UN-Habitat’s New Report on Sustainable Mobility: Lessons for Nairobi


Published on October 10, 2013 by Jacqueline M. Klopp

This year’s UN-Habitat Global Human Settlement Report is on a topic of much debate and interest to Nairobi’s inhabitants: Planning and Design for Sustainable Mobility. The report argues strongly for cities where crucial services are available for all. Accessibility is key. This is in contrast to the idea of mobility or simply increasing ability to move, which often tends to create a narrow focus on congestion and traffic. Accessibility captures the reality that many people would rather not be forced to move to access services and employment. By better planning that puts more important services like good schools and clinics as well as small, non polluting businesses in high density and improved neighborhoods, you can reduce the need to travel and sit in traffic. This not only saves time: with thoughtful design and planning, a focus on access can lead to cities that are more livable and safe.

Overall, the UN-Habitat report provides many ideas for solid interventions that cities and their citizens can make to move in the direction of accessibility. Part of the solution lies in integrated land-use and transport planning, a strong focus on well designed public transport systems and promotion of mixed use developments and a better distribution of services. UN-Habitat happens to be headquartered in Nairobi which very much needs this paradigm shift, and it will be critical to have a real debate and discussion in policy and civic circles about these ideas. Nairobi itself is bubbling with creative local initiatives like Nai ni Who?, the Naipolitans,  Map Kibera Map Mathare and new urban thinking among cutting edge professionals that fit with the new report and its ideas.

These more democratic and progressive ideals of the accessible city fit nicely into the aspirations of Kenya’s new constitution. Sadly, they also go against the grain of over a hundred years of urban history. For example, good quality and affordable public transportation and safe streets for people who walk has never been a key part of Nairobi’s history. Nairobi began as a kind of “apartheid”, colonial “garden city” with leafy suburbs for wealthy settlers and colonial officials and poor housing or informal settlements for Africans. The colonial elite at the time were very concerned with roads for their cars to go into the city center for work and back to their exclusive homes at the end of the day. The poor were left to walk. Function in the city was as segregated as the races were supposed to be at the time with clear administrative, business, industrial and residential areas. These planning concepts still have a grip on the city with the central business district sadly devoid of residents that might keep it lively and safe at night. Instead, many residential areas including sprawling gated suburbs for the middle and upper classes are going up without basic services like shops which then forces people into unnecessary travel.

In Nairobi’s early history, municipal politics was dominated by settler and colonial officials who also were able to access land through political connections encouraging sprawl. Public transport within Nairobi was unsurprisingly not much of a focus for the car driving colonial political class, and this is why Africans developed their own systems in the form of the matatu transit system that continues to serve as the backbone of transport for the majority (although it is often too expensive for the very poor). No one can seriously imagine that today’s Nairobi would function without the matatu system and in fact, matatu drivers and owners, much maligned and rarely appreciated, do the bulk of planning for transportation at the micro-level in the city to this day, creatively redesigning routes to meet demand and figuring out where stops for passengers need to be. The city appears to be  happy to simply extract fees from matatus at terminals rather than figure out how to improve public transportation in the city.  The responsible ministries for transport simply build roads and projects as if the matatu system does not exist which explains why Thika Highway has inadequate provision for transit stops. Further, following old patterns, the ideal of a living in a suburb and driving into work in the city center still has a grip on today’s upper classes who then find themselves fighting for space on the road with matatus who carry the bulk of people around. Yet it is the matatu not the car carrying one person that is constantly banned from the city center.

So the key question will be whether with the devolved Nairobi City County, Nairobians will be able to dismantle the outdated and colonial planning system and reshape their city and its transport system to reflect their pressing needs and a more inclusive vision? Currently, the county is engaged in a new master planning process funded by the Japanese  International Cooperation Agency. A draft report was just released and a number of public meetings have taken place in accordance with the law but little information appears to be circulating, and it is unclear whether there is a strategy for community engagement. If this new planning process connects with the push for change from below and the integrated county development planning and budgeting process required by law, it could help move Nairobi in a better direction.

However, this requires the cooperation of the national government which currently has no national urban policy. The Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, for example, should not continue to push on with large-scale transportation projects that will reshape Nairobi dramatically with few knowing about the details and design and few to no public meetings in the city and the neighborhoods impacted. How many people, for example, know about the proposed elevated highway along Uhuru Highway that is bound to have a huge impact on the city? If these kind of opaque dynamics in planning for land-use and transportation do not change, then, following its history, Nairobians will not be the master of their own planning process and their ideas and needs will not be reflected in the projects and plans that get implemented. The UN-Habitat report is thus very timely and can be very helpful- but only if it is picked up and read and  triggers more needed public conversations and policy and planning changes.