Rush to cash in on rising housing demand leaves no space to breathe

The newly refurbished Kenya National Theatre

As developers rush to cash in on the rising housing demand, areas that had earlier been zoned for urban and neighbourhood parks and public playgrounds have diminished, pushing residents to look for alternatives, writes AUSTINE OKANDE

It is a sunny Saturday. Men and women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, sit in the auditorium watching artistes perform on stage. There is the occasional murmur amid muffled conversation. Outside in the hot sun, more sit in and on their cars; others stand in small groups chatting or taking swigs from drinks in disposable cups.

A tent in one corner is doing roaring business selling kuku choma, ugali and more drinks. Back in the auditorium, a section of the crowd sings along to a song.

The place is the Godown Arts Centre. It is hosting its monthly event christened ‘The Godown Gig’ held on the last Saturday of every month.

The centre is a cultural melting pot hosting artistes and offering art lovers a place to relax and catch up or just enjoy themselves. Entrance is free.

The Godowns Arts Centre is only one such place that has become a favourite with the young(ish) crowd faced with the diminishing availability of open, public spaces.

The Kenya National Theatre is another, complete with a laid back bar. Others include Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institut, where one can always find students and artistes milling about.

The youth used to congregate at places like Uhuru Park or social halls in estates, but the tide is changing.

As urban spaces swiftly change into concrete jungles, so are the lifestyles of residents. Boniface Mwalii, head of marketing and communications for Blankets and Wine, an Afro-based music festival, argues that Nairobi’s entertainment patterns have changed significantly over the last few years.

With a rising population and the high demand for quality, open spaces, city planners now say that incorporating green space in development plans in parts of the city is unattainable.

Comprehensive plan

But Mairura Omwenga, chairman of the Town and County Planners Association of Kenya (TCPAK), argues that in comprehensive city plans, a population surge is often anticipated and accuses planners of deliberately not earmarking open spaces and other necessary social amenities in their plans.

“Open space is a necessity in well-planned neighbourhoods. Such open spaces do not only offer alluring ambience, but make human co-existence complete,” he adds.

Hosea Omole, a landscape architect, says: “Areas that had earlier been zoned for urban and neighbourhood parks and public playgrounds have been given over to other development purposes, which are deemed to be more economically beneficial. Others have been turned into open-air markets and informal settlements.”

He adds: “Rogue private developers have taken advantage of law-enforcement gaps and put up structures that show little regard for any open space. In spite of by-laws that require buildings in certain zones to leave a percentage of the site open, it is not uncommon for buildings to occupy an entire plot.”

Josiah Mugu, an architect, in his thesis titled, ‘The Quality of Urban Open Space in the CBD of Nairobi’, notes that some of the existing public spaces are poorly designed, while most of them lack recreational infrastructure to support the good quality, convivial social life that an urban open space is supposed to. Nairobi Arboretum, a green park located on State House Road in Kilimani, is one of the open spaces city residents seem to have fallen in love with.

It is an ideal space for picnics, bird-watching and for those who keep fit by jogging, thanks to its serene environment.

The GoDown Arts Centre, off Mombasa Road in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, is an artistry hub popular for its visual arts collections.

Creative spaces

For creative heads, lovers of poetry, books, photography and Kenyan film, PAWA 254, a creative hub founded by activist Boniface Mwangi, is often thronged for its occasional book launch, poetry night and film premier event, most of which are held on the rooftop.

Way before Nairobi - which is described as an archetype of the African colonial city - became a concrete jungle it had a well-planned neighbourhood concept. Some of its earliest housing schemes such as Shauri Moyo, Jericho, Mbotela and Bahati, enjoyed spacious open spaces with common sanitary facilities, schools, hospitals and social halls.

Traversing Nairobi’s estates from Eastlands to Westlands, it is evident that many of the open spaces that factored in the city’s initial Master Plan of 1948, are either abandoned or hosting towering buildings.

Omwenga argues that while open spaces in major urban centres in the country today are perceived to be wasted land, they improve the character of the environment and the value of properties.

Experts have also warned that failing to set aside open spaces in city and neighbourhood plans has seen an increase in accidents.

Mohammed Hamed, a city resident, says that recent reports of a three-year-old child who was crushed to death by a school van in a city estate, could have been avoided “if we planned our estates well”.

Omwenga notes that a recent study of residential houses in Pipeline estate in Nairobi, suggests that many young children in these areas are likely to suffer from rickets because of lack of sunlight.

“County governments should put in place feasible strategic development plans that purposely set aside and protect open spaces within urban areas,” Omwenga says.

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