The following blog entry was first published as an open letter to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Roads in Kenya by Architect Eric Kigada in October 2012.
I would like to state my strong disapproval of the planned elevated highway over Uhuru Highway.
On the face of it, the elevated highway might look like a very good thing to build. Unfortunately the environmental and social impact assessment study carried out for NUTRIP did not include in the team or consult, architects and town planners. If the study team had included them, they would have told the roads ministry or at least written in their report that the elevated highway at the suggested road section is the worst possible place to build one.
I am appealing to you to reconsider building the elevated highway by considering a shift from infrastructure that enhances “automobility” to infrastructure that enhances public amenities and quality of urban living (“liveability”). Only 25% of Nairobi’s traffic is generated by personal cars. A refocusing of the infrastructure will be a reasonable and an acceptable thing to do for this particular location. As the elevated highway is right next to a park, this makes it even easier to focus on the public amenities.
In most major cities worldwide you would normally not drive straight through the city centre if you are driving from one end of the city to the other. In New York for example, to drive to New Jersey from JFK International Airport, you drive round the city and not straight through Manhattan. It is not impossible but it just takes more time. It is also not possible to drive through the city centre on a major highway in either London, Munich, Paris, Berlin, Rome etc.
In many urban situations, elevated highways become “Chinese Walls” that divide urban communities and create unpleasant and poorly kept environments. An elevated highway creates a virtual barrier which most residents below it will not cross. As a result, city planners avoid them. I have personally experienced the poorly kept environments underneath elevated highways in African cities like Cairo (6th of October Bridge), Luxor and Lagos. Our road planners must be looking at elevated highways in Dubai, China and Malaysia as examples. Unfortunately, these Asian examples do not reflect our lifestyle or way of living. The Lagos and Cairo story are a better reflection of our living culture. Using the Asian countries as yardsticks makes my heart bleed for the heart of the city which will be virtually cut off from Uhuru park. As an example of our living culture, I cite the hawkers located in the middle island of the new Thika Superhighway as something that will need to be processed out of Kenyan citizen behaviour. Policing will not stop such behaviour.
Another effect of elevated highways is that they destroy the neighbourhood or city fabric and cause a decrease in real estate values. This can be clearly witnessed in Boston where the inner core was impacted in the 1950s by a six-lane elevated highway that caused the destruction of neighbourhoods and lowered property values along its path. Please do not compare the effect of Thika Road to surrounding parcels of land to Uhuru highway. When a new highway is built, the initial impact on the land next to the highway is it appreciates in value, especially where there is “nothing” next to it. Build an elevated highway on an existing highway next to established properties and the effect is exactly the opposite. Property values drop considerably to the extent that some buildings get abandoned. Did the study team ask the Intercontinental Hotel how they feel about having guests in their swimming pool while cars whiz by on an elevated highway a few metres away? What of the Standard Chartered bank who have just moved away from the CBD to a new Headquarters in Westlands which will now be overlooking an elevated highway? Or the historical Synagogue and the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation about securing their premises now that an elevated highway will be built right next to them?
Another major problem is getting on and off the elevated highway will become unmanageable as more traffic will tend to use the “express way” than drive underneath it. Lagos is famous for such traffic jams. This has led to many cities pulling down the elevated highways. Without question, the boldest and most dramatic elevated highway removal to date has been Seoul, Korea’s Cheong Gye Cheon (CGC) project. The mayor defended the project on the grounds: “we want to make a city where people come first, not cars”.
The dilemma here is that highways are important for economic development of a metropolitan area and the surrounding regions. On the other hand the “liveability” of cities is important to attracting professional-class workers to reside in or close to the city centre. What then can be done to balance the two seemingly opposing views?
A question I ask myself is, why glorify the thoroughfare in Nairobi CBD by building an elevated highway specifically for them? My suggested solution to this issue would be to use the money allocated for the elevated highway to buy land adjoining the Southern Bypass and use it to add lanes to the bypass. There is no reason why the Southern Bypass cannot be a 8 lane highway to be used as the onward route for thoroughfare traffic. This way traffic driving through the city does not need to pass through the CBD thus reducing the amount of traffic on Uhuru Highway by a large number of slow moving trucks.
My prediction for the elevated highway is that once built 25-30 years later, after the loan taken for its construction has been repaid, the elected Nairobi County governor of the time will tear down the elevated highway in a bid to draw back people to the CBD since everyone will have moved to the new TATU and KONZA satellite cities. If Seoul is something to go by, the governor will be celebrated for doing something positive for the city. The fact is, a ground level boulevard is more appealing to the eye.
Eric Kigada is the Founder and Director at B & A Studios. An Architectural Engineer, Eric is a member of the both the Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) and the Board of Registration of Architects and Quantity Surveyors of Kenya (BORAQS).