Upper Hill, Nairobi: Growing as Africa’s Financial Capital!

Nairobi’s Upper Hill District is a slightly elevated highland area in Nairobi that borders the hot and dry Kapiti plains. In the early 20th Century, it was established as a serene residential area, then known as ‘The Hill area’, for senior railway staff.

As the city has grown and expanded, Upper Hill has gradually transformed into a business hub, with a majority of the colonial bungalows being replaced by skyscraping towers. Major foreign embassies, corporates and government authorities are now located in the approximately 700 acre district. In addition to the top hotel franchises that are setting up shop in Upper Hill, the area also hosts a number of supportive facilities such as private members’ clubs, a 9 hole golf course, Kenya’s biggest referral hospital, not to mention its close proximity to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

However, besides the need for basic support infrastructure such as utility provision, a broader out-of-the box-human centric focus with regard to the planning of the district is required.

Over the last few years a concerted effort towards widening the Upper Hill area roads as a means of improving mobility has been made. As witnessed in many cities globally, however, road widening has been unable to (and cannot) keep up with the increased densification and vehicular use leading to perennial peak hour traffic. The area faces another major challenge in that it has been deprived of Non-Motorized-Transit Facilities and an efficient public transport system. Its close proximity to the Central Business District (CBD) provides it with a big opportunity to enhance and encourage the use of NMT to and from the CBD.

Public Spaces

The area is currently not served by any paratransit facility and therefore the potential of implementing a Bus Transit System to and from the adjacent CBD exists. This would not only encourage use of public transit but would serve as an example for how the rest of the city can integrate its present transit systems into rapid transit.

Use of technology should also not be ignored. Signaling systems at cross junctions that can enhance more efficient mobility is one option. LivingPlan IT in Portugal is establishing systems where urban vehicular mobility control is managed by a sensor system (similar to that of formula one cars) and not by human supervision.

Upper Hill area is a rain forest zone therefore highly fertile. In spite of the increased brick and mortar it is important that the area does not lose its ‘green’ element. Road and building contractors ought to find ways to avoid interference with greenery (especially hardwood indigenous trees) and replace them whenever necessary. The district can easily be distinguished from other parts of the city through safe urban roadside trees. Coincidentally, roadside trees are known to have several benefits including:

  • Reduced and more appropriate urban traffic speeds
  • Creation of safer walking environments
  • Less drainage infrastructure
  • Rain, sun, heat and skin protection
  • Lower urban air temperatures
  • Added value to adjacent homes and businesses

Environmental management is further best served through emphasis on good building standards. Water conservation, green roofs and energy conservation in buildings are all important aspects that can be incorporated.

For any city or district to succeed in its purpose of existence it must be planned and designed for the people who live and work there. Ideally, the process ought to be adopt a highly inclusive and people driven approach. It should enable the people who work there to have easy access to and from work either through walking or public transit facilities. With no existing public spaces, considering how public spaces (like parklets and safe roadside sitting areas) can be created within the vicinity of a business district is essential. These would naturally differ from those of mixed use or residential areas as most of the usage will be around lunch hour.

Several other Business districts have planned themselves over the years as financial and business hubs. Songdo International Business District (Songdo IBD) is a $35 billion smart and sustainable city that is setting new benchmarks for urban development. In its development, it has adopted strong pointers from major cities such as having a park (Central Park, New York), canals (Venice), opera house (Sydney) among others. The district has gone further to integrate these with technology to improve living and working standards.

IMG_20150915_145753

Canary Wharf is another major business district located in Tower Hamlets, East London. It is one of the United Kingdom’s two main financial centres. Constructed on an abandoned industrial area, the district is home to European headquarters of numerous major banks, professional services firms, and media organisations. The Canary Wharf master plan has a clear framework of streets, public squares and green space. Local artists and landscape architects were phenomenal in creating memorable and functional gardens, plazas, fountains, shopping arcades, and waterfront promenades. Canary Wharf also features tree-lined boulevards with designated areas for VIP drop-offs, taxis, and bus stops.

What other planning approaches should Upper Hill take in order to improve workability as a financial district? What measures should be taken to ensure that the area does not get degraded over the years or overtaken by urban challenges?