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Mass demolitions mark start of Nairobi regeneration

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Mass demolitions mark start of Nairobi regeneration

In late 2018, Kenyans, especially in Nairobi, were shocked when the demolition of around 4,000 illegal structures began, including some properties worth billions of shillings. This was part of an ambitious plan to completely regenerate the capital, Nairobi, which had sunk into an ecological mess. Wanjohi Kabukuru reports from Nairobi on progress thus far.

Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa’s bubbling commercial hub, whose history stretches back to the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway in 1896, has seen it all. Nairobi, which means ‘a place of cold waters’, whose freshness attracted the Grey Crowned Crane and other birdlife, is no longer the ‘city in the sun’ as it once proudly claimed.

Nairobi River, which snakes across the capital’s central business district on its way northwards, had crystal-clear waters abounding with fish three decades ago. Today it is a sludgy canal heavily polluted with murky, brackish green effluence. And the city’s main emblem, the elegant crested crane bird, which previously flocked all over the metropolis and was revered for its grace and virtuous nature, has not been sighted in Nairobi for decades.

Ornithological NGO, Nature Kenya describes the crested crane as an ‘ecological illustration’ of Nairobi, as a city of order, and a place of beauty, haute couture and class. This was the Nairobi of the 1960s up to the early 1980s. 

Not any more. The Grey Crowned Cranes are all gone, while in their place, a new species of bird is well established – the Marabou Stork, visible to visitors to Nairobi from the Jomo Kenyatta Airport, all along the route to the city centre. The acacia trees lining the Mombasa Road-Uhuru Highway happen to be the site of the stork’s colony. According to Nature Kenya, the stork is everything that is the opposite of a crane.

The Marabou Stork is a scavenger that is mostly found at dump sites and rubbish mounds, feeding on garbage and waste. To ecologists, Nairobi had become a decaying city. Where a Marabou stork will survive, a crane won’t.

The departure of the crane signified Nairobi had lost its groove. Previously, Nairobi had a reliable public transport system, essential health care infrastructure, efficient refuse collection and a responsive social services system with well- managed estates.   

The public transport system gave way to a chaotic and an unruly private-led sector, and the healthcare system is broken down and overstretched as health centres are inadequately staffed and lack medicines. Social services, which once led to the incubation of Africa’s best boxing squad, today only exists by name, as social halls and other amenities in the old council estates continue to degenerate and are now dilapidated. 

It is this narrative of decay and disintegration that the government is seeking to change. Under a multi-agency task force set up by President Uhuru Kenyatta in early April 2018, co-chaired by the tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala and Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko, the ambitious ‘Nairobi Regeneration Project’ was launched to reclaim a city in dire need of change. 

Through this Ksh800m ($7.8m) regeneration project, seven key areas – governance, public safety, environment, transport, education, housing and health – were prioritised as urgent. 

Included in the grand plans aimed at giving the city a complete facelift are a rapid-transit bus system to ease congestion, the restoration of all Nairobi’s parks, work to unclog the city’s drainage system, an improved garbage collection system, a clean-up of Nairobi’s main river causeways, the rehabilitation of all roads in the city, and a complete urban renewal scheme that would see old council houses demolished and the building of some 200,000 affordable tenements.

This housing makeover is to be accompanied by the launch of the Kenya Mortgage Refinancing Company, to cushion low-income tenants through inexpensive financing.

“Like most cities in the developing countries, the housing situation in Nairobi is characterised by an acute shortage of affordable housing,” says Charles Kerich, the Nairobi County Executive in charge of lands. “Put differently, the demand for housing far outstrips the supply. As at 2018, only 35,000 new homes were constructed against an annual demand for 120,000 homes. The shortage of affordable housing units has manifested itself in overcrowding and [the] sprawl of informal settlements.”

Dramatic flattening of illegal structures

In December 2018, Nairobi City County government issued the Urban Housing Renewal and Regeneration Policy, whose objectives are to rehabilitate and refurbish dilapidated housing units, provide appropriate and decent affordable housing and infrastructure, increase housing stocks, encourage private investment in housing and preserve historical sites of significant archaeological value, while encouraging sustainable urban land use in the old city estates. 

The launch of the policy was preceded by a public show of commitment to renewing the city’s lost glory, through day-time flattening of illegal buildings.

Indeed, of all the regeneration goals, the most dramatic has been the demolition of some 2,000 buildings illegally built on riparian and other reserved public lands.

This began with the mapping of all prohibited buildings, polluters, slaughterhouses and illegal structures along the Nairobi and Ngong rivers. It was followed by the identification of other banned structures occupying public spaces, such as forests, parks, road reserves, recreational facilities, and amenities.

In total, 4,000 buildings are earmarked for demolition. By the close of 2018, slightly more than 1,000 buildings had been brought down, according to officials in the regeneration task-force involved in reclaiming Nairobi’s lost aesthetics.

“Many people that had marks in their buildings have demolished most of the marked areas themselves, making our work easier,” says Julius Wanjau, head of the Nairobi Regeneration project.

In a city where the politically and economically well-connected could get away with projects such as building mega-malls on riparian land, the proposed demolition of their ‘properties’ was unthinkable until the bulldozers crushed the South End Mall on Langata Road in Nairobi’s middle-class southlands suburb.

This was a huge milestone for the government as previously, demolitions were only carried out within low-income suburbs. While the flattening of illegal buildings has reduced multi-million dollar malls and high-end apartments to rubble, it has also exposed systemic weaknesses within government regulatory agencies as well as involved the loss of savings and investments.

South End Mall, Grand Manor Hotel, Nakumatt Ukay and Gateway Mall are some of the iconic buildings that have so far been demolished in pursuit of the gentrification of the city. In December 2018, as the festive season approached, the demolitions were stopped after politicians grumbled. The momentum is expected to resume this year but exactly when is not clear.

Mainly using the Environmental Management and Coordination Act, the regeneration team has been consistent in its work to reclaim ‘grabbed’ riparian lands in the last eight months. Passed in 1999 and revised in 2015 to reflect Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, this law is acclaimed as one of Africa’s most forward-looking pieces of sustainable development legislation.

It amalgamated more than 77 sector-specific laws including water, wildlife, agriculture, forestry and even the physical planning acts which were until that time restricted to the allocation of user rights but covered little in terms of sustainability.

Under the Environmental Management and Coordination Act, sector-specific approaches for tackling environmental concerns and enforcement paved the way for the formation of an overall National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), with far-reaching powers to make Kenya an eco-friendly country.

While implementation has been a challenge, the legal and policy framework has been hailed as sound. Through NEMA, overlapping mandates between diverse agencies that interfered with regulation are now being addressed.

Rethink on rapid results

But even then it has not been smooth sailing for the regeneration task force. When they began they had set high targets and timeframes that denoted they would reclaim the city within six months. This has proved to be a tall order and the planners have been forced to rethink their ‘rapid results’ plans.

The roll-out of the flagship affordable housing project targeting the building of 30,000 units in the urban sprawl of Park Road, Shauri Moyo, Makongeni and Starehe is yet to begin as the official presidential launch has been marred by postponements.

The financing model proposed by the government for the proposed 500,000 tenements countrywide – a key pillar in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ‘Big Four’ legacy project – has also received sharp criticism.

Of the 500,000 houses, 200,000 units are earmarked for Nairobi and in October 2018, President Uhuru signed off a supplementary appropriation bill giving some Ksh21bn ($208.8m) for his grand housing legacy project.

The government’s quest to apply a mandatory 1.5% levy to workers’ gross salaries to finance the newly created National Housing Development Fund has been criticised by the workers’ umbrella body, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU).

“We have been pushing for the constitution of a tripartite board of government, employers and workers to ensure transparency and accountability of these funds. But the government has been reluctant,” says Francis Atwoli, the COTU secretary general. “Until we know the rules of the game that will affect 2.5m workers, we will not allow any deductions. This will be the only way to hold the Executive accountable for their actions on the housing plan.” 

Apart from affordable housing, the other three components of President Kenyatta’s ‘Big Four’ are food security, manufacturing and inexpensive healthcare for all.

In the affordable housing project, the price of a one-bedroom unit will range from $6,000-$10,000. Two-bedroom units will cost $15,000, three-bedroom units $20,000. According to the Transport, Infrastructure and Housing Cabinet Secretary, James Macharia, around 170,000 units are expected to be constructed by end of 2019.

Other goals as yet unfulfilled include the launch of the rapid transit bus system, improvements to household water and sewer connections, the upgrading of 24 health facilities, the restoration of Nairobi River, decongestion of the Kenyatta National Hospital, and the creation of industrial spaces for cottage industry incubation.

Should the regeneration project succeed, it will be Nairobi’s most ambitious work since the 1948 and 1973 zoning master plans.

With the complete reorganisation of government through Executive Order Number 1 of 2019, which gives the indefatigable Cabinet Secretary for the Interior, Fred Matiang’i, critical portfolios and supervisory powers over the cabinet, the regeneration of Nairobi and the quest to ‘bring back the crested crane’ appears to have gained new impetus. NA

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Written by Wanjohi Kabukuru

Wanjohi is an award-winning international environmental investigative journalist, whose specialty covers environment, geo-politics, business, conservation and the Indian Ocean marine development. Over the last 17 years Mr. Kabukuru has written extensively on energy, marine science and environmental conservation. His articles have been published in top-notch publications as African Business, African Banker, Inter Press Service (IPS), New African, BBC Focus on Africa, Mail & Guardian (South Africa), Africa Renewal, 100Reporters, and Radio France International (RFI) among numerous other publications.

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