Welcome to Nairobi, Tenement City

Nairobi has some great things going for it: It is the only city in the world with a national park within its bounds (dissecting standard gauge railway line notwithstanding), it has great weather for a good part of the year, its people are friendly for the most part, and it still has a considerable amount of greenery – at this point it can hardly be called a concrete jungle, not when the entirety of its borders are taken into consideration.

Its local claim to fame as “the green city in the sun” may soon change, however. Our burgeoning building industry, which has seen the rise of unregulated apartment buildings in areas that were once considered suburbs, is to blame for the altering character of our city. And while change is a necessary constant where cosmopolitan cities are concerned, good change is what we should be after, not the kind that degrades our built environment and results in structures with little to no consideration for good design nor for the people who inhabit them.

It is not uncommon to come across new apartment buildings in this city that do not take into account their inhabitants’ quality of life. Many of these housing structures are laid out in blocks tightly adjacent to one another, with complete disregard for the sun’s orientation and the amount of natural light that comes into each unit (surprisingly, tenants who occupy the dingy, dank ground floor units sometimes pay the same amount as those who take up the well-lit penthouse levels). Some of these buildings, which offer a basic minimum of requirements, are touted as luxury rentals and come with the requisite price tag that such a title confers. Many are an eyesore, with large expanses of reflective glass, imitation finishes and all-round contemporary kitsch.

Build up instead of out, they say. We have a housing shortage, they say. Rezoning is necessary for our housing needs to be met, they say. Developers need to get their money’s worth, they say. I get it, even though I tire of hearing these excuses that imply that we must put up with a hodge-podge of poorly constituted concrete and steel in the name of progress. Good design matters. Good design, carefully considered design, even at the expense of maximising one’s plot ratio, is essential to the livability of our city and our overall health as citizens. Good design is paramount for the sustainable city. Good design is clearly lacking in a good number of our buildings. Each housing type, from affordable to high-end, must take into account frameworks that have been known to work for favourable housing conditions and implement them. That we need to safeguard the character of our city and guard against tenements is not an understatement.

The green city in the sun has a great deal of potential. But we cannot, like the sycophants who lauded the emperor’s non-existent clothing, watch our city head toward architectural demise and claim that we are moving toward world-class status while ignoring our glaring flaws.

*Featured image sourced here.

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