Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people. - Enrique Penalosa
Great cities are child-friendly. City planners and citizens take care of the young by creating comfortable, engaging public spaces, playgrounds and parks. They make safe sidewalks and modes of mobility for children to get to school, health clinics and other places they need or want to go. By caring for children, we tend to the future and also make a better city for everyone.
Enrique Penalosa, one of Latin America’s most successful mayors, says the very “measure of a good city is one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere”. How does Nairobi fare by this measure?
Nairobi began as a colonial city where African men were seen as migrant labour. Thus African women and children were not supposed to be in Nairobi. The poor-quality dormitory housing and the lack of facilities like schools for African children reflected this. White and Asian children figured in the planning, but not the African child.
In the post-colonial period, many still see Nairobi as a place you come to work, not to bring or raise children. Many planners and transportation experts seem to follow in this historical tradition and still imagine the city as childless.
The reality is, of course, different. Nairobi is a city with substantial numbers of children and youth who consider it home, to the point that they have developed their own thriving urban culture, complete with a unique language, Sheng. County statistics suggest that about half of Nairobi’s population is 20 years of age or under, and there are about 750,000 children 10 years of age or younger. Has planning embraced this fact? What does the experience of this “indicator species” in Nairobi tell us about planning in the city?
To answer this question, we might start by observing how much care goes into sidewalks, school travel and play space in the city. We might also talk to children in the city to see how they feel about crossing streets, taking a school bus or matatu to school, or playing in the spaces they find to amuse themselves and through play, learn. This would help us begin to understand if Nairobi’s city builders — citizens, policymakers, planners, engineers, developers and architects — in their design and building. give thought to children in the city.
Let’s start with going to school. Many children — both middle class and poor — do not have good schools in their neighbourhood, so they travel by motorised means. For the poor, this often means an unsafe and overloaded boda boda or matatu. Navigating the matatu system can be bewildering for a small child, and matatu drivers will acknowledge that there is often discrimination. By being forced to stand, children are actually the least safe of all the passengers. They often get lost in matatus and are dropped at the police station.
School vehicle travel is unregulated. The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure has “guidelines”, but legally enforceable rules to ensure safety are not properly in place. So middle-class parents often drive their children to school, contributing to traffic congestion, which, in turn, is harmful for children who spend time breathing unhealthy air and sitting as well as waking up extra early. Poor children also get up early, get stuck in traffic, and pay a lot for especially dangerous transport to school.
If children are lucky enough (or forced by circumstances) to attend a local school, they can walk. Planners call this part of “active” or non-motorised transport”, and it gives children exercise. But what is the state of the sidewalks? Until recently, city planners and transportation experts generally neglected sidewalks outside the central business sistrict. A walk around any neighbourhood in the city usually means using sidewalks that are discontinuous and force you onto the dangerous path of vehicles. Some have holes large enough to swallow small children if they are not careful. These are especially dangerous at night.
Riding a bike, which children love, is also out of the question: cycle paths are almost always missing, or if present, an afterthought and poorly constructed. The network is very poor for a city so full of cycling potential and where about 5 per cent of citizens use bikes regularly, and many more, including children, would wish to do so.
Now, let us talk about road safety and schools. On the walk to school, a child might have to cross a very large and hectic road. Sometimes, because of poor planning, schools are right next to very busy roads and highways. We know many children have been killed or maimed walking to school.
Much focus has been on safety education in schools. This is good, but in the end children cannot possibly be expected to take responsibility for judging when to cross roads in dangerous traffic conditions. This is an adult responsibility. Yet safe design, slower speeds limits, proper zebra crossings and markings, together with a crossing guard system which are known to be effective, are in place for only a small fraction of the schools in the city.
Finally, when we look at playgrounds, the situation is even worse. Neglect is one thing, but stealing from children is another more shameful matter altogether. Nairobi faces an epidemic of school and residential playground grabbing, to the point that movements like Shule Yangu have emerged to protect these few spaces for children in the city and beyond. Slum children have even less space.
The poorest attend informal schools, which have no grounds. Most playgrounds in poor neighbourhoods have already been grabbed and built on. The Kenya Alliance of Residents’ Associations has a long list of middle-class estates in the city where play space for children has been taken, and residents are fighting back.
Whether you talk to middle-class or poor parents, then, these child-friendly public spaces where Nairobi children can mix in play are rare or missing. Developers of malls sometimes create playgrounds, but these exist mostly for the wealthy. This does not help the majority of children and reinforces social segregation. Children and the youth must be very creative in Nairobi to find and fashion play spaces. They often succeed, despite the lack of planning for them, like the rollerblading youth who take over car space in the central business districts over the weekends, or children who find safe little spaces to play soccer or ride a bike in the slums and middle-class estates.
Yet Nairobi has the potential to create the most magnificent spaces for children, youth, and adults too.
Some examples show the way. On Sundays, a walk through Uhuru Park will reveal joyful children and parents who savour this safe and beautiful park, an enduring legacy of Prof. Wangari Maathai’s hard work in protecting this — and other child-friendly spaces like Karura Forest — for the public.
Overall, then, with a few exceptions, children seem mostly missing in Nairobi’s planning. However, there are steps moving in the right direction. A number of groups like the Kenya Alliance of Residents’ Associations, Usalaama Watch, Handicap International, the Institute of Legislative Affairs, and Association for Safe International Road Travel have been generating an important conversation on children’s road safety countrywide. Along with political champions like Laisamis MP Joseph Lekuton and the National Transport and Safety Authority, they have developed a Traffic Amendment Bill to address some of the lack of proper road safety regulations for children. However, Parliament has not prioritised this. Nairobi county’s traffic marshals often help children across streets and should be congratulated for this work, but the city county could easily scale this up at little cost if it thought more about this as a priority.
Recently, the city county of Nairobi took steps to address clear neglect of sidewalks and cycling lanes. With the expertise of engineer Tom Opiyo, the city developed an excellent non-motorised transport (NMT) policy to improve sidewalk and cycling conditions, a policy that includes many of the smart safety measures from the Traffic Amendment Bill.
However, the county assembly has not yet passed the policy. The World Bank has made funds available to the county for improvements in the NMT facilities and the governor has pledged to act. Maybe children might finally be considered in planning for Nairobi, especially if citizens advocate for these changes for their children. The result would be a much better city for all.