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.
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.
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.
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.
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.