The Nairobi Central Business District (CBD) has undergone a gradual transformation in the last few years that has seen it turn into a large bus yard and parking area for public transit vehicles (towards the east), a queuing zone for authorized buses (around the centre) and a large taxi park (towards the west).
Retail stores have gradually reduced in size over the years with many being converted into exhibition stalls measuring less than 10 square metres. Buildings that once hosted leading corporates and embassies are now offering shared space while others have turned into bars and fast foods with life-spans averaging less than 4 years. The remaining part of the built environment has been taken over by universities attempting to meet the massive demand for higher education and compete with the prestigious University of Nairobi. What has not changed, however, are the Central and Municipal Government Offices that occupy a substantial section of the CBD.
Nairobi has over time changed its zoning regulations enabling areas within what urban theorist Burgress would define as the first concentric zone (outside the CBD) to incorporate mixed land use and high commercial and residential buildings. This has led to massive changes in the urban print of the city.
Leading corporates and embassies have slowly moved out of the CBD to locate in the first concentric zone. Over a decade ago, all major finance companies, banks, foreign embassies and professional firms took pride in being located in the CBD. The one time residential areas of Upper Hill, Kilimani and Westlands have gradually transformed into high end business enclaves among upmarket residential properties. Upper Hill, which hosted residential government bungalows for close to a century, is now the site of 25 storey and above sky scrapers . The Upper Hill District Association is working towards their stated vision of creating the ‘leading financial district’ in East and Central Africa. Noteworthy growth in the hospitality industry has not been left out as leading hotels establishing themselves in Nairobi are now developing within the same zone and not the CBD which was the case in the past.
Many embassies have moved towards Gigiri, a suburb that hosts the UNEP headquarters along the outskirts of Nairobi.
While the local authorities have remained focused on beautification and traffic flow, the Nairobi CBD has gradually been converted into a large small-scale marketplace, major taxi parking space and public transport (paratransit) transmission zone. In spite of these recent developments, there are proposals to construct a multi-storey parking yard and a double decker highway under the notion that these will reduce congestion. Most transportation policies over the years have focused more on punishing PSV drivers rather than directing user needs (bus design, routeing, fares, ticketing) while traffic police and marshals continue to depend on manual/human control of vehicular traffic management. Policy makers, on the other hand, continue to talk about ‘decongestion’ rather than ‘mobility, accessibility, placemaking and transit oriented development.”’
The transformation of the CBD can be attributed to several reasons. Primarily, however, mobility directives and poor land use management bear the brunt of the blame for the negative challenges it faces. Secondary challenges include insecurity and vehicular congestion. Over the years, poor mobility and accessibility options have encouraged the use of and continuous dependence on personal vehicles whenever possible. No effort has been made to encourage denser land use along transit lines, thereby pushing such developments to the CBD. Shortage of parking space and congestion in access and exit are some of the resulting challenges that have gradually deterred people from using the CBD. Other challenges related to security had emerged within the CBD such as its conversion to a major hub for street children in the 1990s (eventually managed by the then Nairobi City Council) and increased terror threats and alerts in the country (these deterred embassies from remaining in the CBD). Following the change in zoning policy, corporates slowly began to move out.
Nairobi is not the only city that has seen a decline in the ‘quality’ of its CBD. As demonstrated in a well documented two part feature, “The changing city,’’ the Johannesburg CBD has also undergone adjustments resulting from policy changes and social transformations leaving authorities working hard at attempting to rejuvenate the district.
PWC India prepared a report on ‘Transforming CBDs’ in consideration of their projection that over 843 million Indians will be living in Cities by 2050. The report identifies retrofitting, overcrowding, transportation and sustainable consumption as major challenges facing their CBDs. The report recognizes the importance of physical infrastructure, in particular availability of public transportation, last mile connectivity plus a focus on energy and environmental issues.
Cities like Melbourne and Bogota also made concerted efforts towards transforming after witnessing decline in their CBDs. These were mainly driven by people oriented developments as opposed to highways and vehicular rights of way.
Nairobi does not need to be discouraged by all the changes in the CBD; instead it may be an opportunity for transformation. It is important, however, that the Nairobi County Government, TOGETHER with the people of Nairobi re-define what they want the CBD to be. The major arms of government remain in the CBD and so do several hotels, the biggest convention centre in the country as well as several open green spaces.
There may be need for removal of on-street parking from some streets so as to accommodate movement of people and encourage retail trade. The success story of New York’s Broadway that has been fully pedestrianized may serve as a good case of how some of Nairobi’s CBD streets can be converted into people friendly open spaces. Streets like Kimathi and Muindi Mbingu could easily be part of a network of pedestrianized and well-serviced streets that draw more people and drive business. The relative security prevailing in the CBD over the last 15 years (one can walk in many parts throughout the day and night) can initiate progress towards a 24 hour retail and social economy. The history of the city is also deeply entrenched in the CBD, a fact that is more recently being appreciated through various guided tours of the Nairobi CBD.
Nonetheless, a re-assessment of mobility options to and within the CBD is also important. Authorities need to consider assigning segregated lanes for authorized buses with priority at junctions in order to access, move within and leave the CBD. These can easily be provided for along the key bus entry points – Haile Selassie, University Way, Moi and Kenyatta Avenues among others. Regrettably, fear of the ‘unknown’ tends to deter authorities from enabling such provisions.
The CBD will have to redefine itself through restructuring aimed at drawing more people towards it and creating greater social cohesion among city residents. This, however, will require a paradigm shift from all. The CBD has to become a place that people visit with pride, not avoid out of shame. It has to be a place where people are happy to walk and to spend time in. In other words, it has to be ‘livable.’
What changes would you like to see in the CBD to make it more attractive to visit? How can Nairobi encourage more businesses to establish themselves in the CBD?
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