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Nairobi’s space shrinks under population tide

By Peter Theuri | May 27th 2021

A prime office building in Nairobi's Upper Hill with open offices to let, on Monday, May 17, 2021.[David Njaaga, Standard]

What will happen to Nairobi, the place of cool waters, when every blade of grass is replaced by concrete?

Will we have a New York-esque skyline to marvel at or have a jungle where sanitation is poorer, crime higher, cost of living at stratospheric highs and air pollution threatening life?

In 2009, the city had a population of 3.14 million. But by 2019 when Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) went out for the census, the population had soared to 4.4 million. 

More than 1.26 million people had come into the city through migration, mainly from the countryside, or by birth. But households told an even more interesting story.

In 2009 there were 985,016 households - defined by KNBS as a person or group of persons who reside in the same homestead or compound, but not necessarily in the same dwelling unit, have same cooking arrangements, and are answerable to one household head.

By 2019, there were 1.507 million households in the city. That was an increase of more than half a million in just 10 years. More households increase the need for houses, both commercial and residential.

Planners will have a lot to do, with Nairobi now attracting more expatriates to add to the swelling numbers of locals coming into the capital. 

The World Population Review says Nairobi’s 2021 population is estimated at 4,922,192. “In 1950, the population of Nairobi was 137,456. Nairobi has grown tremendously since 2015, at a 3.96 per cent annual change,” it says.

“These population estimates and projections come from the latest revision of the UN World Urbanisation Prospects and represent the urban agglomeration of Nairobi, which typically includes Nairobi’s population in addition to adjacent suburban areas.”

It is expected that the population will be at 8.5 million by 2035, almost twice the current population.

These are results of extrapolations, it is anyone’s guess how many households there will be, and how many more buildings the city will have to hold. “The current government’s aggressive infrastructure upgrade will position Nairobi as a preferred investment destination, which will lead to increased urban migration into the city,” says Rhino Mabati Chief Executive Andrew Muriungi.

“As the mega infrastructure upgrades continue, the County Government of Nairobi needs to come up with an elaborate sustainable land use plan to ensure developments factor in green zoning similar to what you would find in Singapore and Dubai.”

A World Bank publication, Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors to the World says the continent’s cities are not economically dense or efficient. They are crowded and unlivable. “Most urban residents are packed into low-rise, informal settlements without adequate infrastructure or access to basic services,” the report says.

“In Nairobi, the current patterns of informal land use in centrally located settlements impose an economic loss of over $1.8 billion (Sh194 billion),” it adds, noting that people are clustering in downtown locations.

Mizizi Homes Chief Executive George Mburu says the solution lies in proper planning. “What I can ask of the government is to set aside some areas to plant trees, like we have Karura Forest, and developers and people contracting to leave room for green areas and tree planting to avoid degradation of the environment,” he says.

As much as there is need for more houses, he believes there should be proper planning to avoid mushrooming of shanties. The population increase points to this likelihood in the very near future, if not well managed.

Parts of Nairobi’s Eastlands are densely populated, and empty into the downtown CBD, which is equally overcrowded. “These patterns reflect broader dysfunctionalities in land markets as well as limited investments in transport infrastructure, limiting the choices that people can make on where to live and how to access jobs,” say the World Bank report.

Mr Muriungi says the population growth might be slowed by the attractiveness of county towns following devolution. “We have seen a shift in city to county migration due to devolution that has created job opportunities within counties where land is affordable and easily available,” he says.

Manufacturing can move people from Nairobi, which is slowly ceding power as the centre of production. “It’s also key to know markets are bottoming out. Economic habits are shifting to on-the-go economy,” says Muriungi.

Manufacturing, which creates a significant number of jobs and located mostly in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, has been disrupted by smaller players.

Smaller manufacturing plants in the counties mean that you can make your own animal feeds in your county and beat large-scale manufacturers because of transport and knowledge of the local market.

With this shift expected to continue we are likely to see the push for housing moving to the counties to support housing for factory workers, for industrial buildings and other supporting services such as IT and training and material supply,” Muriungi says.

In the future, as population rises, it is almost inevitable there will be a lot of constructions in the city even with migration into counties, but we might not get a New York.

First off, the World Bank report indicates that Kenya’s buildings are not as valuable as buildings in America.

“The value of urban building stocks is much lower in Africa than in Central America. The value per square kilometre in the four African cities studied ranges between $2.7 million (in Kigali) and $15.6 million (in Nairobi),” read the Africa Cities report. 

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