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 History of the Green City City in the Sun (Part 1)

For quite a while now, I have been perturbed by the questions…who influenced the design of Nairobi? Why does it look the way it does today? What were the architectural influences of the day and what gave the glorious Kenyan capital its prestigious pedestal among its regional peers. If you have as much interest in local history as I do, then delve with me into the world of the conceptualization of Nairobi, up until it all became a reality…

Nairobi in 1900

I won’t bore you with most of what you already know, so let me take a different perspective from what you are used to, what you are not used to and might not have known. Well first, at the earliest of times, at least historically possible, it is believed only Swahili people occupied much of what is today Nairobi. But because of the growth in trade and the emergence of the Bantu-speaking tribes and the Nilotes, they chose to move further East towards the coast, where they met the first foreigners ever sighted on East African soil. I’d like to imagine what the reaction was…how long it took our ancestors to communicate with the Portuguese…whether or not it was amicable. I came across something else that was interesting, I thought maybe tribalism might have been rampant then, but did you know that the Bantu-speaking Nyoro people were ruled over by an elite Nilotic Luo clan known as the Bito? I sure didn’t!

Well, the swahili tribes moved before they had any significant impact on the development of the area, and much later, around 5 centuries, most of modern Nairobi was occupied by three critical tribesmen: the Maasai, the Kamba and the Kikuyu. The three mutually co-existed up until the advent of British settlers in the late 1800s and with that, an over half a century struggle with colonialism begun. What you might not have known is that the Sultan of Zanzibar is the one who granted the British permission to foray into the interior of the African mainland. Mombasa was at first the capital of what was the British East African Protectorate (now Uganda and Kenya), but with the construction of the railway, a trading post and game hunting centre to the West and interior, Nairobi steadily took shape, albeit unplanned and haphazardly. The plague broke out in the prior settlement and much of Nairobi had to be burnt down and the town was again gradually rebuilt.

Most of the British settlers were encouraged to settle in the country, but a particular settler, Hugh Cholmondeley…more popularly known as Lord Delamere, and his wife, Lady Anne Cole, took interest in the area around Nairobi. By 1907, the country was already home to Lords Cranworth, Hindlip, Cardross, Howard de Walden and another well-known Lord, Egerton . Kenya quickly became the Monaco of that era…a playground for the rich. Lord Delamere and a group of his privileged friends dubbed the Happy Valley set, embarked on making the triangular area of Nyeri, Naivasha and Nairobi their playground  involving a number of vices though which made them notorious on an almost global scale. That’s however, an entirely different story…

Part of the Happy Valley Set

In comes a man who was passionate about making his dominion a rival to other more prosperous parts of the British Empire: Sir Edward Grigg, governor of Kenya. Here I thought that the ties between Kenya and South Africa were recent…boy was I gravely mistaken. Our architecture is more heavily tied with that of South Africa, (traversing our current shopping malls and apartment complexes), and we can thank a certain Sir Herbert Baker for that. The countries are truly sister cities, if heritage and infrastructure is anything to go by. Sir Herbert Baker was a British architect who grew up in Kent, England, and was profoundly influenced by Norman and Anglo-Saxon Renaissance architecture.

Originally, he had embarked for South Africa in 1892 to visit his brother, but he ended up being commissioned by the Governor, Cecil Rhodes to remodel one of the buildings there. He later on ended up designing and constructing such iconic South African structures such as the Union Buildings and Rhodes Memorial. Well, Sir Edward Grigg invited him to Kenya in 1925.

European Nairobi School

The Governor and Lord Delamere then gave him the task of designing a model European school on African soil, and loosely based on Winchester School which was back home in England. He came up with what is modern day Nairobi Primary School, which was Nairobi School (now on Waiyaki Way). I’ll talk about those a little bit later. In the long run, he left alot of his mark on what is modern day Nairobi…designing State House, Nairobi and Mombasa, the lighthouse at the Coast, All Saints Cathedral and Nairobi Primary School. (You can even see how All Saints resembles the Fairbridge Church he did in Australia). His assistant later became the chief government architect, Mr. J. A Hoogterp.

Fairbridge Church in Australia

Hoogterp designed numerous buildings on his own though, also leaving his mark on the city. The masterplan for Nairobi was at the onset based on a combined ideology of Washington DC, Paris, Capetown, Pretoria, New Delhi and Canberra, the capital of Australia. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll find out about the blue prints for the Central Business District and the designs of the estates that surround the city….tell me what you think…

Click here to continue to Part 2 >>