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County government out of order on Uhuru Park entry conditions

 A woman walks past a decommissioned plane at Uhuru Park, Nairobi on April 18, 2024. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

After an extended period of closure, Uhuru and Central Parks, located in the central business district of Nairobi, are set to be reopened.

The reopening of these parks is a source of great joy for many Kenyans, as the parks have provided a spot of reprieve and recreation for many over several decades.

Families have used the space for gatherings and relaxation; those who are jobless or taking a break from work have sat in the shade of the trees; and business people have plied their wares in these parks since the late sixties.

Additionally, the parks serve a crucial role in the concrete jungle that is Nairobi, by reducing ambient heat, absorbing greenhouse gases, and overall reducing the amount of pollution in the air.

In spite of the reopening, Uhuru and Central Parks remain as much in jeopardy as they have since their initial opening in 1969.

In the 80s, the threat lay in the Kanu government’s plan to build a 60-storey building within the park. At the time, through local and international pressure, Nobel laureate Prof Wangari Maathai was able to bring a stop to these plans.

Throughout the years, the Greenbelt Movement has kept an eye on the park. Fast forward to the present day, new threats arise in the form of entry fees, surveillance through seizure of identity cards, building of nightclubs and restaurants, and the prevention of political gatherings.

The County Government of Nairobi has assured the public that entry to Uhuru Park will remain free of charge, and indeed that is the case. However, the park is proposed to receive an influx of construction, including a nightclub within it.

This idea goes against the very ethos of the club as a pollution-free environment that welcomes families and provides a green recreational space. Thankfully, the Green Belt Movement has already flagged this idea as being antithetical to the purpose of the park, and the public agrees.

Even without the threat of a nightclub, the maintenance of as much green space as possible in Uhuru Park becomes even more crucial considering that Central Park will no longer be open for free to the general public. For so many, access to green spaces is rare, as urban areas increasingly become overcrowded with multi-storey buildings.

Many ordinary Kenyans who come from verdant rural backgrounds suffer more than most in these closed urban environments. It is unconscionable that the county government should seek to earn revenue from the park at the expense of the hundreds of thousands of Kenyans who have for decades been accessing these green spaces for free.

It is also curious that one is required to leave their identity card at the entrance when entering the park. This announcement comes at the same time as the declaration that no political rallies will be held within the park grounds. The legacy of Uhuru Park is not only a recreational one but also a political one.

Prof Wangari Maathai herself, in 1992, gathered on the grounds with mothers of political prisoners to protest the unfair imprisonment of their children and, over the years, opposition movements have been free to gather at the park. Requiring that identity cards be left at the entrance therefore can only be read as a move towards greater surveillance of who enters the park.

Uhuru Park is no longer a spot for free movement, and exercising political thought on its lawns would go against the country’s new vision for the park. Even hawkers will now have their movement restricted to specific hours. Not only the marketplace of ideas but also the actual marketplace will be closely monitored and controlled.

It is important that the county government keep in mind the rich history of these parks, as well as the hard-fought battles that have kept them intact, before making decisions on how the parks should improve.

Public participation should be employed before modifying these public spaces, as what may be seen as progress by the county may actually be detrimental to the citizens for whom these parks exist. Free, green spaces are few and far between in Nairobi, and it is imperative, at a time when the threat of climate change is escalating daily, that the ones we have remain that way.

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