Urban Revitalization in Nairobi

Urban Revitalization & Nairobi Community

Urban Revitalization and Nairobi Community

Brief Overview of Urban Revitalization

Every city has a distinctive social fabric stitched together slowly over the life of its existence. Urban infrastructure, landscaping plan, buildings and cultures are hence intermingled with the ways of life and the main components of the social fabric. The social fabric is not instantaneously built, it is a product created over time. The deep rooted socio-economic sustainability of Nairobi requires more than just environmentally sound approaches to modernization, urban planning and development. It is overdue for an urban revitalization project that blends in the social fabric with components of modernity. Urban revitalization may be defined as the process of rebuilding thriving economically, environmentally and socially sustainable urban areas and populations, and in areas that have been in decline and in those urban areas that are stressed from the continuing influx of people in urban areas.  Into that bargain, urban revitalization is conservation of heritage, and its meaning to public wealth and common good, which is helpful to improve people’s quality of life, enhances ownership and sense of belonging; which evokes people’s feelings. The concept of urban revitalization is growing internationally, with many projects as part of government’s effort to introduce new activities into economically and physically declining neighborhoods’ from which private sectors shy away. Essentially, it encompasses improving housing condition for the poor, upgrading housing stock, reducing density of crowded neighborhoods’, providing more open space and community facilities as well as changing residential land into more economical and profitable commercial use.

Nairobi, Africa’s green city under the sun, became the capital of Kenya in 1907, just 43 years before it was declared a city. Hitherto, Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city, was the main centre and port of call for Kenya. It was the placement of the Kenya-Uganda Railway that exogenously led to its growth. Soon after the arrival of the railway line, Europeans were allowed to settle in the undulating area west of the city centre.  Later on, Asian traders were settled in the north-east (Eastleigh).  By 1963, Africans who formed a major part of the population, lived in the eastern parts, while Europeans and Asians lived in the western and northeast areas with access to better services. The early framers and planners of the city endeavoured to set proper development and outlines of the city. Take for instance Uhuru Park, that invaluable 13-hectare recreational park adjacent to the central business district, whose impact in urban welfare and happiness of the people remains one of the monumental urban revitalization projects to date in Kenya. It was opened to the general public by the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta on May 23rd, 1969, and is still indubitably the most patronized public outdoor space in Kenya. Other examples of urban renewal projects in Nairobi include the 30-hectare Nairobi Arboretum, City Park, Jevanjee Gardens and Karura Forest. The undertone to all these projects is that they were expensive to put into place. Try building a public outdoor park in the middle of the city. More often than not, this will run into tens of millions, with the cost of maintenance carrying an equally forbidding cost. What is more, the return on investment of such urban revitalization projects is hard to compute. Their impact becomes an interrupted conversation. As the city grows, as space for development becomes less, these revitalization projects become exposed to the development elements, and suddenly even the supporters don’t know what to do with them. Have you not noticed it? Nairobi is growing at a faster rate than ever before. One only has to look at the tower cranes across the skyline and the proposed developments to lend the idea of its future look to mind. Yet, ideas of urban revitalization seem to have been conveniently shelved by the modern framers and planners of the city. But what’s the opportunity cost for a big city with less urban revitalization.


View of a lake within Uhuru Park, Nairobi. Image courtesy of WikiMedia
View of a lake within Uhuru Park, Nairobi. Image courtesy of WikiMedia

The Case for Urban Revitalization

Urban renewal project strategies – urban redevelopment, urban rehabilitation, urban revitalization and urban regeneration – have been taking front stage in public forums and urban planning agendas particularly in the last two decades. Axiomatically, urban renewal projects that have been applied in various urban areas such as disaster hot-spots, urban declining areas, squatter housing areas and historical sites not only cause transformations in the physical structure of cities, but also affect the economic, social and environmental dynamics in the built environment. These extensive applications bring out the inquiry whether the urban renewal projects are good or not. In an increasingly urbanized world, the promotion of sustainable urbanization taking in issues of economic growth, social equity, cultural diversity, ethnic cohesion and environmental protection requires more than ever strategic planning, conscientious building and conflict resolution. It boils down to this: Urban revitalization projects are good for the community and modernization, but with reservation that the process must be approached with due diligence and consideration, especially with the aspects of sustaining the social fabric and cultural endowments.  To drive the point home: It’s important to suitably examine the importance of incorporating conservation of cultural endowments in revitalization projects and to incorporate heritage protection.  Moreover, a corporate approach to urban revitalization is pertinent.


Urban Revitalization and Culture Endowments

Cultural endowments such as unique streetscapes, traditional architecture and historic sites are increasingly recognized as important economic resources both in Nairobi and other major cities around the world. The preservation of cultural heritage supports urban revitalization by preserving city livability, increasing competitiveness, and creating a wide range of income-earning opportunities. Nairobi is an important focal point for development based on these resources because they provide concentrations of heritage assets, infrastructure services, private sector activity and human resources. Improving the conservation and organization of urban revitalization in Nairobi City is not only important for preserving its historic significance, but also for its potential to increase income-earning opportunities, city livability, and competitiveness. One of the most highly-visible and dynamic links between heritage conservation and the local economic development lies in the potential for cultural and natural assets to attract tourism investment and spending. Incorporating heritage protection into urban projects has supported the overall goal of revitalization, significantly increased client satisfaction, and led to a robust new business norm for Nairobi.


Wave Theatre: Public Performance Space, Ecuador. Image Courtesy of A.D
Wave Theatre: Public Performance Space, Ecuador. Image Courtesy of A.D

Revitalization Projects Around the World

No size fits all in urban revitalization. It requires local solutions to local issues. Thankfully, plenty of research over the past decade, with an aim to reiterate the importance culture plays in modern day cities, has presented scores of options for its application.  Research findings have brought to the forefront that culture in a city includes non profit and commercial goodwill as well the role of artists in building the culture.  It is irrefutable that informal art plays a salient role in building the social fabric, social networks and connections across communities.  In as much as the community culture is generally concerned with marginalized populations, there’s a growing need to develop a suitable mix for keeping track of cultural vitality – which has been defined as evidence of creating, validating, disseminating and supporting culture and arts as a dimension of everyday life in the community.  Planners should not overlook its importance when planning urban projects.  Incorporating concerns of cultural endowment in revitalization projects as well as including heritage protection is as important as raising any infrastructure. Take for instance its application in South America (using Mexico and Ecuador as examples) where ethnographers have archived the community building potential of informal arts. The Wave Theatre in Ecuador has proven that using cultural pith and artists to break down social isolation, strengthen bonds among the members, stimulates new social networking relationships and stirs on regional and international bonds with travellers from assorted societies.

Likewise, urban revitalization projects have worked well where the concept of corporation between the government, private and public sectors is utilized.  In Canada for example, within the economic recession of the 90’s, a huge stock of office building went vacant in downtown Toronto.  The city adopted innovative reuse policy by converting the building to residential units.  The result: There was no pressure to demolish the buildings, city revenues grew by $ 1.6 million, and transport infrastructure was not interrupted. In Seoul, South Korea, the project “comprehensive measure to revitalize Bookchon” in 2000 also hedged on the corporate approach to urban revitalization projects. The project was successful in fusing collective public action, private and public ownership. The approach was two pronged; upgrading housing conditions for the poor and improving infrastructure. The corporate approach to ‘land development in Hong Kong’ saw the revitalization project achieve major success.  Hong Kong’s administrative and economic systems combined a non political and colonial administration with the so called ‘positively non-intervention’ to provide a favourable environment for corporatism.  In like manner, the older urban areas in Hong Kong by the year 2000 had deteriorated gradually.  Called to task, the Government took full control in revitalizing deteriorating parts of the cityscape. The desired goal was achieved through combination of financial, legislative, and administrative efforts.  It was unlikely that the private sector could launch such a large scale comprehensive redevelopment to address these pressing problems.

The urban revitalization project in Hong Kong was an ambitious goal to create better working environment and living condition by jigging existing standard urban areas, planning for conveniently cited government facilities, controlling use and configuring urban building, upgrading transport systems and providing for a safe and convenient pedestrian movement system within the area. The success of the project included getting rid of the poor living conditions in the former resettlement estates, encouraging participation by small owners in the development process, changing the physical and environmental characteristics, and, more fundamentally, enhancing the socio-economic structure. The last example of revitalization is from Joliet, Illinois. Historically it was famous as a steel town that faced economic ruin. In the 1980s, via a revitalization project, it became a thriving space. Formerly, listless black canal carried treated sewage from through the core of a decrepit downtown Chicago, 40 miles northerly, to where gangs roamed freely. During the 1980’s, with the machinery factories fast vanishing and city’s steel unemployment reaching a record 20%, the only thing left in Joliet was its maximum security state prison. But in a single decade, this city has burst into the ranks of the nation’s boom towns. The implications for urban revitalization and policy have turned Joliet to a thriving metropolis. The downtown area once lined with abandoned stores is now blooming. Nobody calls it the Sanitary and Ship Canal town anymore; it is the Des Plaines River. In addition, groundbreaking was carried out in the early 2000’s for a minor league baseball stadium. Renovation of the abandoned Louis Hotel into 60 apartments is nigh, and a sports bar opened in the restored and once barren Union Station.

Other Interesting Urban Revitalization Projects:

  1. The Downtown Project in Las Vegas
  2. The River District, Portland, Oregon
  3. The East Baltimore Revitalization Initiative
  4. Millenium Tower, Baltimore
  5. The Wharf Project, Washington DC
  6. Maboneng Precinct Project, Joburg, South Africa
  7. Inner City Project, Johannesburg, South Africa
  8. The 798 Art Zone, Beijing
  9. Rottermann Quarter, Estonia
  10. Clyde Waterfront, Glascow
  11. Downtown Arts District, Los Angeles
  12. Melbourne Docklands, Melbourne
  13. Wuhu Urban Renewal Project, China
  14. Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit network
  15. Hybrid Habitation Project, Istanbul, Turkey

Urban Revitalization and Nairobi Community

Glitches with Urban Revitalization Projects

Many a government policies try to reduce public expenditure while seeking to improve conditions for the private sector (private profit) rather than collective public action.  Rapid urbanization has prompted the quick turn around time of urban renewal projects, with most carried out to meet the ‘peoples’ immediate expectations.  As a result, the modern and hastened approach to urban renewal or revitalization has destroyed valued urban heritage. Take for instance Beijing, which is gradually losing its heritage, where more than half of the olden Beijing building – enshrined in its history – have been demolished in just the past half century to pave way for larger modern buildings. The rapidly growing economy is drastically transforming the social, economic and spatial structure of the city. Concomitantly, modernization in Beijing, often times erroneously supplanted with revitalization, is in general regarded as erasing the past, and development is in itself viewed as short term.  In this scenario modernization or revitalization has broadly meant demolition and building.  But in order to preserve heritage, urban revitalization needs a long term strategy, a multi-disciplinary approach, a link between public and private sectors and public participation. That being so, can a creative economy eliminate urban poverty? Our modern day cities have witnessed an increasing proportion of their residents being denied progressive participation in the local economy, civil society and social institutions. Majority of our cities have weathered the transition from an industrial to an information-based economy with most developed neighborhoods bearing the never ending physical and social manifestations of social exclusion and economic inequality.

The New Wave of Urban Revitalization

Urban policy-makers generally agree that regional economic development and job growth are the solution to urban poverty, associated plight and pathology. Many cities have latched onto Richard Florida’s argument that attracting the “creative class” to the region will generate jobs and tax revenue; a trickle down of benefits to all citizens. Unfortunately, it appears that growth of the creative economy can spark inequality and exclusion. Is the creative economy a bargain with the devil? Does a city have to accept increased economic inequality to reap the prosperity of the creative economy? To enhance on livability, ownership and sustainability, the first step in revitalization is to endorse a registration system for the residents’ in-order for them to receive subsidiary funds for remodeling as well other incentives advantages which include resident parking permission.


Revitalization through Culture, Community, and Creativity

Urban Revitalization and Effects on Crime

In the book “Urban Revitalization and Seattle Crime, 1982-2000” a pertinent study was carried to investigate the relationship between urban revitalization and crime. The study, based on recent urban demography research, pitched a hypothesize that urban revitalization projects progressed rapidly in many cities across America over the last decade of the twentieth century, and that these changes had some impact on crime rates in these areas. Criminological theories hold competing arguments for the connections between urban revitalization and crime, and quantitative indagation of this link remain largely limited and infrequent. Using two measures of longitudinal track-level demographic and longitudinal crime data for the city of Seattle, the empirical finding were that many of Seattle’s downtown areas underwent rapid revitalization during the 1990s, and that these areas witnessed reductions in crime relative to similar areas that did not have urban revitalization projects.  Additionally, these were areas with higher-than-average crime at the beginning of the decade. Using a within-tract longitudinal design, the research uncovered that yearly housing investments in the 1980s showed a modest positive association with crime change, while yearly investments in the 1990s showed the opposite pattern. These findings suggest a curvilinear gentrification-crime relationship, in which urban revitalization in its earlier stages is associated with small increases in crime, but urban revitalization in its more consolidated form is associated with modest crime declines. Implications of these results for criminological theory, urban development, and broader crime patterns in urban areas are worth the inquiry by urban planners in Nairobi and other notable cities around the world.


Urban Revitalization in Nairobi

The concept of urban revitalization is not alien to Nairobi. A few projects have sort to claim the title; none, perhaps, as cosmic as the Kenya Slum Upgrading Project launched in 2004 as a collaborative project between the Government of Kenya and UN-HABITAT. The sheer scale of this ambitious is mind-boggling considering that roughly three million people in Nairobi City (accounting for almost 50% of its population) dwell in slums, in about 200 informal settlements spread across the city. Rather more importantly, all these people are confined to an area that accounts for only 6% of the surface area of Nairobi. Needless to point out, the challenges, costs and bureaucracy of upgrading slums in Nairobi are as many as they are compex. Just in one this informal settlements (Soweto) the target is to construct 822 housing units and 245 market stalls. Even so, an urban revitalization focussing on communities and cultures is overdue. Taking into consideration that Kenya prides itself on cultural diversity, and Nairobi as the melting pot, there is hardly an urban revitalization project that opportunely responds to this gap. One may argue that the Bomas of Kenya and the National Museum of Kenya respond to this cultural diversity by collecting, protecting and conserving cultural esthetics. And that’s correct. It unavoidable happens that the expanding cityscape is crying out for cultural identity under an urban revitalization project which aptly takes into account the main cultures of Kenya.

Nairobi is the birthplace of Kenya’s independence, the cultural melting pot of Kenya, where people from all around the world first arrive, which has grown to one of the largest cities in Africa. It’s home to practically all the communities of Kenya and vibrant cultures from Africa and beyond. And with a population of 4.3 million, Nairobi is Kenya’s largest, liable for trickling down developments, innovations and transformations to towns and cities across Kenya. But growth and evolution can fade the essence of any great city; the modern, powerful and influential cities bringing new change, posing a threat to the most important pillar of the city cohesion. In many ways, Nairobi is preparing for a time when Africa looks up to it to set new trends. It’s hard to overstate the degree to which an urban revitalization project in Nairobi would influence its livability. What are the options for Nairobi? A revamp of the expansive Nairobi Railway Station that’s rich in history and space? A rejigging of Jevanjee Gardens as a cultural and performance area? Rethinking the setting of the iconic KICC ground? The options are multifarious. Politicians can alter this policy, or the course of it, that change urban structures to benefit majority rather than the powerful and rich. The shortfall is that most government policies try to reduce public expenditure while seeking to improve the conditions for private sector and private profits rather than the collective public action. Perhaps a corporate approach to urban revitalization is a softer landing spot for all the parties involved in the outcome.


Urban Revitalization and Nairobi Community

In Conclusion

Persuading the stakeholders, and there are several, to kickstart a culture based revitalization project in Nairobi City is no plain-sailing. Flush with development agendas and steadfast on meeting hardline goals, the concerned would feel hard done to haggle over the terms. Thanks to growing international investors and a rising middle-class, Nairobi City appears more oriented outwards and upwards. A slowdown in the inflows could spell trouble for sectors of the economy which are long accustomed to secure international markets. The complacency of their markets moving in only one direction – up – have been bolstering their efforts to meet expected demand. Unfortunately for many of those agencies, there’s the danger of not filling the gap of looking inward to attract investors and tourists. The cultural diversity of Kenya aspects of urban revitalization in Nairobi need no more emphasis. Inevitably, the long term socio-economic sustainability of the growing city requires more than just environmentally sound approaches to modernization, urban planning and development, but requires well structured urban revitalization projects that blend in the social fabric with components of modernization. In order to preserve its heritage, Nairobi needs long term urban revitalization strategies which involve participation of the public. A good start would be an inclusive conservation on feasible projects. Their recommendation would point urban decision-makers and city professionals to strike a balance between social cohesion and economic competitiveness in urban revitalization projects that achieve a harmonious development of Nairobi: A balance between historic preservation, cultural diversity and development.  Urban revitalization in Nairobi should be adopted as a process through which the mismatch between classes, cultures, contemporary needs, and government services are reconciled.