What's next for city CBD amid firms' exodus?

The Hilton Hotel. The iconic hotel closed its doors due to what management cited as harsh economic times in hospitality business. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The Hilton Hotel recently closed its doors in the Central Business District (CBD) following in the steps of Hotel Intercontinental.

The bright spot is the reopening of The Norfolk Hotel. Clearly, the CBD is losing its lustre. Some might blame the passage of time and the fact that the buildings can’t be easily reconfigured as they belong to another age. 

But the slow death of the CBD could be driven by another factor: our love for nature and appreciation of the outdoors.

Without any vested interests, some hotels are doing well lately based on their closeness to nature. They are Ankole, Zen Garden, Shamba and Safari Park Hotel. I have not chosen my sample scientifically.

These hotels have ample outdoor sitting space commensurate with the tropical weather. Even at night, Nairobi is warm enough for the outdoors. A visit to one of the hotels on Valentine’s Day left no doubt about the popularity of the outdoors. It was parked to the brim.

The open design means the space can be easily reconfigured depending on the number of customers or the function.

That’s hard for the old established hotels. They seem designed for a selected few. Yet going out to hotels has become mainstream, a lifestyle. 

Why the sudden love for nature? It’s not random. Most of these outdoor entertainment places are mostly patronised by expatriates who appreciate the outdoors because of the harsh weather in their countries. Check the temperature in places like Yukon in Canada or Moscow Russia. 

Tropical weather

Having lived through winter, they appreciate the hot tropical weather and something else we take for granted - longer days.

Check how many hours of daylight places like Oslo, Toronto or Vladivostok have. Some have argued that the flourishing of such open spaces in Nairobi closely mirrors the growth of Nanyuki. We love copying the West. 

Our lack of appreciation for nature and its cycles has held us back. It should not surprise us that some of the most developed countries in the world are in temperate regions, where seasons force residents to think and innovate.

You must learn to deal with extremely cold winters or hot summers. Mombasa is not hot or humid enough. 

Back to the CBD. It lacks space for expansion, and customers feel “caged” in the old buildings; there is no space to walk around and see the open sky, the stars and the moon or enjoy the breeze and nature.

Remember living in houses is a late innovation for humanity. What will happen to the CBD as more businesses leave? One argument is that it could become a “historical curiosity.”

The CBD shall become a heritage site, to see the city as it was 100 years ago. It will become one of the major tourist attractions, joining the Big Five if the old houses will not make way for new ones. 

But the CBD could endure longer, courtesy of the governments; it is the seat of both the national and county governments.

A good fit, governments are conservative and hard to change like concrete buildings. 

What of all the skyscrapers coming up in the CBD? Check, they are associated with conservative institutions like the Central Bank and Parliament.The other option is to have the old buildings demolished to pave way for renewal - gentrification.

Taveta or River Road lead in urban renewal. Hopefully, history and heritage will not be destroyed. But wait a minute, the hotels in these leafy suburbs are unlikely to remain that way if General Mathenge Road represents the future.

Leafy suburbs

Lavington was once leafy and prestigious. It now competes with Githurai.

Unless the leafy suburbs are protected, they will follow Lavington. Yet there is something sentimental about leafy suburbs. They are dream homes for the vast majority. One wishes they are replicated. With global warming, we need trees as carbon sinks and to feel at home with nature. Have you sat under the tree shade in this scorching sun? 

Some could argue we have no time for sentimentality. We can’t resist the invisible hand of the market that will pay any money to get strategically located land and develop it. For the vast majority, greening is secondary to money. 

I find our obsession with concrete strange, considering most of us grew up in the countryside with wide open spaces and lots of greenery. When did we “flip?” I fear that in my lifetime, Nairobi will become a giant slum with vertical ghettos. We thought devolution would forestall that.

It did not happen. Unless rural-urban migration reduces, and Nairobi is demoted as the centre of economic and political power, more green spaces will sadly go.

The pride of the city will go too. I wish we can get Nairobi a worthy rival to force the city to reform and “behave” and hopefully become the green city in the sun as envisaged by its founders more than a century ago.