I have lived in and travelled to various cities around the world since I was a child. I have often viewed these places as living, breathing entities. Each city has its own personality, its spark, those spaces where the sun lands bringing in a sense of hope, and those spots where the darkness lies. Over the last few years however, my way of observing cities has changed, my focus now being more on how these places function, how they are designed and more importantly, who they are designed for.
In some cases, it feels like the idea of how a city should look is based upon a blueprint of certain cities in the West or the likes of Dubai. Governments and leaders will want these spaces to look a certain way, tall buildings, lavish shopping malls, opulent hotels, a skyline of twinkling lights.
In theory perhaps there is nothing wrong with this, after all, some of the world’s most revered cities possess these attributes. However, in some cases the obsession with aesthetics comes at a high cost, for what good are high rise buildings reaching for the sky when parts of the city submerge in water at the first sign of rain? Of what value are the shopping malls frequented by a small percentage of the population while the majority do not have sufficient sidewalks to use as they try to get home?
Spending the last few months in Nairobi has led me to ask these questions. These thoughts are independent of my growing up in London and not a comparison between the cities, rather it was from my questioning if the way Nairobi is designed and the way it works is beneficial to the majority of its residents.
In his piece “The Walking Poor”, Patrick Gathara argues that when it comes to Nairobi “the needs of pedestrians are kicked to the kerb”, and he quotes a Bloomberg article which states that “The ongoing battle for the roads of Nairobi is an extension of the city’s broader class segregation: Cars, a transit option for the city’s upper classes, command the road with superiority. Pedestrians, many of whom belong to Nairobi’s lower class of informal laborers, are funneled into dangerous and uncomfortable walking environments”. Therein lies a valid question.Considering the large portion of Nairobi’s population that navigate the city on foot, why has it not been made more pedestrian friendly?
I have spent a fair amount of time at the Westlands Roundabout near Delta Towers; a melee of cars, matatus and boda bodas often lead to a fair amount of traffic. In the mix are pedestrians trying to cross the road, some make it look easy as they manage to make it across, others, put themselves at great risk. Yet there has been no crossing set up for pedestrians, no bicycle lanes for cyclists. Without these, several issues remain in place. One, the safety of those whose commute involves cycling or walking, and secondly, the continued congestion and traffic that envelopes Nairobi.
The expansion and building of roads in the city may benefit drivers, but there too are question marks. After all, what good is a new or upgraded road when it is either incomplete or has not been maintained? Numerous Uber drivers have complained to me about Waiyaki Way, stating that it was unfinished and that there was a lack of “turning points”, alongside the fact that it is not properly lit up after the section where the Nairobi Expressway begins.
There are also questions regarding the Expressway. The green pillars which support it were meant to have decorative plants on it, however, it remains empty. Some have argued that this was the responsibility of the contractors, however, why is the government silent considering they were the ones who gave planning permission for the project and paid for it using taxpayers’ money?
The Nairobi Expressway may be nice and shiny, but not far from it is Mombasa Road, sections of which have barely any lighting, are prone to flooding and have large dips and ruts. The need to invest in new roads is understandable, especially one like the Expressway with its shiny lights, its ability to get one to the airport quickly and of course a charge for drivers, but what happened to fixing already existing roads?
The Expressway is perhaps an example of the stark class divide in the city, for those with the means, they can take the expressway, pay the toll, and get to where they are going. For those on the other end of the spectrum, the journey home can involve crossing busy roads on foot, amid a maze of cars, matatus and boda bodas due to a lack of pedestrian friendly systems in place.
The culling of trees in Nairobi and a lack of investment in green spaces also remains problematic. Space made for office blocks, apartment towers and the like, more add-ons to the “skyline”. Of which the cost is borne by nature, creatures and ecosystems that call this city home and the city’s young, those that should have the opportunity to run around parks and green spaces.
There is nothing wrong with having malls, hotels, restaurants, and fancy buildings, particularly in a city like Nairobi where there is a percentage of the populace alongside tourists who frequent such places. However, style without substance is the equivalent of empty rhetoric. The majority of the city’s inhabitants move through it on foot, or use public transport, then there are those who drive to get to places. Thus, the importance of pedestrian crossings, sidewalks, cycle lanes and finished, well maintained and lit up roads cannot be under-estimated.
A message for urban planners and governments everywhere; not every day looking at pictures of Dubai, Singapore, and New York and just doing “aesthetics and vibes”. Design cities with those living with them at the center of your plans. Big fancy roads mean nothing if systems are not in place to ensure the safety of drivers and pedestrians. The presence of buildings is irrelevant when these are erected without the necessary safety checks in place, only for them to collapse later down the line and cost lives. Your skyscrapers may look nice in the photos, but to the everyday Nairobian, mean nothing when a lack of drainage submerges part of their home.