The Genesis of the Gentrification of Nairobi

Globe Cinema Roundabout Nairobi (now) | AUTOPORTAL

Globe Cinema Roundabout Nairobi (now) | AUTOPORTAL

Unlike a plethora of the greatest cities on Earth, the origins of the ‘Safari capital of the World’ Nairobi, may not entirely lie in industry and smog. However, much like the Industrial and revolutionary eras of  early century European progenitors such as London and Paris, or parts of the immigrant-rich North American cities of Chicago and New York, the industrial section of Kenya’s capital is as critical to the intrinsic fabric of its existence, as is the agrarian progress to the country’s Central and Western highlands.

There so happens to be a silent global race taking place; in which cities of the generally developed world are so actively participating, and one in which it seems African cities are, in a remarkable twist of fate, being left out of: a marathon of regeneration. Much like the basic principle of the penultimate race is, what matters isn’t just how fast one is, but coupled with how consistent, in order to get to the finish line.

The for-long dominant West knows that its capitals, which have generally weathered countless revolutions, two World Wars and centuries of  religious, social and economic feuds – are becoming intricate behemoths, rapidly spiraling out of control. These monsters hence need to be trimmed at the edges, with new urban policies geared at keeping them in check and on-track for sustainable development.

These progressive governments of developed, and developing economies, have realized that policies such as adopting economic and social structure competitiveness, developing dynamic and responsive governance structures and fusing cultural heritage and technological advancements which act as catalysts of change and progress, should transcend theory, into practice. With ingenious innovation taking root, such as constructing world class golf courses on top of land fills in Tokyo, rejuvinating the Central Business District of Athens using a ‘green belt’, to embracing minimalist yet functional housing in New York, the creme of global cities are adapting to futures that are seeming more and more certain.

The African continent, which happens to be at the center of the world map, generally appears most oblivious to the fact that urban dwellings are metamorphosing – and with this stark reality comes the intrinsic necessity that progress and growth ought to be coupled with liveability, structure and convenience.

Nairobi is no different to the changing global geo-economical climate. The city, and country, have the blessing, and the curse, of being highly consumer-driven, albeit with increasing disparities between the elite and the impoverished. Access to basic needs such as water, electricity, and what is already a basic human right in some European countries, the internet, remains a preserve for certain quarters of the capital and her territories.

Globe Cinema Roundabout Nairobi (then) | ANONYMOUS

Globe Cinema Roundabout Nairobi (then) | ANONYMOUS

In so much as the economy of Kenya is a beacon among her peers, consistency remains elusive, particularly because of political factors that have come into play since the introduction of multi-party democracy. Even further back, the social structure of Nairobi was demarcated along racial lines, in part thanks to the colonialists, as well as tribal sequences. Slums cropped up on the peripheries of almost each and every affluent neighbourhood in the city: Lavington, Muthaiga, Kilimani, Moutainview and Karen.

Gentrification, which is basically displacement of a certain class of society for the sake of development, will almost certainly experience accelaration as a result of Nairobi’s hastening stance towards globalisation. Take for instance the Kilimani residential neighbourhood, which was a sleepy and sultry suburb through most of the 80s and 90s: stretching from the neatly tucked corner of Valley Arcade, to the commercialised Hurlingham area, Kilimani was characteristic of low-rise buildings and bungalows with large backyards.

Click here to start my series on Architectural History of the Green City in the Sun

With the advent of a consumer-hungry mindset fully embraced by the City Council, shopping malls such as Prestige Plaza, the Junction, Greenhouse and commercial buildings like KRep Center, Saachi Plaza, Bishop Gatimu Ngandu Center and a crop of other medium and large-scale high-rise developments have turned the neighbourhood into a bustling cosmopolitan consumer section of the city. Having sacrificed its once reserved residential soul for glistening skyscrapers and offices, Kilimani is well on its way to competing with Upper Hill for the interests of multi-nationals and growing companies.

Further West, what was once a shunned slum area of Kawangware – Kangemi, now boasts banking halls of leading Kenyan financial institutions and established businesses, not forgetting the booming construction which has been taking place; converting tin shacks into urban two-bedroom apartments.

The Disparities of Nairobi | MUUNGANO SUPPORT TRUST

The Disparities of Nairobi | MUUNGANO SUPPORT TRUST

To the East, the Nairobi River belt once stunk with putrid smells of sewerage and waste from the Industrial area, but following the Michuki-era and the revitalisation of the Environment Ministry, coupled with the efforts of the Roads Ministry, the Ngara waterfront and the general Globe cinema roundabout area have been transformed into a modern, multi-laned (straddled with a lengthy flyover) picturesque ride.

The Thika superhighway has elbowed out not just traffic, but a sense of disorganization, moulding that melee which was prevalent from Ngara to Juja, into one of the pride and joy’s of the city which has set its sights on African dominance.

There have been some ‘failures’ however, including the rennovation and expansion of Muthurwa Market which was initially meant to decongest the Central Business District of the city from a hawking ‘menace’, but steadily degraded into ill-maintained stalls, facilities and hastily designed support structures such as a haphazard-looking pedestrian bridge that links the market with the Machakos Country Bus station and the other section of the city.

Nairobi, a leading luxury property market on the globe

Professors around the world have constantly decried the effects of gentrification, split by theories that such changes are often necessitated by legal and technical policies which starkly ignore social structures. These voices may however be drowned out by the vivacious hunger with which rapidly developing cities such as Nairobi devour ‘under utilised’ segments of themselves, in the endless push for development.

The future may see areas like Langata’s middle class housing swallow up lower class sections of Kibera slum, disproportionately displacing high density areas and handing them over to fewer occupants. Such scenarios may result in either slums springing up in other areas, or a resurgence in urban to rural migration as living standards sky rocket. The fact of the matter is that the middle and upper classes of Nairobi are growing, and the need for residential space will exponentially increase.

Architectural Heartbeats For Nairobi in 2013

An artist's impression of the Villa Rosa Nairobi Kempinski

An artist’s impression of the Villa Rosa Nairobi Kempinski

A city is as vibrant as the intricacies of its society; the very basic way in which its culture, its populace, its recreation … and most of all its architecture interwove. In addition, the built environment has a subtle, yet omnipresent effect on the attitudes of its citizens: delicately yet comprehensively influencing the motion, mood, magnificence and mould of both nature and the artificial within the space.

The Europeans mastered the art of creating little ‘heavens on earth’ with cities which the rest of the globe envied for centuries. From the wealth and opulence of Paris, Florence and Monaco to the seemingly organic and monolithic yet pristine aisles of Barcelona and Athens. These bastions of the human populace held the batons of progress and development.

With the advent of the new world, the Americas, immigrants sought to replicate, and better, the places they called home by coalescing to create the ‘greatest nation on Earth’, the United States of America, and with it, the rise of globally enviable economic and commercial centres like New York, Chicago and Washington. This was of course enshrined in the never-ending reach for the skies which these buildings competed in with dizzyingly tall skyscrapers.

With the advancement of technology, came in the art and craft of innovation and what seem to be gravity-defying structures. And with the digital age came the rise and rise of Asia and the Middle East, pushing the envelope of the limitations of cities and their structures (while eliminating the restraint of money) to show the world that artificial wonders can indeed be created. That, coupled with the wealth, industry and ingenuity of its leaders and citizens, led to the establishment of cities such as the daring Emirate Dubai, the salacious Shanghai and tech savvy Singapore.

Impression of the JKIA Greenfield Terminus

Impression of the JKIA Greenfield Terminus

With the evident rotation of bragging rights for cityscapes, surely it’s time for the African continent to own a peace of the prime real estate? In a recent survey by the African Development Bank on the state of the continent in half a century, it was predicted that the population will have doubled to an estimated 2 billion people, overtaking the population of China or India: The highest fertility rates would be recorded in two regions: North and East Africa.

The billion shilling question then would be: what will the characters of our cities be in the future if we continue along a path of unplanned certainties and limiting mindsets. Cities are definitely here to stay, and with the same report predicting that the urban population of the African continent would most likely be around 80% by 2050, it’s a frightening thought to imagine what sort of metropolis’ will dot the African savannah from Cape to Cairo if the future isn’t well thought out.

Let’s put it into perspective for a moment – imagine informal settlements, haphazard systems of sewerage, water and electricity forging endlessly to create a mammoth mess of masses and muck. We’d see a grossly unplanned mess of a city of Nairobi, Kisumu or Mombasa which would soon grind to a halt simply owing to the fact that there was no foresight put in. There’s no way that a metropolis which seeks to position itself as not just a continental, but global, centre of prosperity should still be suffering under the whims of a mediocre transport system, sub-standard stadia and recreational facilities as well as ineffective governance.

Click here to read my piece on ‘Africa and her Parliaments’

In spite of all these flaws, the Kenyan capital is embracing its duty to its citizens with a barrage of developments adhered to making it a city of the future. Pundits may argue that Nairobi has quite a long way to go to match the flexing cities of the West, but if the Asians and Middle-Easterns could manage, and surpass what the Europeans have achieved in centuries (and the Americans in just over 200 years) in a barely a quarter of that time, then surely the African lions must roar their way out of the bushes into the concrete ideological and physical jungle.

The same AfDB Report 2011 sites key pillars of development as touching on the avenues of transport, infrastructure, healthcare and policies. Tied into this is the emergence of a hungry middle class with an insatiable economic appetite that could be the key to unlock not just the city’s but the country’s potential.

Shopping malls like the Junction, Westgate, Greenspan and Ridgeways have sprouted out of once upper class echelons, which are now middle class suburbias of Nairobi, creating focal facets of commerce which the city needs to replicate and enhance. The city opened its first railway station, Syokimau, since the pre-independence period and completed its first world-class super highway, Thika Road, a musingly mellifluous motorway that would make any Nairobian proud.

As 2013 begins, I’d like to highlight some of the architecturally marvellous projects which have got me excited to be a part of the shaping of our future:

Delta Towers, Westlands

Delta Towers, Westlands, Nairobi

Delta Towers, Westlands, Nairobi

The Green City in the Sun can now boast its very own Twin Towers, majestically rising over the once height-restricted electric avenue host of the capital. These solid concrete siblings are named ‘Delta Corner’ in what its aggressive Indian investors hope will be a leading address in the city.

The impression has already been made, with these imposing structures blanketing the entire West district of Nairobi while adding an idiosyncratic stamp of authority on what was before its inception, modest low rise buildings in earth shades of brown, white and beige. I cannot reiterate that the grey behemoth that is Delta Corner is both imposingly and honestly frightening, yet utterly impressive in its scale.

Offering about 18 floors of premium office space, each with floor-to-floor glass and conservative modern architecture, the Twin Towers are destined to be the talk of the town on launch.

Villa Rosa, Kempinski Nairobi

Artist's impression of the interior of the Moroccan restaurant at the Villa Rosa

Artist’s impression of the interior of the Moroccan restaurant at the Villa Rosa

Driving out of the city along Waiyaki Way, you’d be forgiven to think that the gigantic pink Florentine tower to your right just past the East and Central Africa Standard Chartered Bank building is a colossal mansion by some billionaire. Well, the truth of the matter is, Europe’s oldest luxury hotel group has come knocking, with the planned opening of this 10-floored 200 room and suite exotic monster.

It’s a tribute to continental European architecture, with Ionic pillars and gentle Italian arcs beautifying a characteristically rich facade which overlooks the plush suburbs to its immediate environs.

Click here to read my piece on ‘Of Princes and Palaces’

Within its marbled and wallpapered walls, the Villa Rosa will also host a penultimate Presidential Suite on its top floor and feature restaurants and cuisines from at least three continents. It will be interesting to see what this five-star offering will pull off, against the likes of neighbouring jewel princesses Nairobi Serena, the Sankara Hotel and the Sarova Stanley.

Terminal 4, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport

JKIA Greenfield Terminal

JKIA Greenfield Terminal

As with any other global conduit of air travel and economic indulgence, Nairobi seeks to spread the wings of its largest airport with the expansion of the region’s leading air hub.

Initially envisioned to be part of an ‘Airport Sub-city’ by some Qatari visionaries, equipped with hotels and other world-class amenities, presumably budgetary limitations made the idea comfortable with a fourth stretched out terminal and an enormous car park wing. This of course would be constructed in segments so as not to interfere with one of the region’s busiest airports.

Proposals for a Greenfield Terminal to help ease the millions of passengers that sail through the JKIA were approved by the KAA and if in fruition soon could add a smile and a tinge of relaxation on the commute: what with modern and glassy features meant to maximize the use of daylight, as well as cutting edge technology and monitoring systems to make the JKIA enviable yet again.

The expanded airport should be able to accommodate almost twice the number of aircraft it currently can… that’s 43 against 23, as well as offer improved lighting, delicate upgrades of other subordinate buildings as well as space for about 1,500 vehicles.

Other Best Laid Plans

World renowned British architectural firm Mackay & Partners are rumoured to have been contracted by Mara Properties to design a four star hotel overlooking the city’s most prized possession; its national park. Nairobi boasts being the only capital on the globe with the entirety of a national park in its environs and this new project could add a new stem of tourism, with proximity to the equally luxurious Ole Sereni which is based on a similar concept of game-watching right at the threshold of the airport.

The re-development and rejuvenation of the railway transport network should also serve to revive what was a  struggling colonial structure, which while critical to any metropolis, seemed defunct. But with modern trains and stations part of a blueprint plan by Kenya and Rift Valley Railways, the burden on Nairobi’s narrow roads could be eased.

Luxury Has a New Address

There’s no denying that there is the established luxury syndicate in any part of the globe, be it New York or Hong Kong, even right here in our beautiful green city in the sun, Nairobi. There may be three social classes: the recurrently poor, the sprawling middle class and the wealthy… but to the rich there are four classes: the servants (the poor), the pretenders (middle class), the detestable ‘new money’ who feel they have achieved this position of power and will stick there, as well as ‘old money’ from a long line of the elite.

I wasn’t much surprised then when I found out that plush and upmarket neighbourhoods such as Muthaiga don’t just let anyone into their back yard: you have to be from a long line of wealthy Kenyan citizens, in other words ‘old money’. As a result, it’s like we’re playing a new kind of colonial game. A resurgence of segregation not based on race this time, but on possession. Never in modern Earth’s history has materialism controlled human desire to such extraordinary extent.

I was recently reading an article about the 1971 Iranian Monarchy celebrations that took place over a period of roughly two weeks. Basically, the Persian monarchy was celebrating its 2,500th year of existence, right from the time of King Cyrus the Great’s rule, and was meant to demonstrate Iran’s long history and the extent of contemporary advancements the ’empire’ had achieved under the time of the then Shah of Iran, Mohammad Razah Pahlavi.

Aerial view of the Tent of Persepolis

The preparations for this historic event took well over a decade, as a remote city, Persepolis, was identified to host the modern milestone mainly because of security issues that would make it easier to monitor. The infrastructure of the city had to be extensively improved, including the upgrading of nearby Shiraz Airport and an additional highway for the anticipated number of high profile guests. The support staff and press were based in Shiraz as only the invited guests and dignitaries would be staying in Persepolis.

The Tent City of Persepolis (Photo: David Dorren)

The Iranian government flew in plants from France, and even hired the exquisite Parisian restaurant, Maxim’s to cater for the entire event (Maxim had to shut down its operations in the French capital for the duration of the celebrations). The Imperial household had elaborate uniforms designed for them as well and 250 custom made red Mercedes benz sedans purchased to ferry guests to and from the airport at Shiraz.

The venue of the Tent City of Persepolis was set on over 160 acres of land: luxury tented apartments adorned in the finest of gold and linen, all designed in a star shape around a graand fountain at the centre of the lay out. The inspiration for this was the 16th century Field of the Cloth of Gold that bore the Anglo-French treaty of 1514. In total, 600 guests, including a long list of Eurpoean royals and African presidents, dined for over 5 hours, making it a Guinness World record for the longest and most lavish official banquet in modern history.

The Persepolis Banquet

If you were wondering where the notion ‘the party of the century’ came from…well there’s your answer. There has never been such an extensively lavish and grand gathering, to date. President Jomo Kenyatta, Queen Elizabeth II and President Richard Nixon did not attend though, because of ‘security concerns’ though I would rather much bet it would have been Israeli influences and reservations.

Nairobi has its fair share of opulence when it comes to fine dining and accommodation. We have the ‘old money’ hotels that include the likes of what is now the Sarova Stanley, the Fairmont Norfolk and the Nairobi Serena, as well as the ‘new money’ creme that harbours the Sankara and the Tribe Hotel. It’s no secret that the middle class is growing, and the rich are getting richer, and with the city being a diplomatic and celebrity haven, we’re likely to see more ‘high end’ focussed offings taking shape.

Read my piece on Princes and (mostly) European palaces

It is also predicted that by just 2014, East and Central Africa’s financial and communication hub will see its bed space more than double, with international hotel brands, the Chinese and a plethora of local and international investors displaying their might. I’ve heard but rumours of Sheraton, Marriot and Hyatt even prospecting how and when they would set up shop in what is the Safari Capital of the World. And with news that Nairobi’s luxury property is a hot topic on a global scale, the only hinderance to this becoming a ‘wealthy and elite’ jungle is… time.

One of the avenues I think is most underutilised in Kenya is the fact that we are the only ‘Third World Country’ with a United Nations agency headquarters. According to the recently released Wealth Report though, experts were asked where they saw the world in the year 2050. A general agreement was that dominant global cities would be overtaken in importance and precedence by a group of cities networked.

Of course then in such a scenario, at the top of the list was Washington/New York/Chicago, followed by Hong Kong/Shanghai/Beijing. In the first scenario, the consensus was that the three cities would geopolitically become more important than the whole of the United States by then, also attributing this to the fact that when the Chinese premier Jintao visited, he not only went to the American capital, but also stopped by Chicago. The second scenario doesn’t need much convincing, as China’s global role perpetually continues to be ingrained.

The merger of the ‘Diplomats’ Geneva/Vienna/Nairobi

A series of groupings followed, including Berlin/Frankfurt, Istanbul/Ankara, Sao Paolo/Rio/Brasilia and Cairo/Beirut. The interesting addition was the mega connection that is Geneva/Vienna/Nairobi which Prof. Saskia Sassen, the writer of the section of the report, said was a critical mass generated by a combination of institutions devoted to social questions and justice for the powerless. She said the cities may have been long overshadowed by global finance and mega-militaries but they would emerge as critical actors in the global arena.

No wonder hotels like the Tribe, pride themselves as being at the heart of the city’s diplomatic street. Popular travel and leisure magazine show ‘Jet Set Extra’ was recently in the country to ‘experience Africa’ and here’s the brief clip and interview with the Hotel’s General Manager, Mark Somen.

Jetset Extra Visits Nairobi’s Tribe Hotel from Jetset Extra on Vimeo.

Is it surprising that Wikipedia defines ‘jet set’ as: a journalistic term used to describe an international social group of wealthy people.

Great cities like New York and London were built on the sweat of a dedicated generation that forged together with a general purpose of making their city the best…not for others, but for themselves.