Ensure cities residents live in dignity

An aerial photo of Kisii town's expanding infrastructure. [Eric Abuga, Standard]

Theatres of the starkest human inequalities. That is how President William Ruto described urban centres during the official opening of the second UN-Habitat Assembly in Nairobi this month.

President Ruto's statement best captures a phenomenon that has come to be known as "unjust" cities. It refers to a situation where the majority of urban dwellers live in squalor and unhygienic conditions even as a tiny fraction of the well-to-do residents enjoy the benefits of urban life.

Some people have blamed inequality on unchecked urbanisation and poor planning. But much of it has to do with policies that do not incorporate the views of everybody, especially those in the lower rungs of society.

A report by an international NGO in 2022 said Kenya's urban policies have prioritised the demands of the middle and upper classes over the needs of poorer groups.

Titled, Towards the Just City in Kenya, the report said city by-laws had maintained a highly elitist and oppressive approach towards poor and lower-income residents, such as informal traders and public transport and non-motorised transport users.

That has made our cities unjust. A 'just' city ensures that no one is left behind, especially the majority who seek to have a dignified life in the city.

It ensures an equitable and just development that carries the aspirations of the majority. It espouses dignity, equity and diversity, rights and responsibilities, and democracy through public participation.

The concept of just cities is well captured in Kenya's Constitution, which has entrenched socio-economic rights and freedoms and made public participation a requirement in decision-making.

With more than half of Kenya's population expected to live in urban areas by 2050 (currently, a third of the population, or 15 million people, live in urban centers), authorities must work hard to ensure our cities are just.

Thankfully, it is not all doom and gloom. Nakuru City, for instance, recently embarked on an urban strategy to make it a model city that enhances the quality of life of its residents and fosters economic prosperity.

Through its Vision 2050, Kenya's fourth and newest city aims at being a "liveable, just and prosperous city" through citizen-centered policies and citizen-driven urban projects.

During the launch of Nakuru Vision 2050, Governor Susan Kihika said they were cognisant of the many challenges caused by the high rate of urbanisation, including urban sprawl that compounds pressures on existing infrastructure, inequalities, climate change and urban decay.

She also cited traffic congestion and a growing need for affordable housing supply due to the increase in urban population.

As a remedy, the governor said, her government had embraced dignity, equity and diversity in a democratic environment in order to advance citizen-centric development for the benefit of all.

By capturing public views on how the city can be transformed, Nakuru hopes to be a model for other cities and towns struggling to deliver services to residents.

This step by Nakuru, which was elevated into a city in December 2021, is commendable. With a population of 400,000 people, the city stands a better chance to succeed in experimenting with the "just city" concept since it is viewed as an emerging city, which means its structures are not yet fully formed or established.

Proponents of the vision say it also gives Nakuru an opportunity not to repeat the mistakes of other Kenyan cities and towns, which suffer from poor planning, inadequate infrastructure and high levels of poverty and inequality.

Other cities and towns in the country should borrow a leaf from Nakuru and start striving to not only enhance the quality of life of residents, but where every resident can claim the right to their city. That is what just cities are all about.

The writer is the CEO of Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations. Email: [email protected]