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Citizens must be involved in planning, building our cities

If public spaces are essential for citizenship and cities, why do we know so little about our parks, playgrounds and forests and engage them so rarely? A report on the state of public spaces in Nairobi was released this month. It offers us several reasons to start deeply reflecting on our cities and ourselves.

While Africa is still the least urbanised continent, within a few decades, there will be more people living in urban areas than rural ones. With eight of the fastest growing cities in the world on our continent, we must ask ourselves what quality of life we expect of the African city.

Like most of Kenya’s towns and cities, Nairobi is still work in progress. At a quick glance, Nairobi is concrete, steel, tarmac and glass as well as mabati, dusty paths, open drains and barbed wire. Nairobi is also, a cosmopolitan home to 4.3 million people who co-exist and contest its 70,000 hectares.

Like most colonial cities, Nairobi was not designed for all to equally access, enjoy and live in it. Colonial spatial planning intentionally denied non-whites access to quality public green spaces. Residential segregation was strictly enforced by employment, land ownership and movement restrictions. It is interesting in the time of corona to note that colonial urban planning was heavily influenced by controlling imaginary and real diseases. Settlers chose Nairobi for the relative absence of mosquitoes. Their racist belief that Africans and Indians were inherently unhygienic races was also key to the original apartheid-like design of our capital city.

Independence shattered racial segregation but failed to plan for the population explosion and protect against class greed. Unprotected by enough citizens or State officers, the community centres of Jericho and Kaloleni and the playing grounds of Dandora and Donholm disappeared.

The architecture of fear ran riot. The middle class discovered WiFi, gated up, blocked off public roads and took their children to malls to play behind “the right of admission is reserved” signs. Public spaces became spaces to be feared or left for traffic circulation and the homeless. Despite five generations of residents, tragically most Nairobians reading this still behave like migrants with no obligation to create an inclusive city for all.

With this background, the Nairobi City County Public Space Inventory and Assessment Report published by UN-Habitat and the Nairobi City County Government makes interesting reading. Nairobi County has currently over 826 public spaces.

Be active participants

The 3,000 hectares include 99 playgrounds, 51 sports fields, 15 parks and 19 gardens. Combined, Ngong and Karura forests span 1,930 hectares and represent over 60 per cent of Nairobi’s public spaces. Three hundred species of flora and fauna can be found in the Arboretum and City Park.

Despite this, public spaces largely remain under-protected, underdeveloped and inaccessible especially by people with disabilities, women and children. Only 24 and 5 public spaces are easily accessible by public transport and bicycles respectively and only one space is disability friendly.

A mere 46 of 826 public spaces are in the 130 informal settlements where over sixty per cent of Nairobians live. Just under half of all public spaces are too noisy or dirty from uncollected garbage to be places of serenity. All of Nairobi’s green public spaces together is still 10-15 per cent less than the global average for successful cities. We cannot leave this to the Environment Ministry, Nairobi Metropolitan Services and the County Government of Nairobi to fix. To do so would leave us as subjects not the citizens described in Article 1 of the Constitution.

Becoming citizens would require nurturing your curiosity and visit some of these 826 public spaces. Have you visited the Westlands Botanical Garden near Westgate Mall or John Michuki Park yet? Next month marks the fifth year of the Changing Faces Challenge organised by the Public Space Network.

Why don’t you enter your neighbourhood and compete to revitalise, transform or create a new public space? Citizens and civic groups could also speak up and demand the reclamation of all the public spaces listed in the Ndungu Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land Report.

Given rapid urbanisation in Nakuru and other Kenyan towns, these actions apply to everyone in the other 46 counties as well. If public spaces are central to being a citizen, can we really be citizens without participating in the construction and management of our cities? Let’s choose being citizens for a change.

-Mr Houghton is Amnesty International Executive Director and Mr Ojal is Urban Designer and Placemaking Expert. Both write in their personal capacity.

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