Published by Alex O. Awiti in Advancing Global Sustainability
William Henry Ogilvie, the Scottish-Australian poet, wrote “These are the men with sun-tanned faces and keen far-sighted eyes, the men of the open spaces”. Open outdoor spaces are innately liberating, bequeathing to us the privilege of reflection and introspection.
By most accounts we will end this century as homo urbanus – wholly urban creatures. This demographic transition will see millions give up the vast airy purity of open spaces of the countryside for cloistered, stifling existence in the city – the concrete jungle of hard tarred roads, stone, glass, steel, parking lots, automobiles traffic congestion and polluted air.
There is a large and growing body of evidence in ecology and psychology, which demonstrates an inherent human desire to connect with nature. The term “biophilia” was used by social psychologist Erich S. Fromm to describe a psychological attraction to things living things. In his book Biophilia, acclaimed biologist E.O. Wilson suggests that human beings subconsciously seek connections with the rest of life.
In his book, The Voice of the Earth, Theodore Roszak coined the word ecopsychology. Ecopsychology suggests that a synergistic relationship exists between planetary and human well-being. Wilson argued that people deprived of contact with nature suffer psychologically, causing measurable decline in human well-being.
Studies have linked the lack of windows with high rates of anxiety, depression and delirium among inpatients. Similarly, a study of patient recovery in a Pennsylvania hospital showed that patients whose rooms overlooked the parking lot recovered from illness more slowly compared to those whose rooms overlooked gardens with flowers and trees. The deep affiliations humans have with nature could be rooted in our biology.
Suppression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society. A study published last year in the journal Nature showed that mood and anxiety disorders are more prevalent among city dwellers. Other studies have shown that schizophrenia incidence is about doubled in people born and raised in cities, with evidence of a dose response relationship that points to causation.
A personal car enables efficient mobility in low-density urban or rural settings. But if you live in Nairobi, use of a personal mostly delivers immobility, not mobility. City driving has a price too. In a survey of adult drivers in twenty major world cities by IBM, 30% of the respondents reported stress from traffic congestion, 27% reported increased anger and 29% reported that traffic congestion impaired their performance at work or school. Other studies have traced the direct physiological effect of traffic congestion in raising blood pressure and release of stress hormones.
Nairobi has an overbearing physical imprint of the automobile. A disproportionate area of Nairobi is dedicated to highways, roads, streets, parking lots, service stations, vehicle oriented business and second-hand car dealerships. Pedestrian paths are rapid transit corridors for Matatu. Open public spaces are expansion frontiers for corrupt public officials and their acolytes.
Nairobi city is also a victim of engineering bias, focusing on one problem at a time. If the problem is traffic congestion, the solution is to build more highways. If you take a systems view and think of the street as serving multiple functions, like walking, biking, recreation and habitat the solution space will not be limited to ungainly concrete-walled road overpasses.
To reclaim the city of Nairobi for people the following investments are imperative: make public transportation the centerpiece of urban mobility; make highways, and streets pedestrian and bicycle friendly; and, convert 40% of parking spaces into green public spaces. Such investments would reduce carbon emissions, eliminate health-damaging pollution, incorporate exercise into daily routines and lower the risk of mental and lifestyle illnesses.
Kenya could learn from best practice elsewhere. In his tenure as mayor of Colombia’s city of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa created or rehabilitated 1,200 parks, built hundreds of kilometers of bicycle paths, introduced a bus rapid transit system and reduced rush-hour traffic by 40%. Mayor Penalosa involved local urban communities in greening their neighborhoods by planting 100,000 trees.
In 2007 Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled PlaNYC, an audacious plan to expand New York’s urban forests and ensure that all New Yorkers live within a 10-meter walk of a park. In 2001, Mayor Bertrand Delanoe was handed Europe’s worst traffic congestion and air quality – Paris. Mayor Bertrand pledged to cut traffic by 40 % by 2020. He invested high quality public transit for Parisians by providing transit in outlying regions, reducing number of lanes for cars and creating express lanes for buses and bicycles.
Kenya’s future is inextricably linked to urban growth. The future growth and expansion of our towns must focus on designing urban infrastructure for more people, not for more cars. We must therefore make the creation of an equitable and healthy urban environment, which is built to a human scale, a top policy priority.
Dr. Alex O. Awiti is an Ecosystems Ecologist based at the Aga Khan University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences (East Africa). Awiti is leading the development of one of the most innovative and integrated undergraduate science curriculum in Africa. Awiti is also a board member of the Resilience Alliance. Dr. Awiti is also a founder and director of Confluence Foundation, a not-for-profit that provides tuition aid to and mentorship to talented but economically disadvantaged young Kenyans. Born in Kisumu, Western Kenya, Awiti received his PhD degree in Ecosystems Ecology at the University of Nairobi.