A walk in the park: not as easy as it seems

Nairobi’s public open spaces are facing increased pressure and we all stand to lose.

Imagine an ordinary Sunday morning. Sun rays have warmed up a spot on the kitchen floor and as you step on it barefoot, you think it would be a great day to go out and feel the sunshine on your face too. So you put on some comfortable shoes, pack a few essentials and make your way to the neighbourhood square, where children are already busy chasing each other on the small patch of grass and shrieking with delight. 

Scattered around the square are a few benches, one of them occupied by an older couple absorbed in conversation. You choose your favourite spot, next to the ice-cream kiosk, so you can look up from your book from time to time and take in the sparkle in the eyes of a child relishing that firstlick of sweetness. You wave hello to your neighbour Mrs. Kanogo who’s out on ajog.

This could be you. This could be us. This could be Nairobi, if its planning lived up to its tagline “the green city in the sun”.

A narrative of reclusion

Instead, Nairobians looking to rest, socialise and engage in civic activities can only count on a handful of urban parks and on two or three informal gathering spots in the interstices of the CBD. The rest is for-profit entertainment tiered by income level. Pubs. Malls. Cafes and restaurants. Meanwhile, construction labourers working in middle and upper class neighbourhoods are forced to eat lunch squatting by the roadside, exposed to dust and exhaust fumes from passing cars.

This grim picture could be nuanced by the presence of numerous community halls often associated with religious organisations. However, these modes of gathering are in essence private, as they presuppose group membership, in contrast to public space which is meant to be free and accessible to all.

The city is engulfed in a race towards enclosure that effectively stamps out interaction between members of different socio-economic strata and reduces possibilities for broad political engagement. In the guise of enhancing security, we are closing the door on integrated city building, choosing instead a narrative of reclusion that benefits only the wealthy. 

Running counter to this, a focus on maintaining existing public spaces and creating new ones across Nairobi, would put us on our way to better health and a better quality of life. If any public investment deserves our full attention, this is it.

Improved quality of life

Nairobi could look to cities like Salvador de Bahia in northeastern Brazil where the municipality has moved towards greater conviviality through the carving out of new public squares and the renovation of dilapidated public spaces throughout the city, including in less affluent areas such as Periperi. Salvador de Bahia isn’t without its problems but its residents now enjoy greater quality of life thanks to free local playgrounds and urban parks.

With an average annual growth rate of over 5%, Kenya’s capital is expanding on the margins, in informal settlements, whereas city planning is largely focused on the needs of well off residents through high value projects expected to bring returns in the form of taxes. Most neighbourhoods have been built without planned access to green spaces or even public recreational facilities like playgrounds. 

But parks have been shrinking even in older parts of the city that were formerly overseen by the 1948 Master Plan – a colonial document that earmarked over 27% of the city’s land mass for public open spaces while maintaining a policy of racial segregation. Encroachment of public land with a profit motive (land grabbing), continues to pose a serious challenge to public open spaces in Nairobi despite recommendations issued by the Ndungu Land Commission. According to the Friends of City Park, a community organization promoting the park’s rehabilitation through advocacy and educational activities, 30 hectares of Parkland’s City Park have been illegally allocated to private entities since 1923.

Exacerbated exclusion by design

Privatised urbanism takes many shapes, from cordoning off sidewalks around malls (arguably an instance of unpleasant design) to charging entrance fees at public facilities such as the Arboretum, but all of these measures have something in common: they are underwritten by a logic of profit and fear, both of which exacerbate exclusion in a city already layered by de facto residential segregation along socio-economic lines. 

Martin J. Murray’s observations about Johannesburg in ‘Taming the Disorderly City’ could very well apply to Nairobi: “The steady accretion of citadel office complexes, gated residential communities, and enclosed shopping malls for the affluent propertied classes has proceeded apace with the shrinkage of well-maintained public spaces dedicated to civic engagement, social congregation and chance encounter.” 

As residents, we have a role to play in pushing back against private encroachment on public land and privatised urbanism so that, one day, we can safely walk out of our homes and spend time outside in the company of fellow Nairobians of all ages and backgrounds. This isn't luxury. It's just an attempt at harmony.

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