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Winners and losers as Nairobi redevelops

By XN IRAKI | May 22nd 2012


There was a time when Nairobi was popularly referred to as the green city in the sun. However, the greenery is steadily vanishing as more concrete buildings are erected in once green areas.

Glass buildings are also becoming common. The city is, however, full of contradictions.

The Central Business District (CBD) is decaying with few new buildings. The once cool buildings have found ready tenants and buyers.

Blue chip corporations have left the CBD for the suburbs, with Upper Hill the destination of choice.

Today, Upper Hill, a potential tourist magnet, has some of the world’s most beautiful and elegant architecture.

Degenerating of the CBD is, however, not unique to Nairobi, similar trends have taken place in cities such as New York and London.

But the difference is that New York and London’s CBDs are tourist attractions and Nairobi should not be an exception. CBDs are monuments to a country’s heritage and therefore major tourist attractions.


The contradiction is that as the CBD is being abandoned, adjacent areas like River Road and Ngara and Kawangware are undergoing a renewal. Old buildings are being replaced by modern structures. We now find banks in River Road and other places we never thought of.

Property values are going up in once poor backyards. This gentrification is driven by demand for real estate, which has outstripped supply, courtesy of population growth and fast economic growth in the 2002-2007 period. The redeveloped areas are occupied by more affluent people with the poor driven further out of the city.

The redevelopment has not spared residential areas either, which are being converted into commercials buildings. Upper Hill was once a residential estate. Hurlingham is under attack from real estate developers and so are other green areas like Muthaiga and Spring Valley.

There are arguments that places near the CBD should not be low density. That is economically sensible, but culturally unacceptable.

If we are to follow the patterns in developed countries, one day Muthaiga, Lavington and Spring Valley could turn into concrete jungles. Not because of city by-laws but because of economic realities.

But there could be another threat to the cool suburbs-with good road networks, the affluent will leave the fringes of the city centre and flee to the suburbs. They can build bigger and better houses and keep off from hoi polloi with proceeds from their former homes. The adverts on gated communities and golf resorts along Thika Road are a sign of things to come.

Bag of contradictions

In the US, areas like Spring Valley or Muthaiga are occupied by the poor; in fact they are slums or ghettos because the poor cannot afford to live far from the city.

The affluent live far away from the city, an observation that perplexes many Kenyans.

Nairobi will continue going through contradictions. The once affluence suburbs will decay as high-rise buildings are put up. The once poor areas like Eastlands will gentrify as old buildings are brought down and replaced by modern high-rise buildings. It is unbelievable that Nairobi’s old estates along Jogoo Road have resisted redevelopment this long.


Gentrification will be further hastened by globalisation of Nairobi. This will attract investors who will demand housing and other amenities. Westlands is the microcosm of the future cultural mix up of the city.

Gentrification could however be slowed by political changes. Devolution will shift lots of resources to the counties and starve Nairobi some much needed capital. Rezoning could also affect gentrification. It is also possible that devolution could have the opposite effect with investors from counties flocking to Nairobi to “stand out.”

What is almost certain is that Nairobi will keep growing and renewing itself. It seems devolution came too late to slow it down.


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