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Nairobi’s planners are knocking the city down to save it

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MUNICIPAL AUTHORITIES in Nairobi spent much of last year knocking things down. Shopping malls, petrol stations and apartment blocks were levelled; bulldozers cut through slums, leaving tens of thousands homeless. All this destruction may seem rather wanton in a poor city. Yet the government-backed body overseeing it, the Nairobi regeneration task-force, insists that the only way to save the Kenyan capital is to wreck bits of it.

Nairobi is unrecognisable from the sleepy town it was at the turn of the century. In the past 12 years land prices have soared more than sixfold in 24 of the city’s 32 suburbs and satellite towns, according to HassConsult, a local real-estate agent. What caused it all is disputed, though some developers whisper that the return of dirty money from the West after the 2008 financial crash fuelled the frenzy. Far more money could be made in Kenyan bricks and mortar than in rich-world stockmarkets. Why bother investing in the Nasdaq (returns of 210% since 2007) when an acre in Juja, one of Nairobi’s satellite towns, would have fetched you 1,428%?

Whatever the reason, many Nairobians cheered the sprouting of the skyscrapers. The boom created jobs for the poor, drove middle-class growth and made the rich richer still. In a city that, like others in Africa, aspires to be a new Dubai or Singapore, what’s not to like?

Plenty, say urban-planning campaigners. Much of the construction has been unregulated, threatening all manner of problems. With the connivance of corrupt officials, the rich and politically connected built where they pleased. Parks and school playing fields were grabbed. River reserves, and sometimes the rivers themselves, have been partially concreted over, turning Nairobi’s waterways into mosquito-infested open sewers. With nowhere for the water to go, deadly floods wash over the city in rainy seasons. Land set aside for roads has suffered a similar fate, complicating efforts to tackle the city’s spirit-sapping traffic jams. Sky-hugging tower blocks have mushroomed in low-rise residential suburbs: neighbours and zoning regulations be damned. “I was told I could go as high as I liked as long as my pockets were deep enough,” says one project manager.

Nairobi, once known as “the Green City in the Sun”, has precious few green bits any more. Environmentalists, health experts and engineers are gloomy. Reports crossing the desk of Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, warn that the city’s iffy water supply and colonial-era sewers are barely coping, says a presidential adviser. A sanitation crisis looms.

To try to fix the problem, Mr Kenyatta formed the Nairobi regeneration task-force in 2017. It has identified 4,000 buildings for demolition. Many have already come down, potentially unclogging rivers and freeing space for roads. Yet it will take more than knocking down a few high-rises to reverse a rotten legacy. Nairobi’s population, 3.1m when the last census was taken in 2009, may have added 1.5m since.

Developing infrastructure to keep pace will be tough. Nairobi’s richer districts have expanded, but so too have its poorer ones. More than half its people live in slums. Shanties will have to be uprooted to let roads, railways and power lines expand. Knocking down buildings in well-heeled areas can cause resentment; taking from the poor may be incendiary. When 10,000 people were uprooted in Kibera, a slum, last July, riot police flanked the bulldozers.

The government is attempting to deal with some of the problems. A project to build 200,000 low-cost houses in Nairobi is underway. But given how fast the city’s population is growing, little headway will be made in reducing the housing deficit, says Nashon Okowa, who chairs the Association of Construction Managers of Kenya (ACMK). Besides, such schemes have failed before. Plans to ease traffic congestion are in the works, from bus lanes to rapid-transit corridors and commuter trains. Yet these sometimes seem poorly conceived. A measure to ban most public transport from the city centre in December caused gridlock and was quickly abandoned.

Urban-planning experts say that for Nairobi and other African cities to become the modern metropolises their people dream of, four issues need to be tackled. The first is a skills shortage. Kenyan universities churn out ever more adept planners, but the Nairobi County Government lacks the budget to hire them, so the best often go into the private sector or abroad. Washington Ochieng, a Kenyan who helped develop the EU’s Galileo global navigation satellite system, knows more than most about fixing congestion. But because he heads the Centre for Transport Studies at Imperial College, his expertise benefits London rather than Nairobi.

Insufficient government investment is a second problem. A loan of $208m from the World Bank to upgrade Nairobi’s transport infrastructure had to be dropped in December after austerity measures were taken to reduce debt. Third, enforcement is hard in societies where the rule of law is weak. Congestion-fighting measures tend not to work if drivers ignore traffic lights.

This leads to the fourth and biggest problem: corruption. When the demolitions began, Mr Kenyatta promised that no illegal development would be spared, even if it was owned by members of his own family, whose property holdings are said to be vast. Yet the logic of the demolitions was often opaque: buildings belonging to bigwigs were allegedly left standing. Those whose buildings were destroyed, whether investors in the city or shack-owners in the slums, were therefore peeved. “Most of the houses torn down here had been given permits by the district commissioner,” says Josiah Omotto, an activist in Kibera.

Arbitrary rules deter private investment and hurt property rights. Few know where they stand. Zoning laws are murky. Nairobi’s last functioning master plan was drawn up by British colonial authorities in 1948. There have been efforts to replace it, most recently in 2013, but these are either not enforced or deliberately thwarted by dodgy officials who know that administrative chaos is the best way to extract bribes. “A government that has a record of rent-seeking doesn’t wake up one day and say goodbye to rent-seeking,” says Mr Omotto. For real change to happen, a culture of corruption that has long been endemic in city-planning departments must end. There is little evidence that it has. “Today, construction that is clearly illegal is still being approved,” says Mr Okowa of the ACMK.

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