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What lack of public spaces tells us about Nairobi and its peoples

By Wairimu Nyingi | February 24th 2020
By Wairimu Nyingi | February 24th 2020

Residents of Nairobi are often forced to take refuge at Jeevanjee Gardens when they need to take a break from the city’s hectic pace. This is also one of the few places they can sit owing to the lack of benches on city streets. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

January was difficult, at best. I joined the rest of the masses who had to forgo their multiple coffee runs at a certain coffee house; turkey subs, the ultimate guilty pleasure for dieters on their journey to shed holiday weight whilst drowning in sauces and cheeses that could give even a saint a foodgasm; and happy hour at an artistic café, perhaps to the delight and disbelief of my liver.

Like I said, Njaanuary.

Supermarket food became my best friend. Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch, but you get what I mean. Here’s what they don’t tell you about supermarket delis – during lunch hour, they fill up rather quickly and your only option is to eat your hearty meal on a bench, somewhere.

On this one day, the first part goes off without a hitch. The second ends in disaster. For half an hour, I wander from street to street looking for somewhere to sit. I even make my way to Jeevanjee Gardens, whose run-down state could make Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee turn in his grave.

What was once envisioned by former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero as a modern, community-friendly recreation park with features like Wi-Fi, a children’s playground and an amphitheatre (dreams are valid, as they say) has gone to the dogs.

It’s a hive of political gatherings, shady characters and mini churches with preachers competing to beat the din of Nairobi traffic. If you’re looking for a quiet place, Jeevanjee is not it. You can barely find a seat; many are in different states of disrepair, with serial poopers leaving their offensive calling cards on others.

Eventually, I settled for a relatively empty bench near the Kenya National Archives. Every so often, commuters would glance piteously in my direction. With a mouth full of a choma sausage, I pretended I was waiting for a bus.

“It’s not that Nairobi cannot offer you a seat. It’s just that it won’t,” says an architect who chose to remain anonymous.

Defensive architecture

He adds: “It’s a metropolitan city. It cashes in on time, services and spaces. It’s not a place you want to stop and linger. All around the city, design shapes your experiences. Some features are meant to guide us, provide amenities or keep us safe. Others are meant to exclude. Take the lack of public benches. It is an intentional design strategy targeted towards people who use or rely on public spaces more than others. It targets the behaviours they engage in.”

In an ideal world, hostile architecture – also known as defensive design – wouldn’t exist. But if Nairobi is anything to go by, public space is often designed in the perspective of individuals who manage properties and spaces, and whose priority is to maintain a sanitised environment. This births a rigid urban design rather than an inclusive and user-friendly landscape.

Hostile architecture can be defined as a form of urban design that aims to prevent people from lingering in public spaces.

It could be the rigid, metal benches with too many armrests that pepper urban landscapes of cities the world over. Or the metal notches on concrete ledges to deter skateboarders. Ever seen those bird-proofing spikes on a building’s overhang? Once you start looking, you realise that hostile architecture is everywhere.

Play spaces

But a lot of it goes unnoticed in people’s daily lives. Take a wooden bench with a curved base or a sloped or segmented bench that prevents users from lying down. A smooth section of pavement abruptly transitions into coarse rocks to discourage beggars and people sleeping on that area of the street. Boulders are also placed under bridges for that same reason.

It is common to see spiked window ledges while street dividers such as foliage can be spotted outside a number of establishments – refreshing in an otherwise concrete jungle.

But what they don’t tell you is that this subtle but unsettling hostile architecture littering streets all over the world is a way by landowners and city planners to keep sections of the population at bay. They are exerting social control and keeping unwanted groups out.

Our society routinely makes decisions without consulting a quarter of the population. We are making choices about land use, energy production and natural resources without the ideas and experiences of the full community.

The car, an inanimate object, has more say over public policy than this group of citizens that includes mothers, children, the youth, the elderly, the sick, the disabled and the homeless.

Most cities are designed by urban planners, architects, developers, politicians and, on occasion, a few loud citizens. Rarely do these adults consider the voices of citizens who do not have the power to grace City Hall’s chambers.

But what would happen if more people had a say in their cities’ design? What if we rethought the way these spaces performed? What if we tweaked the design in ways that embraced the imagination and the environment.

Perhaps it would address some of the frustrations we encounter every day. How about advocating for more changing tables in restaurants for mothers and their little ones? Or create indoor play spaces for those cold and rainy days?

By evaluating the walkability of our streets, we would remind people to slow down and design a path where the journey is as important as the destination. We would be inclusive in our planning and design for everyone -  from that grandmother in a wheelchair to the homeless man asleep in the park. We would design cities for living creatures, not for cars, egos or corporations.

Minorities must be the bellwethers because not everyone can hop in a car and drive to the store. Most can’t even afford an expensive lunch in a nearby café. If we build cities that take into consideration people’s needs for alternative forms of transport and affordable food venues, we would meet the needs of many other populations, too.

It is okay to be skeptical. I mean, there must be a reason urban planners, developers and architects have their jobs.

How could citizens possibly understand complex ideas such as the affordable housing crisis or how to develop a transportation masterplan? And even if they had ideas, wouldn’t they be unreasonable? Do our cities really need a skateboarders’ park? Do we need biking lanes for cyclists and boda bodas?

Cities reveal a lot about people’s concerns, with shifting landscapes representing changes in our values and priorities.

A public bench is often taken for granted. Many a time, we easily walk past one without so much as a second glance. And yet, after decades of anonymity, this not-so-common piece of street furniture should be at the centre of urban design.

“With all the walking in Nairobi, you need to sit occasionally. Or is the County of Nairobi trying to tell us something? Is leaning on walls the new sitting? No one seems to be keeping statistics on the disappearance of street seating. An entire social media campaign (#missingseats) should be created to address it.

“It’s the only way to point out the lack of welcoming public architecture in Nairobi. If you look around, you will see the impact it has on community atmosphere through creating an unwelcoming environment for passers-by,” says fashion blogger Louis Karanja.

Public seating is not a common topic of discussion among Nairobians, especially not the urbanites who can afford to pass time at an eatery grabbing an unnecessary cup of coffee or a glass of their chosen tipple.

In September 2008, the City Council of Nairobi partnered with outdoor advertising company, ENG Kenya, to install high quality benches in prime locations around the city. This move was geared towards changing the face of Nairobi through enhancing the city’s beauty and being responsive to the community’s needs.

The benches were to be seen across 250 city locations, including the central business district and Uhuru Highway. The initial placement of a few benches as a pilot project received overwhelming support and sent a strong signal that city residents were appreciative and yearned for more of the same.

Twelve years later, a walk through the CBD reveals the Green City in the Sun is a far cry from its tagline. Public seating is non-existent and there are no open cafes that spill into squares or roads like those in Europe and Cape Town.

Street furniture

No one has questioned the fact that the city, with all its numbers, cannot seat its residents. No one has spoken up about the public sector’s lack of resources, which in the end translates into a lack of street furniture. Are there no budgets for upkeep? Is the lack of concern a way to ensure our spaces need zero-maintenance? It’s time Nairobians issued a call for more and better seating.

Hostile architecture doesn’t just affect the targeted few. It affects us all.

After all, if not everyone can exist in a public space, can we call it public in the first place? When our policymakers design public spaces, do they think about equity for all?

Nairobi is no stranger to hostile architecture. In fact, it thrives on defensive elements such as objects or amenities removed thus negating the purpose of having these public spaces.

Enter ghost amenities; public services like benches, washrooms and drinking water fountains that should be included in public spaces to make them more hospitable, but are not as a way to reduce costs, or to prevent vandalism or misuse.

And although this design strategy isn’t discussed as much as others, it’s often easier to remove an element than it is to alter it or construct something new.

“Whether implicit or explicit, defensive design is a form of urban censorship,” says the architect. “The ills of Nairobi are more or less the result of our actions. That’s why they limit public spaces. A few years ago, you could spot public benches and water fountains on nearly every street. It didn’t take too long for these facilities to fall into ruin as a result of vandalism.”

He adds: “Politics plays a big role in design. In fact, it’s one of the drawbacks. When you follow the law, it doesn’t aid you. We have become a people focused on self – and politics is the driving force. In design, we have a rule that’s ingrained in us: first, you build for man. The moment you put the common man aside, that is the beginning of your problems. They’ll find a way to survive.”

Nairobi has no provisions for the disabled, the aged, the sick, mothers, and children. Unfortunately, the absence of amenities like benches and public washrooms, for instance, is a barrier for the most vulnerable in need of rest or relief. Not everyone can stand for an hour waiting for a bus. Discouraging the use of public spaces further worsens an existing crisis.

“There’s nothing in the countryside apart from farming. And from the nyanya (tomatoes) crisis, well, you can see how well that’s going. Everyone is relocating to the city because that’s where the money is – and that is also the root of all our problems. Population is on the rise, unemployment, insecurity; I call it the urban jungle where only the fit survive.

“Our systems do not allow us to have proper public spaces. Even public toilets, which are otherwise free in most countries, are only accessible at a fee.

“That 10 bob could mean your family having a meal without nyanya. We laugh about it now, coining terms like red gold and precious cargo, but in the end, we are the losers,” says Steve Kimathi, a taxi driver.

Nairobi’s anti-loitering measures have made public spaces hostile for people that rely on them most. By trying to meditate user behaviour, police makers have made the city less liveable and pushed out the most vulnerable.

Perhaps it’s time to include wananchi in city planning. After all, shouldn’t we include the end-users in the design process?

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