Why size of urban residential units has been shrinking

A photo of a residential apartment within Nairobi's Pipeline Estate. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

When John Kagiri moved to his single-room house in Roysambu, Nairobi, it was an upgrade from the hovel in Kangemi’s Sodom slum that he previously called home. He had just secured employment as a loader at a nearby supermarket and wanted to reduce the daily commute.

But apart from some aesthetics, the home was no more liveable than his former two-bedroomed wooden house in Kangemi, the room quarters.

“The whole thing was squeezed with the room resembling more of a storage cubicle than a place for human habitation. It took a whole morning just to get the bed into the room since negotiating the stairs to the third floor was a nightmare. I had just traded a wooden slum for a brick one,” says Kagiri.

Many urban residents can relate to Kagiri’s predicament. The size of rental space keeps shrinking as developers take corners, often building flats in tiny parcels of land that can barely accommodate requisite infrastructure such as a parking lot or leave an inch of greenery.

The race to get residential structures higher into the sky without due regard for any urban planning guidelines is not confined to the lower echelons of city dwellers. Estates such as Kilimani, Kileleshwa, Lavington, Jamhuri, and South C are slowly turning into what has been described in various platforms as ‘vertical slums’.

According to the 2023 Status of the Built Environment Report, such developments mushrooming without proper controls have emerged as a critical challenge that is even stressing industry professionals.

The report cites the absence of essential planning and legal frameworks such as local physical development plans, zoning regulations, development control regulations, and building regulations. Since the expiry of the Nairobi Development Control Ordinances in 2014, zoning guidelines have been arbitrary hence the haphazard developments in Kenya’s urban areas.

Florence Nyole, director of EcoSpace Architects and the president of the Architectural Association of Kenya says plot sizes where residential apartments could be built were quite clear “before such regulations were discarded”.

“We have seen such high-rise apartments with tiny living areas come up in places like South C where a standalone home previously stood. If you are a resident, how do you even manoeuvre a car in such a tiny space? In any case, we are also losing the beauty of our city as there will be no green space in such an environment,” says Nyole.

However, the county government seems to have compounded the matter further by reducing the plot size on which one can build high-rise residential apartments. According to the recently enacted Nairobi City County Development Control Policy, it is now possible for a developer to squeeze in as many units as he can on a tiny piece of land.

In parts of Zone 1 including Upper Hill and parts of Kilimani, the policy states that one can build residential units up to 75 floors on 0.05 hectares, equivalent to an eighth of an acre. Such enactments have professionals in the built environment on edge.

“The [Nairobi] County is saying that you can do close to 100 floors on an eighth of an acre. They are trying to regularise the chaos we have already witnessed. The size of land for those many floors should never be less than an acre,” says Nyole.

And with only 25 per cent of urban structures designed by registered professionals, Nyole says such legislation will only invite more unscrupulous individuals posing as technicians thus endangering the lives of Kenyans.

The situation, according to Nyole, has been compounded by foreigners who are entering into the built environment not only with their professionals who are not well versed in local regulations but are bringing in their workers as well.

Mairura Omwenga, the chairman of the Town and County Planners Association says there has always been regulations to govern urban developments “but these are scattered all over the place and differ from one county to another, and from one municipality to another”.

He says urban regulations were well documented in the 1960s and 1970s as seen by the way the construction of government houses was standardised and when a person could budget to buy a house since the costs were also controlled.

Omwenga says local authorities and central government offices had guidelines regarding the shape of a plot one could build on and “avoid the funny triangular shapes” where apartments have irregular facades. 

“Today, the regulations are not integrated and this causes an ad hoc situation where anybody builds what he wants and where he wants. We had well-coordinated systems in the early days of the republic, but it seems our independence from the British liberated us from such regulations,” says Omwenga.

He says strict regulations are needed now more than ever due to a ballooning population and a shrinking land bank.

“Some people should be held responsible,” Omwenga says. “That is why the government exists. Even in rural areas, all structures, including the toilet, had to be at a particular point. In a hilly area we had to put up terraces. Now we have chaos that breeds corruption. Corruption includes disorder, not just theft of resources.” 

Not all is lost, according to Omwenga, as our towns and cities are still small and can be salvaged. But this will require all players in the sector to pull their weight and standardising the regulations across the board.

“Everything starts with the country's leadership. We can play our role in our own small space. We must appreciate that we need urban development controls or we end up in a quagmire.”

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