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We should make Nairobi a pedestrian-friendly city

Wednesday December 26 2018

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Walkability is a favourite term for city planners whose primary interest are human beings, not cars. Once again the governor of Nairobi pulled a stunt on the city commuters and banned matatus into the city for just one miserable day and the following day it was business as usual.

The problem is not banning or bringing order into the city, it is knee-jerk reactions to a situation that clearly has been out of control for the city fathers for a while. It is also problematic to plan a city like Nairobi, without putting people at the centre, but rather, basing decisions on populism which serves no purpose at all outside an election year.

Contrary to what has been happening in Kenya, once cities reach their optimum operational capabilities – in terms of infrastructure – decisions should be made to accommodate more human needs and less vehicular access.

Many cities in the world have historic or shopping districts which are vehicle-free and extremely human friendly. Only emergency response vehicles such as ambulances, police cars and fire engines are allowed into such areas. Anyone else who wants to go to those areas has to walk. Yes, including politicians.

The city of Nairobi has for example a rather nice quadrangle that could be declared a pedestrian safety and walkability area as a pilot test. The area between the old Provincial Administrative headquarters, (now known as the Nairobi Gallery) next to Nyayo House all the way to Parliament Building along Harambee Avenue, to Aga Khan Walk, enclosing the law courts, City Hall, and the now eye sore Holy Family Basilica. Rome was not build in a day and any good idea is worth pursuing.


Such spaces in the city have many benefits for city dwellers. First, they are good for the environment and are usually more attractive than areas accessible to traffic which are noisy, polluted and congested with both human and vehicle traffic. They are also safe, secure and enjoyable to be in. They allow a thriving urban population with cafes, restaurants, meeting places and even creation of city art spaces. All these add value to a city and would definitely be an impressive list to add to Nairobi’s ‘only city with a national park’ tag line.

Some may argue that all the above is about aesthetics and values that are economically unworkable. But walkable cities are also ideal for touristic city tours, in which walkways are given priority in a decisive move to make them more public-oriented. In Nairobi for example, city visitors would have easy access to the Nairobi Gallery, Parliament Buildings, the mausoleum of the founding father Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, etc. This in itself can generate a host of value adding services for small and medium enterprises, creating employment and economic prosperity. This would include food trucks and city tour hop-on, hop-off buses.

City planners have argued that walkable streets encourage business activity and accrue higher tax revenues than auto-focused streets. They also have a much higher return on public investments. The cost of creating sidewalks is much less than that of creating dual carriage roads and multiple lane highways. Traffic police would be greatly reduced and so would be lights at intersections. All this would save valuable time for city dwellers and as they say time is money as it is a non-renewable resource. It would also allow for the paving to be mixed with trees and other green enhancements that are people friendly and cost effective.

Walkability is not a concept that is restricted to the capital city. Mombasa Old Town, which is a Unesco World Heritage site, ought to be a vehicle-free urban space. This would create enjoyment of the 18th century town and its rich architectural buildings with curved doors and balconies and old buildings put up with the traditional technology of coral stone. The beauty of such a town is meant to be enjoyed as historical spaces without the encumbrances of high motor traffic.

The ideas of making a city human friendly has little to do with the class arguments that seem to dominate the debate. If vehicles are being banned from the city, it is not a question of whom they belong to or what purpose they serve. It is a deliberate effort to make cities human oriented.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa