Urban planning – Our flow through the path of least resistance

Kenya’s urban planning blueprint, which thrives on the ‘develop now plan later’ mantra, draws from segregation policies initiated during colonial times


By Kenyatta Otieno

The path of least resistance has never given us a straight river. Like our approach in many sectors in Kenya, our fear of confronting challenges, a desire to make a quick buck, unsatisfied desire for land, struggle to stop paying rent and ineffective governments all combine to give us the crooked river that is our urban centres.

On a recent trip to Syokimau, I remembered another I made to the same place last year at the height of El-Nino rains, when most of the roads were impassable. It was easier to make way through the graded section of major roads but almost impossible on the black cotton soil section of feeder roads. On my most recent trip to visit a friend, I saw the other side of the problem.

At the moment, the developed area could be more than the open undeveloped spaces. The usual disorder associated with unplanned urban planning, especially in residential areas that we see in the country, is slowly creeping in. To paraphrase David Ndii on the fight between our independence leaders – to get rich now and share later or share now and get rich later – in Kenya we tend to develop and plan later.

There are private investors who have sunk boreholes from which they supply area residents. Everybody has constructed a septic tank for their waste water. At least the area has electricity, which has had a push from the donor community. Schools and hospitals in the area are all private and for now any improvement is done by the area residents.

Some time in 2011, then Minister for Land James Orengo flew to China with a delegation for the International Society of City and Regional Planners (Isocarp) Congress. The end result was signing of three MoUs with the objective of Isorcap being improving planning and development of our metropolitan regions. Kenya then marked the World Town Planning Day on November 8 of that year, at Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), Nairobi. This was supposed to mark a watershed moment in how our towns would be planned. Like many other initiatives by Kenyan experts, what is discussed in these high profile meetings remains on paper. Urban centres – like Mavoko, where Syokimau is – present a challenge to our central and new county governments. The challenge is replicated all over the country where county governments seem to be waking up to find new haphazard developments yet they are supposed to be approved by them.

Urban planning, like all other disciplines, is changing progressively. New paradigms are coming up but Kenya can go with the Mixed Scanning Model. This is where the central government takes charge of strategic (big picture) long term planning while county governments go for the tactical (functional) level of planning. If nothing is done to bridge the two levels, then we are in for poor living conditions and devalued properties in future.

Informal mentality

Planning is a challenge in all our social and political systems. We either have weak laws or the system is incapable of implementing and monitoring existing laws. The inability to stop or manage such developments paints a picture of complicity or inability to stand up to more powerful forces. This is how slums have been germinating and sprawling up in our urban centres.

Looking at history, Nairobi was meant to be a temporary camp for railway construction workers as they proceeded with the job to western Kenya. Being a central point, it was to provide a resting base for the trips to the port of Mombasa and back. It was swampy and the British feared it would be a breeding area for diseases, and so was ruled out as a possible site for a station and subsequent town. Here we are, still waiting to move to that better site that was mooted at the time.

The first descriptions of Nairobi by settlers can be compiled into a comic book if looked at with the current city on the background. It initially grew as a disorganised tin shack with recurring outbreaks of plague, malaria and other tropical diseases. The initial planning into what we know today as the CBD was as a result of a fire that gutted down most of the slum like structures in the early years of twentieth century.

When the colonialists set up the colony, planning laws were segregation tools. It was about who could live and set up business in given areas. They were more concerned with planning areas frequented by whites and Asians and where they lived. That is why Eastlands looks like a poorly thought process or an afterthought compared to Ngara, Pangani, Parklands, Westlands, Kilimani and Karen. When we attained our independence, our leaders moved into the planned spaces and from where they continued to perpetuate the colonial mentality.

Most of the negative letters of colonial planning bylaws were repealed at independence but the spirit prevailed. When Africans thronged the urban centres in search of opportunities, informal settlements and slums were inevitable. The government went into demolishing these settlements without providing an alternative. Segregation came back by default on the basis of social class.

Planning means different things to different people. The rich can plan their lives with a ten year projection. On the other hand, the poor live for the moment and planning is always about months; a year is a long shot. With such a mentality, left on their own, expecting the poor to plan with the future in mind is a futile experiment. Comparatively, Kenya as a Third World country has other pressing problems to worry about, and planning can always wait.

The rich will put up well-planned, gated communities while our version of the middle class and low class are left to their own ways in areas like Syokimau and Kitengela. Poor planning, or lack of it, is also a matter of power, both political and economic. This is why the poor decide to make the money by selling the plots and plan later. Subsequently, the buyers opt to build their residential houses then wait for the government to sort out the planning later.

In such an environment, it is only strong laws drafted with a long term approach and effective implementation and oversight authorities that will save us. One such law is one that prohibits county governments from approving any development without first setting up supporting infrastructure. Corruption is a national disaster that has also contributed to this mess but I will venture there for now.

Looking at Syokimau, I imagine the county government coming up in a few years to put up roads, water piping and sewerage infrastructure. The home owners did not construct with drainage system in mind. In an attempt to mitigate the situation with minimal damage to home owners’ structures, I foresee another South C (sea) Estate scenario where houses will flood during heavy rains.

Every so often, County Governments go on a combination of overdrive and charm offensive to collect land rates. The irony is, land owners will be reluctant to pay for rates in an area where there is no presence of county government in terms of offices or services. As long as people cannot see what use their taxes are being put into, they will lack the motivation to pay the rates.

Let us put the cart back behind the horse and bring some order into the madness that is urban development in Kenya.




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