New cities should avoid mistakes made by older ones like Nairobi

An Aerial view of Nakuru town on December 29, 2020. [Courtesy]

This week, Eldoret town is in the spotlight as county governors meet to mark 10 years of devolution. But the spotlight on the “City of Champions”, as it is fondly known, won’t fade away with the end of the devolution conference.

The greatest news most residents of the town in particular and Uasin Gishu County in general are waiting for is its elevation into a city. Bid to grant Eldoret city-status is currently before Senate. If the request gets senators’ nod, a report will be forwarded to President William Ruto, who will either approve or reject it.

President Ruto’s approval will make Eldoret Kenya’s fifth city, after Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru. It is news that Uasin Gishu leadership and residents alike are waiting for with bated breath.

During a recent event hosted by The Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations (KARA) and Hanns Seidel Foundation to sensitise the public on the opportunities and benefits that the elevation of Eldoret into a city would come with, the town’s leadership expressed great optimism about its growth into a modern city.  

“We want Eldoret to be one of Africa’s greatest and most beautiful cities,” said Tito Koiyet, Eldoret municipal manager. “We want to position Eldoret as a futuristic African city. We want Eldoret to be an alternative to Nairobi.” 

The last time we witnessed such level of enthusiasm was in December 2021 when Nakuru was elevated into a city by then President Uhuru Kenyatta. Nakuru has since gone ahead to craft its own Vision 2050, a development blue print its leaders say is aimed at making it a “model city that enhances the quality of life of its residents and fosters economic prosperity”. 

The good thing about being a new or an emerging city is that the leaders have an opportunity to avoid the mistakes older cities have made such as poor planning, weak infrastructure, disorganised public transport system and high levels of poverty and inequality.

And success lies in implementing good plans. Our cities are never short of good ideas and plans to make them more liveable. The problem is that most of these plans, which gobbled up millions of Kenyan taxpayer’s money, often gather dust on shelves.

Recently, Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja said in a TV interview that he did not need a new plan to bring order in the city’s public transport sector. All he needed to do, he said, would be to implement the recommendations of 'The Nairobi We Want' report of 1994.

He said he could not even find a copy of the report at City Hall and had to get a photocopy from the Kenya National Library Services. He blamed the problems bedeviling Nairobi city on corruption and political expediency.

The goal of any new city should be to foster order and dignity, inspire hope, and create opportunities for its people. This is possible if a new city quickly appropriates the benefits that come with its elevation such as increased investor interest, growth in infrastructural development, increased revenue (since the city will be able to access more loans, grants and donations), and more job opportunities.

But that is not enough. A new city must be ready for the challenges that inevitably come with its new status. One major challenge is population pressure. City status often attracts more people seeking opportunities which can strain resources and lead to overcrowding, traffic congestion, and increased demand for housing.

Rapid urbanisation, in turn, can lead to environmental issues such as pollution, deforestation, and loss of green spaces. Managing these impacts becomes more complex in a city setting.

Population pressure also leads to a strain on services. Provision of quality education, healthcare, and social services to a larger population can become more challenging, potentially impacting the overall quality of life for residents.

Also, as cities develop, the cost of living tends to rise. Housing, transportation, and basic necessities may become more expensive, making it harder for some residents to afford. Associated with this is a possible increase in crime levels.

But new cities like Nakuru – and Eldoret if it is eventually elevated – can avoid problems afflicting older cities like Nairobi. Instead, they can learn from the challenges faced by older cities and implement smart urban planning strategies.

They can do this by ensuring efficient public transport, and by focusing on proper and sustainable waste management, proper planning that encourages a balance of residential, commercial, and recreational areas. They should also have clear zoning laws to prevent haphazard development – and make sure the laws are adhered to.

But above all, they should involve citizens in the planning process to ensure their needs and preferences are incorporated.

No city ever fell from the sky; they were imagined by people and built by people. Whether a city succeeds or fails depends on how well the plans are implemented.