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A critique of Nairobi Metropolitan master plans

By | September 15th 2011

With the winning master plan for the Nairobi Metropolis well on its way to implementation, the runners-up take a swipe at it as an engineering solution that is more of a study than a plan. FERDINAND MWONGELA takes a look at the proposals

Nairobi has long been the centre of criticism for its planning or, as many claim, the lack of it. Only recently, the Ministry of Nairobi Metropolitan Development announced the winner of a competition meant to come up with a master plan to guide the development of the Nairobi Metropolis.

Views of Nairobi City. According to Dr Lawrence Esho, the massive road construction around the city may not be a good idea.

While Indian company Consult Engineering Services took the top spot and thus earned the pride of having their plan guide the development of Nairobi for the next year, a few other plans came close, or were just as good if not better, if their creators are to be believed.

Several companies from around the world participated. Two of these had a heavy Kenyan component — Saad Yahya and Associates Consortium and The Centre for Urban and Regional Planning.

Major artery

It is worthy to note that the Nairobi metropolitan area covers not only the core Nairobi, but also the outlying areas and counties stretching as far as Amboseli on one end and Thika and Kikuyu on the other. Proposed developments and plans, and infrastructural projects already going on are expected to turn Nairobi into a world class metropolis.

Towards the Vision 2030, the Government has been upgrading roads and constructing new ones — all on a slim budget.

For some of those who took part in the competition, the massive road construction is not the way to go.

According to Dr Lawrence Esho of the Centre for Regional and Urban Planning, it is a terrible idea while Saad Yahya of Saad Yahya and Associates Consortium says this is an idea past its time.

"This is 20th Century technology," said Yahya, pointing out that it was a vicious cycle. The solution lays in the development of mass transit systems with an emphasis on rail transport.

The plans by these two runners-up focus on, among other things, transport, environment and economic empowerment.

Unlike the concentration on upgrading the current road infrastructure and the creation of elaborate interchanges in the city, their plans focus more on a mass transit system, insisting that this is the long-term solution to the transport melee that engulfs Nairobi in peak hours.

The Saad Yahya and Associates Consortium plan proposed transport solutions that take advantage of the latest technologies, including advanced mass transit systems. It proposed restriction of vehicular traffic from accessing the core Nairobi and the Central Business District. It also focuses on the development of transport-oriented nodes and state-of-the-art traffic management systems.

mass transit

In their illustrations, a railway transport system links the satellite towns in the metro area, among them Thika, Kangundo, Machakos, Kitengela, Athi River, Kiambu and Ruiru.

The plan developed by the Centre for Regional and Urban Planning also follows this line of thought, with railway transport linking the towns within the metro area, forming a viable alternative and complementing the road network.

They also propose the relocation of the railway station to Lusaka Road to allow for the extension of the CBD. With Jomo Kenyatta International Airport being a major transport route, they suggest the introduction of a new international railway station, creating an integrated international transport system.

This plan identifies six specific global issues that any urban plan must address in the 21st Century. These include energy, climatic conditions, informality — a predominant reality in the operation of the urban economy — and the patterns of residential settlement as well as the issue of quality and utilisation of open urban spaces.

According to Esho, issues of housing and space can be sorted out by the market. Trends manifested in the big developments in the city point to changing tastes.

"They want suburbia, but suburbia that makes sense," says Esho.

He argues that there is no longer any point in concentrating developments in Nairobi City itself. Their proposal was to look for drivers for the satellite towns such as Ongata Rongai, Kiserian, Kitengela and Kikuyu.

"Ongata Rongai, Kiserian and Ngong can serve as dormitories," Esho says, further pointing out that in their plan, Rongai was initially earmarked as an Information Communication Technology hub due to the presence of the Multimedia University and Africa Nazarene University, which would attract other activities.

In the same vein, Kikuyu joined this ‘intelligent’ constellation with the presence of the University of Nairobi’s Kikuyu Campus while Ngong was to be driven by its advantage as a centre for renewable energy. Kiambu and Kikuyu were to be the city’s ‘vegetable garden’.

On housing, the plan suggests the infilling and densification of inner city areas such as Makadara, Bahati, California, Kariokor as well as outlying areas such as Dagoretti, Kasarani and Njiru. They also propose renewal and development of Upper Hill, Kilimani, Kileleshwa, Ngara, Westlands and Lavington for high income, and Landimawe, Muthurwa, Shauri Moyo, Bahati and Makadara for low to middle income. This includes upgrading of infrastructure.

On the other hand, Ruiru, Kiambu, Limuru and Githurai should be rezoned and planned.

Economic impetus

The idea behind the proposal to develop these towns was to mop up the dispersal and give these areas an economic impetus of their own that does not rely on the city centre.

Esho acknowledges that it is too late to significantly change Nairobi itself, but with the pressure taken off by these other towns, it could remain as a communication and education hub.

At the same time, waste disposal takes on a social dimension, where people are disciplined enough to deal with their garbage. Esho points out that it is possible to embrace the concept of reparation of waste at the source — individual homes and institutions — as well as adopting recycling as a way of life.


The master plan by the Centre for Regional and Urban Planning also deals extensively with the question of urban spaces. For example, the Ngong River corridor that spans from Ngong Forest to Kibera, Industrial Area and behind Kayole, listed as one of the strategic areas in the plan, is described as totally disconnected from the city. The plan proposes the opening up of this corridor as part of the urban restructuring. It would then play the role of providing soft mobility corridors and public spaces.

From Esho’s point of view, there is no reason one cannot enjoy cycling from one end of the city to another without using the main roads.

Almost similar to this proposal is the Saad Yahya and Associates Consortium plan, which advocates for the decentralisation of the city.

"Why don’t we have an office district in Dandora or Kayole?" poses Yahya.

Their plan calls for the recognition of the character of the various settlements, identifying their strengths and developing them.

At the same time, Yahya raises the nagging question of Nairobi’s natural heritage, chief among them the Nairobi National Park. The park and the animal migratory corridors have been a headache to conservationists and residents.

Yahya and Esho agree on the importance of the park as a unique selling point and crucial to the city’s image. They, therefore, say these areas need maintaining and coming up with ways of making them economically productive to residents without changing their status quos as migration and animal dispersal corridors.

In response to the winning concept by Consult Engineering Services, Esho says: "We followed the script well, but we have no idea what went wrong."

He, however, raises doubts with the winning concept, terming it more of a study than a spatial plan.

Winning concept

"It is a good study of Nairobi, but no plan," Esho says.

Peter Kibinda, the Director of Metropolitan Planning and Environment at the Ministry of Nairobi Metropolitan Development, says the plans are not so different, with the distinction lying only in the depth.

"All were interpreting the terms of reference and the difference might not be that big," Kibinda says.

He points out that the Consult Engineering Services master plan calls for thematic towns and for concentrating on their strengths. This includes the creation of an aerotropolis, a transport hub and a diplomatic city towards Gigiri.

He shrugs concerns over the depth and practical working of the winning concept, saying it is a general overview that will guide the development of sectoral plans.

Kibinda argues that urbanisation is here to stay and as such, "this plan is very opportune".

On shrinking of agricultural space, he argues that the mega cities coming up in Thika, Kiambu and Malili are important, noting that private investment is key to the development of the metro area.

Kibinda, however, says there is need to strike a balance and retain certain pockets of agriculture.

Kibinda asks those with suggestions or proposals to submit them to the ministry by correspondence on the ministry’s website or visit their offices.

In the three plans, it is clear that the development of the Nairobi metropolitan area will have to take into context some key things: Strengthening of the different satellite towns as semi-autonomous and socio-economic hubs, the development of a mass transit system and the development of the social dimensions.

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