As a means of ensuring a good quality of life for residents, city planning guidelines require provision of public spaces in all residential areas. These include space for playgrounds, public parks, gardens and general open spaces. Public purpose land use management also provides for market centres, shopping areas and public halls
In Nairobi City, most residential area construction took this into consideration and provisions were made for public spaces. Residential areas were duly planned with shopping/market areas and other public amenities in close proximity. However, the last two decades have witnessed a rapid increase in the urban population, diminishing space for urban development and a corresponding increase in land values.
The result has been not only reduced allocation of public recreational space but also the grabbing of public spaces for private development, a trend s noted in the Ndungu Land Commission Report. The Report recommended the reclaiming of all public land that was in the hands of private developers. Not only has the status quo remained unchanged, but also the city has witnessed attempts by shrewd businessmen to grab school playgrounds, road reserves and riparian areas.
Several attempts by citizens, NGOs, activists and government officials towards stopping this trend have been made. Kenya’s famous Nobel Laureate, the late Professor Wangari Maathai, came to the public limelight in the late 80s and 90s when she challenged the Kenyan Government over the hiving off of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park and subdivision and allocation of Karura Forest (a 1063 Ha forest found within the city borders). More recently, residents of Nairobi’s South C Ward were up in arms against a private developer who fenced off a public/school playground for the construction of apartments. A public outcry also ensued following reports that Karura Forest had allegedly been subdivided again and allocated to private developers.
In 2015, The National Land Commission, together with NGOs launched the ‘Shule Yangu’ (Swahili for “my school”) campaign, an initiative that is targeted at guiding Primary and Secondary schools on how to acquire title deeds for their land. Further to this some working class areas like Dandora Must Seed Courts have reclaimed open spaces and the residents’ efforts have attracted global attention and corporate assistance.
In spite of these efforts, the question lingers over the necessity and use of open spaces in middle and upper class residential areas. Whereas public spaces in working class neighbourhoods are constantly in use, middle class residents tend to prefer privately owned spaces such as members’ clubs and/or gated community fields. As a result many public open spaces in middle and upper class areas remain dilapidated and abandoned, and an easy target for grabbers. During a recent forum with the Kenya Alliance of Residents Associations, the then Nairobi City Environment CEC pointed out that unused and unfenced open land is more attractive to grabbers than fenced and regularly used open spaces.
The County Government has not done much towards the maintenance of public open spaces in residential areas, preferring to focus instead on those close to the CBD like Uhuru Park and Jeevanjee Gardens. It has however, together with an NGO- Placemakers and UN Habitat, been working on an inventory of public spaces with the aim of restoring many of them in collaboration with local communities.
Many cities and NGOs have placemaking guidelines and procedures that help in public space development and maintenance. The City of London has the London Placemaking Guidelines while the ‘Project for Public Spaces’ is a global NPO dedicated to the design, education and organization of public space creation, sustenance in the building of stronger communities.
There is thus a need for residents to work in close partnership with the county authorities, corporates and NGOs in an effort to not only reclaim and protect these spaces but also develop and make good use of them lest private developers continue with their selfish trends. Doing this will contribute to creating better livable environments and better urban community living.
Have there been attempts to grab public spaces in your neighborhood? How have public spaces in your area been developed and maintained? Who takes charge of this?