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Nairobi, the city where breathing doesn’t come easy

By XN Iraki | September 7th 2021

Nairobians picnicking at a roundabout along Thika Road. [Courtesy]

If you are driving on Thika Highway out of Nairobi, the road suddenly diverges and leaves a big space between Kenyatta University and Clay Products about a kilometre away. That space is full of cars over the weekend, particularly on Sundays, as families relax.

Further on, the roundabout as you turn to the Eastern Bypass is also full of people sitting and relaxing. I have seen the same pattern at Uthiru roundabout and on the roadside near Uplands at the junction to Githunguri. In the rural areas, citizens mill around the town centres, with no place to sit or relax.

That Nairobi and its environs has no breathing space is not in doubt. We focus too much on life inside the houses, not outside. Except in affluent suburbs, there is no breathing space where citizens can relax. Even balconies are for storage.

Some developers think balconies are a waste, yet they would give much-needed breathing space, if they are big enough or do not open into someone’s bedroom.

Roadsides have become the only space where one can relax. The few leisure places such as Uhuru and City parks are not well maintained, while a feeling of insecurity puts many off.

A marabou Stock staring at a family on a picnic at Uhuru Park. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

New developments have no time for open spaces. While I see real estate dealers enticing us with “green areas”, we are yet to see a Karura forest replicated elsewhere. Squeezing as many houses as you can in as little space as you can is a mark of entrepreneurship. After all, rarely does the landlord live there.

Those who have lived in the West, East or other developed countries know that parks are part of the city system. Even ghettos like Harlem in the US have parks. I found parks in a Mississippi ghetto where I lived.

Parks are usually under the municipalities. In Kenya, municipalities disappeared with the 2010 Constitution. Yet cities and towns are unique. Why can’t we bring back the mayors? Who manages towns nowadays?

Human beings, contrary to common belief, are not indoor species. Noted how children look for any chance to get out of the house even when it’s raining? We are outsiders, imprisonment by TV is artificial. Only circumstances such as security and weather took us inside houses. A country on the Equator, what do we do inside the house?

In the long run, forcing people to live indoors has unintended consequences. It leads to stress and a belief that it’s “normal” to be crowded. I have seen animals such as chicken and pigs stressed by overcrowding, why should we be the exception? What do psychiatrists and psychologists say about such overcrowding, lack of breathing space?

Some pundits have argued that policy-makers and leaders know citizens need open space, but how else do you herd them into consumption? If we had lots of parks, citizens would relax there instead of going to hotels and restaurants to spend money.

That is why signboards in hotels read “do not idle around” - coded message for “spend money.”  It’s no wonder taking alcohol is considered “relaxing”. One wishes we had as many parks as bars. 

A section of Uhuru Park, Nairobi. December 2, 2020. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Human resource managers can confirm that workers who find time to relax are more productive. The whole country loses by not giving its citizens time and space to relax, breathe. Maybe we confuse relaxing with idleness.

Access to leisure and open space is one of the manifestations of inequality. The rich and affluent have access to open spaces such as golf clubs, national parks, hotels and houses where you can sit outdoors. The rest of us have to do with roadsides, roundabouts or stay in the crowded house.

One wishes counties would invest more in parks. As the population grows, the pressure on land will make it harder to get open space. Which county has places such as Uhuru Park? In which county can I sit in a park and admire the setting sun?

To invest in open space, we need to realise that leisure is not an option, it’s part of our lives. What do city or county bylaws say about open space? Life by itself is stressful, we need space to relax, exhale and recharge.

How can we convince capitalists that open spaces have value without buildings on it? Did we have to await global warming (and cooling) to pay attention to green areas and parks? Have you noted the efforts made to tax idle land, undeveloped land? We think it’s an economic crime to leave land idle.

The private sector has not invested enough in open space. That is why most parks, even in the West or East are public. Unless you have a Disneyland, you are unlikely to make money from parks or open spaces. 

If animals have parks where they can relax, why not human beings? When did you last visit a park or an open space? What was your experience? 

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