulated by corrupt networks to defeat the purpose for which they were put in place. Those that initially worked have since been rendered redundant with counties reverting to manual approvals. Furthermore, there is no structured connection between the National Environment and Management Authority (Nema), National Construction Authority (NCA) and county government approval processes. This brings confusion. For example, there have been occasions when Nema ends up issuing a licence for a project the county planning department has rejected. Also, when there is an incident on a construction site, it is not clear who should take the lead in investigation and enforcement between the county, Nema and NCA.

Another challenge is that county governments view development control as a revenue stream as opposed to a planning tool. This puts pressure on the planning department to approve as many applications as possible to meet revenue targets.

But even dire is the lack of institutional urban planning capacity, especially at the county level. Almost all the counties have two major capacity gaps: Inadequate number of planners and inadequate expert skills. These two aspects must be addressed to make planning fit-for-purpose, effective and efficient for facilitating sustainable urban development.

The link between urban planning and land administration is generally weak. Development control relies on land data to identify ownership and status of land rates payments, yet most of the counties lack updated urban land records. Furthermore, planning is not taken seriously by other disciplines and political leaders, who don’t see the correlation between planning and a working built environment.

To overcome these challenges, counties should create a strong integration of spatial planning, social and economic development and environmental protection as provided for in the County Governments Act.

Urban counties should also develop an institutional development strategy and institutionalise a plan-led system of development. This means that all public investments and approvals of land development by the private sector must be aligned to urban development plans and policies. This can only be achieved where there is a clear strategy on how to attain sufficient planning capacity.

There should also be clear guidelines and regulations on public participation to facilitate people-centred planning. Structured involvement of neighbourhood or residents' associations and other stakeholders gives a sense of ownership of the planning process and promotes planning as a tool in delivering public good and attaining equitable development.

It would also help to introduce a mandatory requirement in the planning regulations that give resident associations more say on planning development across various neighbourhoods. Developers should be required to show documented approvals from resident associations before being allowed to continue with development.

Related to this is involving stakeholders in county service delivery structures such as committees. For instance, counties should have representation of resident associations in committees such as those dealing with environment and planning approvals. This will ensure that critical decisions can be influenced at the committee level and any mischief averted.

Finally, we should invest in education of developers and the public on the development processes to ensure that the planning authorities, developers and the public are working together as partners, with a view of creating a well-planned built environment. These are issues the taskforce on Re-engineering and Transformation of Urban Development in Kenya should critically look at.