The Nairobi Metropolitan Development ministry declares its objective for the city to all and sundry on its website: “to be a world class African metropolis.” While it reads a bit like a generic résumé opener, I believe it is a worthy and achievable goal, provided my understanding of its terms is correct. If by “world class(sic)” the ministry means that Nairobi will one day be a top contender on the “most liveable city” list, then we are on the same page. But if their vision is one of a cheap-imitation metropolis with all the bells and whistles that scream of development (without the delivery, of course), then they have lost me. The problem with phrases like “world-class” is that they get thrown around so often that they get lost in the lexicon of clichés that we try to use to define our place in reference to other countries. Does Kenya have world-class athletes? Unquestionably. World-class coffee? For sure. World-class cities? Not at all – not in my opinion. In fact, I question our need for them to begin with. Contradictory? Glad you asked; please read on.
I make no bones about the fact that I am sorely in want of experience where city planning is concerned. This post is not intended as an attack on MoNMED or its principles. In fact, it can be viewed as supplementary piece of sorts; a checklist from a concerned citizen, if you will. And so, we begin with a conundrum: does Nairobi need to be a world-class city? Yes and no, in my opinion. If, as I mentioned before, the phrase is synonymous with an elevated quality of life for all Nairobians, then we should all be behind MoNMED in the pursuit of its agenda. However, my contention with the term “world-class” is that it implies a comparison with other cities. No one city in the world is the same. While we should all define and pursue a basic level of humanity for the people in our city, we should also be careful to celebrate the qualities that make us unique.
Nairobi is a relatively young city with great potential. In order to stand out, I contend that she should leverage all her unique qualities to attract and retain both local and international interest. Does this mean no skyscrapers or elevated highways (and no fancy computer renderings to precede them)? I do not believe that tall buildings and freeways make for great cities. However, whether they are erected or not in Nairobi is not for me to decide. My intention here is to elucidate (mostly for myself) exactly what it is that forms the heartbeat of the city in which I grew up. If we can zero in on Nairobi’s pulse, perhaps it would make the path to a better city a little clearer and a tad easier. Perhaps it would mean doing away with generic ideas of (and accompanying generic agendas for) what great cities should be.
On with the good, then:
1.Nairobi is a city of walkers, bicycle riders and public transit users.
2.Nairobi has beautiful parks and wildlife, most within thirty minutes of the Central Business District.
3.Nairobi has beautiful weather all year round.
4.Nairobians are generally an accepting and hospitable people.
5.Nairobi is a transit hub.
And the not-so-good:
1.Nairobi is a city of glaring inequality, injustice and insecurity.
2. Nairobi is a segregated city.
3. Nairobi is very much in need of infrastructural development
4. Nairobi has issues. Serious traffic issues.
(Note to reader: I’m not trying to be denigrating toward Nairobi or its people. I merely wish to call the facts as I see them. As it stands, there is much to be done where our city is concerned. Turning a blind eye to the faults that exist will not make them go away.)
This list is by no means exhaustive. Am I going somewhere with this? I hope so! Lord willing, I will try in succeeding posts to break each point down in my attempt to show that a great city is one that can successfully merge basic self-sustaining structures as well as the unique attributes it is made up of. As this is my inaugural entry, karibu kwangu. Make yourself at home. Feet up, grab a cuppa (chai, kahawa, uji, whatever), and let’s go!