Future Nairobi? Plans favour the elite

Last week, urbanafrica.net announced the release of a study by Professor Garth Myers, who is based at the Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and specialises in sub-Saharan cities, that examines the Kenyan capital’s Metro 2030 vision plan. We spoke to Myers, who authored the paper ‘A World-Class City-Region? Envisioning the Nairobi of 2030,’ to get a better understanding of where Nairobi is heading in its quest to be a world-class city.

In his paper Myers, who has spent time in Nairobi on and off since 1982 and is the author of the book African Cities (2011), critically examines the view of Nairobi as a global city and criticizes the way that poverty and lack of service delivery are neglected to prioritize the vision of a city dedicated mostly to enterprises and international businessmen. He points to the efforts of civil society organizations to reconfigure and build an inclusive Nairobi of the future and considers the utopian city without traffic that some planners imagine.

UrbanAfrica: The 2030 vision plan is optimistic about Nairobi. In your view, who can be optimistic about the future of the Kenyan capital?

Garth Myers: I call it a jaundiced optimism, because even to the extent that there may be people who are optimistic, they are wary of real and genuine optimism. I would say those that I met with optimism were uniformly elites and occasionally intellectuals/academics. The optimism is most obvious in the Nairobi Metro 2030 Plan that I examined, which paints a very rosy picture of Nairobi.

UA: Which parts of the city are in contradiction with the new plans for Nairobi? What are the key inequalities arising from the new plan you examined?

GM: I examined the vision plan for 2030 developed by the now-defunct ministry of Nairobi Metropolitan Development, or Monmed. This is important to note because that plan has been superseded by the JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) – Developed Master Plan, approved in 2012. But the two plans share some basic contradictions. They both aim at attracting business and investors, and at making Nairobi a major international hub for business. There is, in the Metro 2030 Plan, almost no mention whatsoever of slums/informal settlements and the Plan seemed to have wanted to wish them away. That is the big contradiction – the politicians and planners talk a big game about making Nairobi a world-class global city, but the key problems the ordinary people face, from housing to traffic to service delivery, let alone poverty, are not really addressed. At the same time, there are programs of course for slum upgrading and I note as well in the article that there are many good activists and even planners (such as the Center for Urban Research and Innovations at the University of Nairobi) working with the grass-roots to improve conditions in the poorer areas of the city. But one of the main inequalities (and Nairobi has severe spatial and income inequalities) is in access to services like, in fact, urban planning itself.

UA: It is said that there has been broad participation by private groups, public entities and multiple civil society associations in the preparation of this new plan for the city. How have the different interests combined?

GM: Again, the plan I examined in the article is the one developed by Monmed. I chose this because it was a Vision Plan for 2030, and the paper is in a special issue of the journal American Behavioral Scientist on African cities in 2030 but also because it was a very ambitious plan, such as in expanding the governance map of Nairobi to include the five counties that surround Nairobi.

The County (Nairobi City County) has now developed this new Master Plan for the County alone and it claimed a lot of feedback was gleaned from the public and private sectors. However, a number of artists and activists with whom I spoke argued that their own “Nai Ni Who” workshops generated far more feedback among a broaden cross-section of the public.

UA: Where do the investments to reshape the city come from?

GM: There are investments at the top reshaping the city from above, in the form of the massive new highways, the supposed commuter rail, and the supposed bus rapid transit, along with the many new gated communities and luxury shopping malls. But I would argue much of the energy reshaping the city comes from below, from activists like the youth affiliated with Peace for African and Economic Development who acted as peace ambassadors to the electoral commission in 2013 for example, or the artists associated with Kwani? Trust.

UA: Is it realistic, for example, to think of a Nairobi with no traffic at peak times?

GM: Not at all. That is a point I make in the article: that the authors of the Metro 2030 Plan had photoshopped the photo of the intersections of Uhuru Highway and Kenyatta to turn the traffic into streams of light via some sort of time-lapse photographic trickery, because in my lifetime the only time I have ever seen that intersection devoid of traffic was after midnight in 1989!

UA: Is the new plan speaking about Nairobi as a smart city? What role do technology companies play within the proposed changes?

GM: I didn’t say anything about this in the article, and to be honest I haven’t researched it. I do know that the new city being built in Machakos, one of several of these planned satellite cities for Nairobi that are largely going to be elite suburbs of 50,000 to 60,000 people, not city-cities, is part of a claim for a “Silicon Savannah”, which sounds great, and, indeed, there are Kenyans who are at the leading edge of high technology innovations, but I would argue these forces are simply further exacerbating the inequalities in the fostering of what urban studies scholars (such as Edgar Pieterse of the African Center for Cities in Cape Town) refer to as “Splintering Networked Infrastructures.” Thus, there might be a “Smart City Nairobi” at the very same time that tens a thousands of people lack adequate electricity, water, sewage, sanitation, waste services, and the like, to say nothing of smart technology beyond their mobile phones (which often, for many people, lack any money on the account).

UA: What are the good and bad aspects of Nairobi’s new plans?

GM: Speaking of the Metro 2030 Plan, I admire its ambition and scope for thinking of Nairobi much more broadly and grandly that any planners before this. I fault it for not being realistic and addressing the real concerns with poverty, inequality, injustice and, of course, political strife. Although I did not write about the JICA-led plan, I have similar feelings about it.


Gemma Solés i Coll holds an M.A. in Social Science of Development South of the Sahara (URV) and graduated in Philosophy (UB). She specializes in artistic and cultural trends and urban dynamics in Africa. She serves as chief editor for the music and performing arts section of Spanish online magazine WIRIKO, of which she is the founder.

Photo: A girl plays with a bicycle tire in the slum of Korogocho, one of the largest slum neighborhoods of Nairobi, Kenya. Gates Foundation via Flickr.


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