The building of ring roads around Nairobi, popularly known as bypasses, is seen as the silver bullet to end traffic jams.
From Hospital Hill to James Gichuru or Mombasa Road to Kikuyu, City Cabanas to Ruaka, these are supposed to unclog the Central Business District (CBD).
This is in the short run. In the long run, these highways will change the city in unexpected ways.
One is that Nairobi will look more like American cities.
In the US, the inner cities are inhabited by the poor.
This will happen in Nairobi for a simple reason; the rich and affluent will not want to live in apartments no matter where they are located.
They will free the city even from places like Westlands or Lavington which now have a high density of apartments.
They are worthy competitors to Githurai. With good roads, they can live far away with more space and fresh air.
The faraway areas like Thika, Limuru, Kitengela, Kinangop (yes), Machakos, Kajiado and adjoining areas have more land and better quality of life from less pollution to few legacy buildings or even colonial era regulations.
Nairobi CBD can’t be altered much, but new cities and residencies can be better designed. Sadly the new outlying areas are unplanned.
Once in outlying areas, services follow like schools, hospitals, eateries but rarely golf courses or playgrounds.
Why is there no golf course along the Athi River Namanga corridor? The other big attraction to these areas is less hustle, no traffic jams. That suits retirees’ very well.
The new road works will disperse the city to the four winds. When I lived in Frankfort, Kentucky, my colleagues lived 110 kilometres away in Louisville.
That would be beyond Naivasha by Kenyan standards. The superhighway made it appear so near and I never heard anyone complain of distance.
The first losers in this shift from the city will be real estate developers who will see their investment depreciate. It will no longer be cool to live near the city.
Westlands, Hurlingham, Lavington, and adjoining areas will be more like Pangani with high rise apartments.
The change in zoning will accelerate the “slumlisation” of once affluent areas.
A few places like Muthaiga could hold for some time because of the power wielded by its residents.
The big question is if the leafy suburbs can hold against the capitalist’s opulent hands. Remember how they have dismantled the once expansive coffee estates in Kiambu where my dad could not get land in 1927.
Profitable apartments will not be forever. The real estate developers will make lots of money based on the legacy of Nairobi’s leafy suburbs.
After that, reality will set in as they become home to lower income groups just like in America.
Will power follow the highways away from the city?
Could the State House one day be shifted to say around Ngong where the occupant would have a scenic view of both Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya?
Counties can accelerate this shift by making themselves friendlier to the moneyed.
Noted how Mombasa attracts retirees and their dollars? Why not Kisumu and other weather friendly towns?
We could add that SGR could complement the roads in dispersing the century-old city. What is paradoxical is that devolution failed to disperse the city.
In fact, it made the city more attractive because the new pseudo elites in the counties buoyed by devolved funds prefer to spend their money in the city.
The centrality of Nairobi is not just geographical; it’s cultural and economic too. The city is like a wheel and spoke. Will the market succeed where politics has failed?
History has no manners and our prediction could go wrong. Some observers think we often discount the importance of the international community in Nairobi.
With UNEP headquarters and other international bodies, the dispersion of Nairobi could take an interesting twist.
It could make it a more international city.
Will the market out price the locals out of the city and keep the new apartments cool? We can also be bold. Could someone one day shift the capital to another town as happened in Brazil or Nigeria?
The undeniable fact is that Nairobi is the heartbeat of the Kenyan culture, economy, and politics. It’s going through a major social economic transformation.
Who will be the losers and gainers? How will the city look like by 2099 when it will be 200 years old?
-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.
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