Cities evolve organically and over time; they can’t be built overnight

Published on 15 April 2012 in The Daily Nation by Rasna Warah

What came first, the city or its inhabitants? Urbanists will tell you that cities were built after people decided to settle there. In other words, people came first, cities followed.

Most cities began as small settlements that grew over time. Some of the world’s largest cities started off as fishing villages or small ports, and then grew as their economies started linking to regional and international trade.

Coastal and riverside cities such as London, Lagos, Mumbai, New York, Mombasa and Beijing served, and continue to serve, an important trade function. But they were not built from scratch; they evolved over centuries.

And as these cities grew, urban planners designed them so they could accommodate the expanding needs of present and future generations. Those that had visionary leadership were managed better.

Of course, not all these cities were the gleaming modern cities that they have now become. Many, including London and New York, became sites of slums and squalor, particularly with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

But the wealth generated by the cities, and concerns about health hazards posed by the slums, forced governments to address urban poverty and exclusion. Those cities that handled inequalities better prospered; those that didn’t became uninhabitable.

There are, of course, exceptions to the general rule that cities are built after inhabitants have settled on the site. China, for instance, has in recent years being building several cities from scratch, and quite successfully.

Some have been declared Special Economic Zones, which has led to phenomenal growth in cities such as Shenzhen.

Kenya’s Vision 2030 team certainly thinks so. Both the Konza and Tatu city projects that the government is promoting are based on the assumption that once a city’s infrastructure is built, people will automatically flock to it, especially if it offers economic opportunities.

Hence, these cities, while linked to the capital, will be managed and governed privately and autonomously, much like a giant apartment complex.

Similarly in India, the government is experimenting with satellite cities growing around major commercial hubs such as Mumbai and New Delhi.

The problem is that while these new satellite cities attract jobs and investments, the main cities suffer neglect. So you have paradoxical urban growth patterns whereby one sees shining, well-planned new cities mushrooming around dilapidated, poverty-stricken cores.

Many of these new cities are designed to be slum- and dirt-free. The downside is that because they were created deliberately and with the intention to attract a certain group or type of people, they lose out on the very essence of what makes cities so attractive — diversity.

I can’t really predict the future of Konza and Tatu. It is possible they will be held up as Kenyan urban success stories. But it is also possible their homogeneity will make them boring places to live in.

Also, because they are being marketed as exclusive cities meant for the upwardly mobile and the aspirational, they may create resentment among Nairobi’s inhabitants, a large majority of whom lack the most basic of services.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-development or anti-cities. I love cities and have spent close to two decades studying and writing about them. I believe they are the engines of economic development and the centres of creativity and innovation.

Study upon study has shown a clear correlation between urbanisation and human development. No predominantly rural country has achieved middle- or high-income status.

My desire is to see Kenya’s urbanisation develop in a more holistic and inclusive fashion. The reason Mombasa feels more like a “natural” city than Nairobi, for instance, is because it grew naturally around the port and has residents whose families have lived there for centuries.

In Nairobi, as my Ugandan friend Kalundi Serumaga noted recently, residents feel like foreigners in their own city, partly because the majority of Nairobians originally came from elsewhere, and claim loyalty to that other place, not Nairobi.

Will residents of Tatu and Konza feel the same way? Very likely.

2 thoughts on “Cities evolve organically and over time; they can’t be built overnight

  1. Konza City and the technology park in particular, is being aggressively advertised to attract international investors. On the official website the park is labeled “BPO” (Business Process Outsourcing), signalling Konza City’s plan to play host to companies that would like to outsource aspects of their business — a plan that has proven to be very lucrative for India. International brands such as Apple, RIM, Microsoft, Toshiba and HP appear in renderings of the proposed tech city.

    Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Information hopes that Konza City will be attractive to international companies who would like to have a presence in Kenya, but cannot find suitable properties in downtown Nairobi.

    Konza City was scheduled to break ground in 2011, but due to low funding from the government and little interest from private investors, breaking ground was delayed to April of this year. The Ministry of Information is currently seeking a master developer partner, for an initial six-month advisory assignment to produce an implementation plan that will drive the five year, first phase of the four phase project. It’s very likely that another year will pass before the first buildings go up.

    There’s a lot of debate around the topic of whether or not the project will succeed, but it seems simple to me. Can Kenya organically grow to become the tech leader it strives to be, without Konza City? Konza City is a beautiful vision, but I believe Kenya can thrive and become the technology leader it envisions, without the multi-billion dollar project.

    Martin Carstens
    28 March 2012

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