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Nairobi's bustling and booming, but is the hustle sustainable?
Above the honking and frayed nerves, the Nairobi Expressway stretches out in the morning sun like a lazy lizard (By Mbugua Ng'ang'a, bird story agency)
By Mbugua Ng'ang'a, bird story agency
The Waiyaki Way-Raphta Road roundabout in Westlands is a microcosm of the contradictions that define Nairobi's sustainable development narrative. Motorists driving down into the city stop cruising on the four-lane highway as they approach the busy intersection. Four lanes shrink to two on the off-ramp leading to Raphta Road but then traffic suddenly comes to halt because part of the road has been colonised by mutatus, Nairobi's infamous public transport minivans. It takes the constant intervention of traffic police ensure that traffic flows smoothly.
Above the honking and frayed nerves, the Nairobi Expressway stretches out in the morning sun like a lazy lizard. The expressway is for motorists who do not mind paying a fee – a minimum of 100 shillings (US$0.82) and a maximum of 310 shillings (USD$2.5) depending on distance – so they can drive calmly above the din below.
From up there, motorists have a clear view of the blue, glass-walled Africa 1 tower, a phallic symbol that juts above the skyline, with a top floor that is a revolving restaurant giving patrons a 360-degree view of Nairobi. Only a keen eye will notice the sprawling copper-brown roofs of the Kibera shantytown sandwiched between the affluent Lang'ata neighbourhood and the famous Nairobi National Park, where lions roam freely (sometimes onto surrounding roads).
"Urban growth must be planned to make it sustainable," says Winnie Ngumi, chairman of the Kenya National Highways Authority (KenHa) Board and CEO of Space N Style. This company specialises in manufacturing roofing tiles, eco-friendly homes, and bespoke plumbing systems.
"I am not certain that we have implemented urban growth plans in a sustainable manner."
One way of ensuring sustainable urban growth involves zoning, which the new governor, Johnson Sakaja, promised ahead of the August 9 election.
"I will create four boroughs and appoint city managers for each to deal with the specific needs of every part of the city," he said before being elected two months ago. As he names his management team, Nairobi residents will be watching to see if his promise to run the capital the same way New York will come to pass.
Winnie acknowledges the challenges ahead.
"Zoning of urban areas must be done well in advance and development of buildings should ideally follow zoning provisions to make the city liveable," she says.
In her view, the city is increasingly overwhelmed by rising demand for infrastructure.
By 2019, Nairobi had 4.4 million residents, about a tenth of the national population, sharing a space of 670 square kilometres. According to the World Population Review, this number has grown to 5.3 million. Yet, the capital has not grown its housing or transport infrastructure in tandem, as is evident from the congestion that characterises the Westlands roundabout.
In early October, newly-elected President William Ruto unveiled a plan to facilitate the building of 500,000 homes in the capital annually to address the housing shortage. Under the programme, residents would pay about 30 dollars a month to own a studio apartment and about double that for a one-bedroom apartment in poor neighbourhoods like Mukuru.
"In 15 to 25 years, they will become homeowners," he said this week of the programme, primarily targeting shack dwellers who live in deplorable conditions and where the cost of water per litre is twice as high as in well-off neighbourhoods.
Such inequalities make economic advancement unsustainable in poor city neighbourhoods.
"Integration of all elements in sustainable design is key in making our cities more liveable," said Winnie, Nguni, laying a finger squarely on one of the biggest challenges facing Nairobi.
Companies like Huawei Technologies, which have won huge tenders to harness technology to manage traffic, have a significant role to play in improving sustainability and smart mobility. The company has deployed Artificial Intelligence to design Nairobi's Intelligent Transport System in partnership with the Kenya Urban Roads Authority.
The system has streamlined traffic flow in middle-class neighbourhoods like Kileleshwa but challenges still abound, partly because public service minivans are not keen to observe traffic rules, making city roads unsafe for other users, particularly pedestrians, who account for the highest number of road crash victims and casualties.
About 48 per cent of Nairobians walk to work each morning and back home every evening. According to police records, pedestrians account for about half of road crash fatalities in the capital, meaning that design challenges make the city's road infrastructure largely unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists, who account for the second largest demographic of crash victims.
All is not lost, however. Later this month, the Architectural Association of Kenya, in partnership with UN-Habitat, invited urban planners for three days of talks on the essentials of city building and how to manage urban development. This meeting should develop ideas to make Nairobi's urban development more sustainable.
And with World Cities Day coming up at the end of the month, there is ample opportunity for urban planners to advise government agencies, such the Nairobi City County, on how to transform the capital from one big construction site into a liveable, smart city devoid of the internal contradictions that are all too evident at the Westlands roundabout.
bird story agency