#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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