#MjiWetu: Mixed Land Use is not Random Land Use

Recent trends in urban development have encouraged cities to transform in a more ‘people oriented approach.’ This trend places emphasis on the importance of cities to be commuter friendly (walkability and connectivity), environmentally sustainable and to create opportunities for human interaction and cohesion. A strong sense of place in cities and communities has also emerged. All of these developments are unlike what was experienced in metropolises in the past during the second half of the last century.

Cities facilitate commuter friendliness by establishing mass transit systems like Bus Rapid Transit, Cable Propelled Transit as well as opportunities for non motorized movement such as cycling and safe pedestrian ways. Environmentally sustainable towns take into account green spaces, clean and renewable energy and other resources. Opportunities for human interaction and cohesion are provided by parks, plazas and other well-designed open spaces and by encouraging human activity on the streets through diverse community features. Features of this nature promote transitions to mixed land use.

Recent transformations in the City of Nairobi have resulted in areas within close proximity to Nairobi’s Central Business District being designated as mixed land use areas. Multi-storey commercial blocks amidst high rise residential blocks have gradually substituted the single unit residential dwellings that previously defined residential neighbourhoods like Kilimani, Upper Hill and Westlands.

Dagoretti Corner2002

Dagoretti Corner2016

Aerial Images above from showing how the same place has changed between 2002 and 2016 with no change in transit options

Unfortunately the direction that this ‘mixed land use’ is taking seems to be an unfavourable one that is generating more negativity than benefits. Examples include the construction of multi storey buildings right next to residential maisonettes which interferes with the right to privacy. Even worse are the shadow effects produced by multi storey structures constructed directly adjacent to each other. Little appreciation of the need for urban design standards is also evident.

The change in land use has not been focused around the development of a mass transit system as seen by the location of multi-storeyed buildings far away from public transport. This encourages increased reliance on personal cars with a corresponding increase in traffic congestion and carbon footprint. Attempts to expand roads to reduce this effect have, not unexpectedly, borne little fruit. In a dramatic statement last year, Kenya’s transport Cabinet Secretary (equivalent of a minister) dismissed the idea of Nairobi having an effective mass rapid transit system citing poor planning!

The haphazard approvals of change in land uses have caused conflicts of interest in various parts of the city. Several disputes have occurred between residents and business owners as is evident in a recent case where an open nightclub was set up right in the middle of an established residential area. Some elements among the authorities quickly responded by dismissing the residents as being ‘negative to investors,’ an allegation that was not well received by the residents, leading to protests and the eventual closing down of the establishment.

There have also been cases where multi-storey buildings are constructed without proper improvement of utilities leading to challenges with sewerage systems and water provision. A recent ‘operation’ by Nairobi City County officers saw the arrest of upmarket apartment owners whose sewer lines were depositing waste in a nearby river.

mixed land use

Although mixed land use is distancing us from the traditional zoning systems that were seen to encourage sprawl and develop vehicle driven cities, certain key factors exist that will lead to depletion of mixed land use areas if ignored. These include compatibility of uses, transit and mobility, environmental management and density management.

Compatibility of uses is an important planning element that enables a proper ‘mix’ within residential areas when providing services like schools, health centres, markets and open spaces. Although it also accommodates the opening of business premises of a certain calibre that allow people to reside close to their workplaces, it does not extend to allowing any ‘random’ business to open anywhere or any building to come up anywhere within an area.

Transit and mobility are among the most important challenges in urban areas today. Cities like Curitiba and Bogota have been able to adequately face this challenge through prioritising mass rapid transit systems. Many other cities like Chennai have improved their transit and mobility through emphasis on NMT. Reduced travel distances characteristic of mixed land use areas permit this to work very well. Coincidentally, Nairobi’s mixed land use areas are among the most pedestrian unfriendly zones.

Environmental management aims at addressing factors beyond water retention and renewable energy, two of many objectives which can be promoted through proper attention by both local authorities and developers. Analyzing the impact of sunlight and shadows on buildings is one of many additional aspects that merit consideration. Singapore has developed an analysis system designed to ensure compatibility in highly dense areas. Protection of green and open spaces through proper urban design also plays a key role in encouraging well managed mixed land use areas.

Finally, to ensure that sewerage, water, power and other utilities are in good supply for the denser mixed land use areas it is important that density management varies with location and utilities.

As changes cause the decline of old fashioned zoning the new mixed use areas call for proper management rather than random and haphazard development.

Well managed mixed land use can provide one of the most effective planning solutions and way forward for a growing city like Nairobi. Left to the ‘random’ and haphazard direction that it has taken, however, the city should expect nothing less than congestion, environmental degradation and increased urban decay.

How does your city manage mixed land use zones in a compatible manner? Does your city have challenges with transit, mobility and access in mixed land use areas?

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Nairobi: Mixed Use Zones are Redefining the City


Both Homer Hoyt’s Sector Theory of Urban Development and Ernest Burgess’ Concentric Zone Theory highlight how cities grow outward from a core district (the Central Business District) towards the periphery with distinct land use zones. 

Without good land use management, cities run the risk of growing too far out, a concept known as urban sprawl. Sprawl tends to force high infrastructure investment to support vehicular modes of transport leading, in turn, to increased congestion as people approach the core district. Sprawl interferes with neighbouring farmland areas, reduces human interaction (contributing to a reduced socio-cultural sense of community) and increases the carbon footprint.

The City of Nairobi has developed partly along the lines of  both Hoyt’s and Burgess’ theories and, together with its own unique geographic and demographic dynamics, Hariss-Ulmanns multiple nuclei theory. Residential areas close to the CBD are slowly transforming into mixed use and commercial zones. This has been experienced in Upper Hill, Westlands, Kilimani, Ngara and Parklands where the former European and Asian residential neighbourhoods that were taken over by the African middle class after independence changed from single unit dwellings to multiple unit and eventually high density residential and, in some cases, commercial properties.

The change in zoning occurred as a result of increasing population pressure and the increased commercial activity that was evading poor mobility and access options existing in the core CBD.

These changes have resulted in different reactions. In some residential areas, residents have attempted to use their collective voice to prevent unplanned transformation while in other areas landowners and developers have gladly welcomed the increased land values of the properties. The change in zoning, however, appears to be encouraging haphazard development, with very little sense of urban design.


Mixed land use is increasingly being promoted by urban planners in the more recent past as an effective means of reducing urban sprawl as well as reducing congestion by enabling shorter distances between home and work for city dwellers. It is, however, important that occupants and policy drivers in Nairobi’s first concentric zone utilize their advantages and the experiences of other localities to create a better urban environment. These include:

  • Protection of green and open spaces, even along road sides

There are very sensitive areas in this zone ranging from rivers and parks to tree-lined streets and forestland. The zone must attend to these areas, for example, Kirichwa River, Nairobi River, City Park and the Nairobi Arboretum and regard them as the pride of the city.  

Competition for public land has always been very high in Kenya and a lot of it has been lost to greedy land grabbers and developers. Protecting the little public land that is still in existence as well as reclaiming land for public purposes like food markets, parks, public toilets and other essential spaces required for a more cohesive city will be a key consideration.

  • Emphasis on Transit Oriented Development 

Increased densification and mixed land use allows for reduced travel distances. This can  be readily encouraged through improved walking facilities, easy access to mass transit, proper connectivity between different modes and reduced motorization. Pursuing this approach would warrant the location of the largest buildings closer to the transit channels and implementation of reliable public transportation along those transit lines. spects of privacy, natural lighting and access to greenery are also taken into account.

  • Modal shift and promotion of Non Motorized Transit

‘More roads will not mean less traffic congestion’. Unfortunately there is little understanding of this reality within many of the relatively new urban areas which otherwise present a golden opportunity for investment in non-motorized transit as well as a variety of other means. Cycling, cable propelled transit and segregated lanes for public transport are among the various options available. Adequate modal shift between different districts enables better mobility and access thus reducing the need for the private vehicles responsible for generating both peak and non-peak congestion.

Although Nairobi is putting into place plans for a BRT system, mass transit development needs to also remodel current transit services into a more organized functioning service that can attract more users thereby reducing the necessity for personal vehicles where possible.  

Adequate utility provision, smart systems and integration of the micro-economic systems add onto the range of positive adjustments that can be made by the occupants of this zone.

Increased citizen participation through the involvement of Business Associations and Community Foundations such as the Upper Hill District Association, Westlands District Association and the Kilimani Project Foundation is evident in areas around Nairobi’s first concentric zone. These community organizations have helped to create an environment of better understanding and cohesion between the Nairobi City County Government and other agencies like Kenya Urban Roads Authority  and Nairobi Water & Sewerage Company.

The movement of more commercial activity to the first concentric zone as a result of transformation in the CBD  provides the city with an opportunity to either develop and transform itself into an inclusive, people driven modern African metropolis or the contrary: decline into a congested, unfriendly urban village. Only time will tell.  

How should the various districts in Nairobi’s first concentric zone interact with each other?  How has your city dealt with its expansion and changing land uses?

Images by Constant Cap, data linked to sources.