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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Is orderly urban growth possible?

Nothing is more certain and regular as change. It may tarry but it certainly will come to pass. Everything, everywhere is changing Look at you, look around you – your neighborhood and community; the country; Africa and the world. The only safe bet is on change.

We live in the epoch of great acceleration. What this implies is that in our time the pace of change has been greatly enhanced. Technology, human population, climate, urbanization, inequality are a few examples that might give you a sense of the sweep of change.

But the change that is on my mind is the pace at which human settlement is changing. Today Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing landmass on the planet. By 2025, Africa’s urban population will outstrip that of South America and Europe combined. In Kenya, the rate of urbanization outpaces the rate of annual population growth by 60 percent. This is simply breathtaking.

There are two sides to the urbanization saga. The first is the unprecedented growth and messy sprawl associated with existing urban areas such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru. The second is the haphazard eruption of small towns and market centres such as Kitengela, Rongai, Ahero, Luanda, Lessos, Mulot and Keroka.

That Kenya’s urban settlements are in a state of chaos is an understatement. In the cities and big towns we are confronted with intense squalor and poverty in informal settlements. A majority of children born in urban settlements live in insanitary neighborhoods, lack access to safe places to grow and play. Downtown Nairobi is drowning in garbage. Less than 10 percent of the residents in Kenya’s large urban settlements have access to running water on a regular basis.

Today, Kenya’s large metropolises like Nairobi are choked by slums and enfeebled by unplanned urban sprawl. Blinded by the grandeur of highways, we left behind common sense land use planning and refused to be persuaded that investment in public transit was critical to efficient mobility in large urban areas. Moreover, for some inexplicable reason policymakers are convinced that a social housing has no place in our society. Instead we believe that squalid unsafe housing by crooked private developers, which collapse every so often, is good enough.

Small towns and market centres are growing in a chaotic way. There is absolutely no planning. Residential and commercial buildings erupt randomly, without thoughtful consideration of enabling infrastructure and amenities, such as roads, street lighting, schools, hospitals and recreational spaces. Kenya’s small towns and markets are domains of unbridled private entrepreneurs, unbound by planning or building regulations. 

Urbanization is unstoppable, especially because about 80 percent of our population is aged below 35 years, relatively well educated and not enamored by rural life on a farm. Hence, we should accept that urban settlements large, medium and small are going to get very much larger in the decades to come. 

But urbanization, even though rapid and unprecedented must be orderly. We can manage urban growth and deliver equitable prosperity for all “cityzens”.

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