• Irungu Houghton

Time for the public to own urban planning

The recent demolitions of tens of thousands of residential homes, businesses and social facilities require both policy-makers and citizens take a fresh look at urban area planning and management. New bottom up initiatives suggest that light, quick and cheap consultations with the public can create cities and towns that are inclusive, liveable and prosperous.


119 years ago, Nairobi was nothing more than a railway depot. The colonials chose it as the last flat space before the rising escarpment. There was no consideration for solid waste and sanitation or that close to five million people would one day live there. 99% of the Nairobians at the time were not consulted on the town they wanted. There was no attempt to build an iconic city. Quite the reverse, most were prevented by segregationist laws from enjoying both public investment and spaces. Nairobi and many of Kenya’s towns have grown through exclusion, trial and error.


Kenya has three cities and over 100 towns currently. The urban population has quadrupled since 1960 and thirteen million Kenyans now live and work in them. With an average 4.4% increase each year, there are likely to be more than 22 million people living in these spaces by 2030. Devolving governance and services was a direct response to this scenario.

The Urban Areas and Cities Act (2011) also commits our national and 47 county governments to develop integrated urban development plans. These plans must ensure environmental protection, markets, schools and health facilities are available, transportation, energy, solid waste disposal services are provided and the Bill of Rights is fully realized.


The majority of Kenyans remain completely comatose to this. It took the spectacle of Sany bull-dozers ploughing down shacks, apartment blocks and malls this month for most to become acquainted with terms such as riparian reserves and missing road links. Many are still unfamiliar with the significances of crucial physical planning terms like urban renewal, road dualling, looplines, nodes and viaducts.


Yet all of us know the consequences of bad urban planning. It is there in the unsanitary informal markets, dangerous intersections and awkward bus stops, the missing pavements and traffic jams, polluted rivers and flooded drains and in all the dirty, dark and dangerous public spaces around us. Increasingly crowded and chaotic, Kenya’s cities and towns are literally dying for new and innovative ways of recreating its urban spaces.


Towns are defined primarily by their public spaces. Every urban space has a vibe, an energy that comes from human interaction. The tendency towards gated communities, malls and office parks locked away behind barbed wire, electric fences and security guards fragments our urban areas. It reinforces our class divisions between the privileged and the unwanted.

Both citizens and planners must make conscious choices what types of cities they want.


Like the other 1,500 wards, Nairobi’s Kilimani ward is required to have a Local Physical Development Plan. Largely ignored by many citizens, the plans are critical for addressing urban challenges. Last week’s Nairobi County Government consultation with residents and businesses of Kilimani ward of Nairobi is therefore significant. No less than six other Government agencies including the Lands Ministry, NEMA, National City Water and Sewage Company, KURA, Architects Association of Kenya and Upper Hill Neighborhood Association attended the consultation jointly hosted by the County Government and the Kilimani Project Foundation.


After consideration, local residents and business leaders rejected the draft Kilimani Local Physical Development Plan prepared by the County Government in 2017. They felt it failed to plan adequately for investment in markets for informal traders, protection of riparian area, pedestrian walkways, green and open spaces among other issues. The community have committed to actions that can generate a new Plan that can be owned by the public not just planners.


Other wards across the country must contact the County Planning Department or Ward Administrators to convene similar processes. Each ward can identify how the area works or doesn’t and prioritize the issues that matter to them. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Low cost, high impact improvements will also make a difference. Civic organisations and citizens can also demand that Government agencies work together to create public spaces that have multiple uses. Imagine if every ward had ten great interactive public places.


To do this, we each need to make some personal changes. The first is to give up behaving like tenants without a sense of ownership, hustlers without a public conscience and Watembezi in our own cities and towns.

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First published Saturday Standard, September 29, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

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