Americanisation of our cities is upon us, what next?

Dubbed Global Trade Centre (GTC Towers), the 7.5-acre development comprises six imposing towers: a 47-level 3A Plus Office Tower, a 35-level hotel tower that will host the star-studded US chain JW Marriott hotel. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Where would you get a quarter of an acre or more to build a private home in Nairobi?

How much would it cost? The truth is that such a piece of land in the city is likely to be filled up with high-rise apartments or an office block.

The trend is that old standalone buildings are being torn down and replaced by taller structures.

Old is gold, and the materials that build those old houses are on sale along Lower Kabete Road just before you branch off to Kyuna Road. They include bricks, windows, and toilet bowls, among other things. Lavington embodied Nairobi’s tag as the green city in the sun several decades ago. It was less crowded and more green. Today, it is a forest of apartments. Few standalone homes remain. General Mathenge Road is the next home to such high-rise apartments.

A silent revolution is taking place in Nairobi - the Americanisation of the city. Simply put, the affluent will leave the city centre and its environs to the poor and flee to the suburbs, into outlying areas.

If you live in an American city, it’s very evident. The inner city, say CBD, Westlands, Muthaiga, Pangani, Lavington and nearby are home to the poor. Some call them urban ghettos.

When I arrived in America’s Deep South, I was surprised at how easy it was to get a house next to the campus right in the city, a walking distance until one classmate asked me why I was living in the ghetto.

The affluent in the US live far away from the city, in big houses with big compounds. The land is available and cheaper. Good roads make it easy to commute. 

The roads boom started by the Kibaki administration might enhance the Americanisation of our cities.

Today, a quarter of an acre or more for a standalone house can only be found on the outskirts of Nairobi in Kiambu, Kajiado, Machakos, and Murang’a following the construction of the Thika superhighway. The highway needs expansion or an expressway. The Kenyan poor live either in the slums near the city or far away from the city where housing is cheaper. Matatus do the transport. Also, more Kenyans now own cars.

The location of the affluent near the Central Business District (CBD) is historical. The elite (read mzungus; whites) lived in the leafy suburbs and cooler parts of the city - Muthaiga, Lavington, and Westlands, among others.

The workers, on the other hand, lived in the hotter and flatter areas, including Eastlands, with easy access to the Industrial Area. That has not changed much since uhuru.

The next stage of Americanisation is that the high-rise flats in Lavington, general Mathenge and nearby places will become affordable as more are built.

That will dilute their class, and the existing owners will leave for ‘greener” areas on the outskirts of the city or far away in Nanyuki or elsewhere. Some will also immigrate abroad, selling off their houses or renting them out. That is not new. The owners of the houses in Roysambu, Kahawa West, Githurai and Mlolongo most likely do not live there. The fact that Kenya is mostly a service economy may delay Americanisation. Those who live near the CBD are in business and benefit from proximity to the city. Some communities, out of their culture or economic interests, prefer to live near the CBD. Asians and Somalis are in that category. They could price the new high-rise apartments so high that “hustlers” will be discouraged from living there.

One possible catalyst of the Americanisation of the city could be the housing levy. Where will the “government” houses be located?

If put up near the affluent suburbs, that will accelerate the shift away from the city to outlying areas. Guess why.

There is another strange accelerator to Americanisation - the death of the original owners of the land in outlying areas like Kiambu, Muranga, Machakos and Kajiado.

Their children are more willing to sell land, seeing it as a factor of production. Never mind some land is held by “curses.”

That has freed large tracts of affordable land. Noted how Kikuyu, Kinoo, Dagoretti, Kawangware, Ruaka, Kenol and Ruiru are booming?

Even the hallowed coffee plantations that have stood for over 100 years are now being chopped up and sold, not by original owners. Have you taken a drive from Ruiru to “reserve” through the old plantations?

The American inner cities are often crime-ridden. Will our inner city, left by those leaving for the outskirts, be the same?

That will depend on economic growth. Housing is demand-driven. Citizens want houses in the city because they work there.

Are we generating jobs and by extension demand for housing? If there are jobs, we need not worry about the high concentration of people in one place, in the inner city. Vertical ghettos present their own challenges. We could enhance Americanisation by making the counties more attractive as centres of economic growth, not politics.

That could drain Nairobi some of its population. After all, population and economic growth drive housing and shifts in residence.

Have you partaken in the Americanisation of our city? Talk to us.