How Much Public Space should Nairobi Have for Prosperity?

Suggested road cross section by Natalie Sham

According to a the UN report “Streets as Public Spaces and Drivers of Urban Prosperity” up to 50% of a city’s area should be given to public spaces, much of which would be roads.  Cities with low levels of land allocated to streets (below 15 per cent) generally do not do well with greater population densities because there are not enough streets or intersections.  Kenya’s capital Nairobi has only 11.5 per cent land allocated to streets and is characterised by traffic jams.

In addition World Health Organization 2012 report “Health Indicators of Sustainable Cities” states that an ideal indication of a sustainable city can be measured (among other indicators) in square meters of green space per capita.  The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 9 square meters of green space per person in a sustainable city and it is acknowledged that a city at an ideal standard would have between 10-15 square meters of green space per capita. The current standard for Nairobi has less than 1 square meter per person.

The UN report says that Cities around the world that have good street connectivity, open public areas and green spaces “have a high productivity index associated with reduced traffic congestion and improved walkability through better street connectivity. In these cities the quality of life associated with health and safety is amongst the highest globally.”

artist’s impression unveiled by the Melbourne City Council

Cars not welcome: A $25.6m proposal (seen in this artist’s impression) unveiled by the Melbourne City Council proposes
dedicated bike and tram lanes, but no room for cars and taxis © HWT Image Library

Neighbourhoods (slums, suburban and upmarket) in Nairobi are poorly connected.   Facilities for the thousands of lower income workers who cannot afford private vehicles, who walk or cycle, are vastly inadequate.  Streets that urban residents use everyday are largely taken for granted often regarded as only a means to take a person from one place to another.  The proponents argue that they are much more: “A good street pattern boosts infrastructure development, enhances environmental sustainability, supports higher productivity, enriches quality of life, and promotes equity and social inclusion.”

They cite the five measures of prosperity of the City Prosperity Index (CPI) – “productivity, infrastructure development, environmental sustainability, quality of life, and equity/social inclusion are all strongly linked to the quality of the street pattern”. A good street pattern then needs to provide access to green spaces to reach the final two goals listed above.

“The findings of this report show that prosperous cities are those that recognize the relevance of public spaces (with proper layouts) and those which have allocated sufficient land to street development, including sufficient crossings along an appropriate lengthy network. Those cities that have failed to integrate the multi-functionality of streets tend to have lesser infrastructure development, lower productivity and a poorer quality of life.”

Nairobi's uban gem—City Park © cngarachu

Nairobi’s uban gem—City Park © cngarachu

If Nairobi is going to be an urban centre that is loved and admired by its residents of all ages, we need a much more comprehensive approach to street design, with a much greater emphasis put to public spaces and green space.  It is not just about providing roads but rather improving the lives of the people of Nairobi by making it possible to rest, walk, cycle and socialize. As such we must take care not to further reduce green spaces in the building on roads but find a way to design road systems that enhance and improve green spaces. 

By Catherine Ngarachu and Bettina Ng’weno

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