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#MjiWetu: Do Walls improve the Security of our City?


Bio: Constant Cap has a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. He holds an undergraduate degree from the same university. He writes about urban planning issues online and in local dailies. Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya he passionate about the planning issues facing African Cities. He has a deep interest in sustainable transportation, urban resilience and new urbanism. He is also a Graduate Member of the Town and County Planners Association of Kenya. He has previously worked at the Strathmore University Advancement Office. He currently works as the Executive Director of Kilimani Project Foundation.

Slightly over two decades ago, most residential fences in middle class areas of Nairobi consisted of natural trees like cypress or key-apple. For a city that doesn’t drain well, this manner of fencing greatly benefited it during the wet season, providing adequate paths for rainwater to flow towards the many small rivers that pass through the city.

Security in Cities

However, the sharp escalation of insecurity (cases of household robberies and carjackings) in the early 90s led to the uprooting of natural fences and their subsequent replacement with stone and concrete walls. In the early 2000s these were further enhanced by electrical fences and in more recent times, nearly every property not only features CCTV cameras, but also administers detailed security checks almost identical to those at leading airports. Recent terror attacks have contributed to the current prevalence of security checks too.

Municipal Council residential estates were not spared as blocks of flats began fencing themselves off from others and hiring night guards to keep watch. Neighbourhoods that previously offered several entry points sealed all except one and currently operate single gated entry.

Security remains one of the most important aspects of urban life. Without good security citizens are unable to focus on their daily activities such as school, work and play. Socialization is also restricted as residents prefer to get home as early as possible.

While there are several socio-economic factors that cause insecurity, basic urban management and planning procedures can assist in reducing this state by eliminating the ‘enabling environment’ for criminals.

Security in Cities

It is possible to integrate important features on streets that enable them to me more human, and thus more secure. Jane Jacobs captured these quite well in her book ‘The death and life of America’s Great Cities’.

“A city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, out of the presence of strangers, as the streets of successful city neighborhoods always do, must have three main qualities:

First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.

Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.

And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.�

Many African cities were either not developed with, or are failing to incorporate these characteristics, as they focus on securing private property through construction of walls that seal the view of the street from building occupants. Increased motorization has also driven away most of the focus from streets being human centred to car centred. Efficient mass transit systems as well as promotion of non motorized transport  like cycling and safe walkways are simple ways in which urban planning can be used to increase the number of ‘eyes’ on the street.

In some parts of Nairobi, the increase in informality has contributed to improved ‘eyes’ on the streets. This characteristic is evident in places where informal traders sell their wares. Informal food vendors operating in a certain section of the city hired idle youth to collect garbage and deliver water. Initiatives like these promote security by providing the youth with an income and keeping them away from crime.

Security in Cities

Poor or vandalized street lighting systems, increased distances between complementary land uses as well as lack of social cohesion among residents are factors conducive to increased insecurity in a city. Trading activity, seating facilities and taxi parking along the streets  during both day and night time are important features that if well utilized, naturally beef up the security of an area.

Security and public safety issues directly and indirectly affect us all. As cities in developing countries grow there tends to be a corresponding increase in crime. Planners must look at land-use juxtapositions, street layouts, building and site design, transportation system planning, infrastructure improvements – especially lighting, landscape maintenance, physical planning to allow for activities and public space – have variable impacts on crime opportunity and on the subsequent incidence and fear of crime.

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Images by Constant Cap, Data linked to Sources


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