The Governor of Nairobi recently stated in a local talk show that it is his desire for Nairobi to be an ‘International City.’ This can be presumed to mean a city that is attractive to foreign investment, conferences and tourism. These attributes are not new to the City of Nairobi. A large percentage of Nairobi’s infrastructure has been developed  through either external loans or by way of grants. These are associated with various bilateral relations since Kenya became politically independent in 1963. The City also has a history of hosting a number of regional and global corporate and developmental organization headquarters. More recently, it has been attracting several international conventions.

Besides that, it is also interesting that the Nairobi City Plan of 1948 (‘A Master Plan for a Colonial Capital’) was developed by consultants from South Africa. The World Bank and the Japanese were instrumental in the 1973 (Nairobi Metropolitan Growth Strategy) and the 2014  (Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Plan) Plans, respectively. Most other plans, policy and strategy documents have also had substantial foreign backing.

This external influence tends to be inclined towards a particularly biased Spatial Structure (the city was divided by race and now by class) as well as infrastructure that does not fully correspond with what is on the ground. Attempts to be more inclusive were made during the development of the NIUPLAN. However, its implementation strategy has not been as smooth as expected.

A recent transportation conference highlighted how the Matatu (informal public transport) Sector is consistently ignored,or ‘is not included’, in the city plans. Matatus and Bodabodas (motorcycle taxi) are routinely dealt with in a reactionary and aggressive manner by authorities and planners. This is in spite of the fact that they play a vital role in moving a large percentage of the schooling, working and professional class on a daily basis. Urban mobility proposals in most African cities mostly envisage large multi-million dollar projects like Light Rail Transit (LRTs) and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). They do not define the manner in which existing systems will be integrated.

Another area that is rarely considered is the linkage between informal markets and mobility. Informal markets have grown since 1963 but at the same time have faced perennial clashes with the City authorities. According to the NIUPLAN, the city has less than 30 official markets serving a population of over 4 million people. Naturally, this has  resulted in the proliferation of informal markets in many parts of the City. Some recent research noted that informal markets in the city tend to grow faster around major transit nodes. These are located around street junctions and bus-stops. Such markets are never planned and end up developing as temporary ill-looking structures. They have no official sanitation or hygiene plan recognized by the city authorities. The stage is then set for constant battles between area residents  (where structures are located in upper middle class areas), city authorities, traders and local politicians who support the traders.

A similar trend is evident in both public transport and non motorized transit. There is  a lack of adequate infrastructure developed for the informal public transport sector. A recent urban dialogue by activists in the sector revealed that matatu drivers at Central Bus Station have to literally do a ‘double loop’ for every journey that they drive in and out ferrying passengers (see image below where red shows entry and green exit route). Another study revealed that a certain section of the city had over 6000 peak hour (evening) pedestrians and 200 cyclists compared to slightly over 500 cars yet the pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in the area is incomplete and poorly linked.

Bus Station Entry and Exit

The prevalent perception that paratransit vehicles are the cause of the city’s mobility problems is typical of the classist mentalities that several commonwealth cities suffer. Last year a move to ban matatus from accessing the central business district was even attempted. This assumption that the ‘masses’ are the cause of urban problems is typical of the  elitist and reactionary bureaucratic approach obsessed with blindly xeroxing what it believes to be western development models.

Inclusion of the masses is not only an essential aspect of social justice and equity but also a method of preventing future conflict with privileged neighbourhoods, development projects as well as providing better services to residents. It requires planning to adopt both a ‘teaching and learning’ approach – whereby the planner participates in both actions. It also calls for accurate data on public transport, air quality, urban economics, land use availability and much more. This data is, admittedly, difficult to come by.

NMT data

In conclusion, there is need for justice and the appreciation of democratic ideals. Here, every citizen enjoys the right to dignified living, mobility and access to services. This does not mean that lower classes must be allowed to do ‘what they want to earn a living.’ Rather, a shift is required towards inclusive planning that seeks to uplift and upgrade their livelihoods. This requires institutions and infrastructure to considers their needs without the necessity for political interference.

Improvised Urbanism in African Cities ought to be a thing of the past as we approach the middle of the 21st century.


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