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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

How to improve our living standards and create just cities

New land rates for homes, businesses and apartments in Nairobi seem set to generate huge revenues for the County Government. As national and county governments grapple with ways to keep their lights on, salaries paid and most importantly, services to those who voted for them, new strategies are needed to raise levels of citizen oversight, discipline and care for the limited public investments taking place. This opinion was jointly written with Robyn T. Emerson.


As the Nairobi County December land rates waiver is extended another month, Nairobi residents living or working from properties with sectional titles will also be required to pay land rates for the first time from January 2024. Given the rapid growth of apartments in most of Nairobi’s 85 wards this could be a revenue game changer. Other County Governments are also looking to go in the same direction.


Roads and Public Works Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen provoked public rage when he announced an arbitrary 39 per cent increase in Nairobi expressway fees. In response to the outrage, he reportedly took the lead of eighteen century French Queen Marie Antoinette and advised irate commuters that couldn’t afford this, to use other routes. One netizen sarcastically responded by asking, could the Minister and the cabinet lead by example?


Without sounding too exclusive, Kenya’s future is being decided in its cities and towns. With urban populations set to double, the quality of urban activism is now vital for well-governed, inclusive, prosperous and climate smart counties. As the national economy spirals, mattress balances begin to compete with bank balances and financial distress bites, we must become more intentional about who is running and how our cities are run.


Predictably, most within urban working and middle classes will seek to withdraw further from the formal economy. Downsizing, going analogue and cash-only is beginning to look more attractive for some for the first time in a decade. This would be a mistake. As residents face arbitrary fee hikes with fewer services, navigate the threats of mass evictions and violence, new forms of political mobilisation and cross class organising is necessary to challenge odious or onerous taxation, mismanagement, and corruption.


Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s 2023 “Towards a Just City” report offers new ideas for building public accountability and good governance that step past the clumsy politician’s playbook of dividing urban residents along class lines to dominate them. Just cities have a few core features. Marginalised populations are visible, vocal at the policy table and politicians do the listening. Alongside municipal charters there are citizens charters that are measurable and owned by residents. Public participation fora and accountability tools are in place and constantly provide feedback to policymakers on what is working and what is not.


All regulations that criminalise access to any part of the city are legally lifted and civic education uplifts the sense of responsibility citizens have in public spaces. Social housing programmes factor in affordable rent control schemes and facilities alongside the current home ownership approaches.

Lastly, public solutions are preferred over private solutions to essential services like roads, water, electricity and security among others.


Implementing some of these principles, Nakuru County’s Kenya Meat Commission Settlement has seen the benefits of joint participatory urban planning between residents, county planners and NGOs in clean water access, hygiene and sanitation, security, and a public resource centre.


Inspired by this and other American city leadership programmes, the Kilimani Project Foundation launches its Leadership Nairobi programme this week. The Foundation seeks to accompany residents through a public systems and skills development course to transform what works and doesn’t in Kenya’s capital city. It is time other civic associations and county governments mount city education programmes across all 47 counties.


Without a heightened sense of purposeful citizenship, all public investment will remain fragile and unprotected. Governments will predictably come to the end of their tenure without clear legacies and our cities and towns will remain unjust, unstable, and squalid spaces for us all.


This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 8 January 2023.


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