A paradigm shift in Kenya’s City and Urban Planning

In the wake of a new year and the beginning of a new decade, the relevant authorities seemingly have an opportunity to overhaul Kenya’s city and urban planning to resolve the apparent housing crisis that has been long spoken about. A few questions probably need to be posed: First, what is the current housing situation in urban Kenya? Second, what does affordable housing entail? Is it just developing residential structures or is there more to it? Third, what is the relationship between urbanisation and other socio-economic activities? Fourth, what can we learn from other cities on how to properly address a housing crisis? And lastly, what can be done, practically, to address the issue in Kenya?

 

Housing has been a major challenge for urban planners both in developed and developing economies. Policymakers in Kenya have been aware of this and included housing as one of the issues under the social pillar of Kenya’s Vision 2030 Roadmap. The current administration has Affordable Housing as one of the pillars in the government’s strategic agenda for the years 2018 to 2022, also referred to as “The Big 4” Agenda. The question is, why has the issue of housing been recurring, and how can it be resolved with finality?

 

It is worth understanding the background to the matter. Kenya has experienced tremendous population growth in urban areas over the last 15 years. The Kenya Vision 2030 Roadmap estimates that the urban population in 2030 will make up to 60% of the total population, up from 20.4% in the year 2005. Of concern is that the population growth in urban areas has not been commensurate to the growth in affordable housing, which has led to a housing deficit, proliferation of urban informal settlements (slums), insecurity, improper waste management, and traffic congestion.

 

Despite the government’s initiatives such as the construction of affordable houses under the “Boma Yangu” initiative, a lot more needs to be done. With the provision of housing comes the need to provide other utilities such as good public schools, quality and affordable education, access to clean water, access to sewerage and other waste management systems, access to recreational facilities, and convenient public transport systems. These utilities should ideally be availed across the country as the cities grow, concurrently with the construction of affordable houses. Growing heaps of garbage in the Central Business District (CBD), insecurity in the city, traffic congestion, and poor drainage and sewerage systems are all evidence of how we have failed in urban planning. The situation is even worse in residential areas like Pipeline, Kangemi, Githurai and other highly populated areas within Nairobi as well as other cities in the country.

According to economists, land is a scarce and limited commodity. Proper measures need to be effected to ensure efficient utilisation of the limited land space. Devolution, coupled with the desire for better lives in the urban areas has led to the increases in population in urban developments located around arable areas, due to their proximity to the cities and ease of access to public services. Conversion of agricultural land to commercial use has and will continue to contribute to the significant decline in arable and productive land, therefore, posing a threat to food security and employment in agricultural ventures. The question is “Could we be taking one step in the right direction and three in the wrong direction?”

 

The government might need to consider stricter restrictions and controls that will protect arable land, thus the agricultural sector, for example demarcating and specifying areas where arable land can only be utilised for farm projects that will receive government subsidies and support systems. Failure to put in place such measures will lead to food insecurity, importation of low standard food products that pose a health risk to Kenyans, high crime rates due to a lack of sustained sources of income, and environmental degradation leading to adverse effects of climate change.

How can we learn from other jurisdictions on how to tackle the housing crises? Singapore, which was one of Kenya’s economic equals at independence in 1964, came up with one of the most unique public housing systems in the world. Whereas we may not wish to duplicate Singapore’s program, there are critical lessons Kenyan urban planners may borrow from the program. In an article by the World Bank, January 2018 “Lessons from the best public housing program in the world”, the writer highlights the fact that in 1947, 72% of the 938,000 Singaporean population lived within an 80 square kilometre radius. In 1959 when Singapore acquired its independence, only 9% of the population lived in public houses. Today, at the beginning of year 2020, an estimated 80% live in government-built apartments.

The writer summarizes the lessons to be learnt from Singapore’s affordable housing success to include: ensuring that there is access to high-quality public utilities like transport, schools and recreational facilities; need for intelligent utilisation of urban density by designing buildings to use vertical space rather than horizontal space; and lastly, integration of housing to consolidate planning and design that ensures that land assembly, construction management, and maintenance are put under one strong regulatory authority.

Resolving the apparent housing crisis in Kenya, therefore, might require the following action to be taken:

  1. Developing an integrated urban expansion strategy to avoid the encroachment of arable land or providing alternatives therein to ensure food security. Planning should incorporate factors that are critical to the housing such as the provision of clean water to households, proper sewerage and waste management systems, and provision of quality recreational and educational facilities. Any attempt to provide affordable housing in isolation of these accompaniments may end up being an effort in futility.
  2. Use more vertical designs for optimal utilisation of the limited spaces. To achieve this, we need to sensitise and equip those in the architectural and engineering sectors, to guarantee quality and safety, and thus avoid the ever-recurring collapse of high-rise residential buildings.  The government should consider providing incentives to investors and contractors involved in such developments.
  3. Empower and clean up any rot in the regulatory bodies watching over the construction industry. This will ensure that the quality of housing structures meets the required standards. Officeholders in these institutions should be equally meet high standards of integrity, to avoid potential compromise while enforcing the set construction guidelines.
  4. An understanding that the method of resolving traffic congestions does not lie solely in the number of expensive road networks that we construct, but rather in coming up with high-capacity public transport systems that are efficient, safe and convenient for coommuters. The installation of a light rail system in the metropolitan areas as well as the introduction of high capacity buses such as the long-awaited “Bus Rapid Transport” system, might just be viable solutions.
  5. An investment in civic education and as inferred by the late Professor Wangari Maathai’s Hummingbird story, everyone has a responsibility to make the world a better place. Kenyans need to understand the importance of maintaining a clean and safe environment, free from uncontrolled dumping of waste material.

In conclusion, as we mark the beginning of this new decade, there is a compelling need for radical change in the way we approach policy development. In everything we do today, there is a call for sensitivity to the future generations, when more than 70% of the population will be residing in urban cities. There is need for us to think about what we need to do today that will guarantee an affordable, high-quality standard of living for the future generations.

Peter Kinyagu is a Advisor at Andersen Tax, Kenya: peter.kinyagu@AndersenTax.co.ke

 

Andersen Tax, Kenya is a member firm of Andersen Global. Andersen Global is an international association of legally separate, independent member firms comprised of tax and legal professionals around the world. Established in 2013 by U.S. member firm Andersen Tax LLC, Andersen Global now has nearly 5,000 professionals worldwide and a presence in over 167 locations through its member firms and collaborating firms.

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