Death of Physical Planning and Beauty – Who are the Killers? by...

Death of Physical Planning and Beauty – Who are the Killers? by Aggrey Mutambo

A narrow walkway in Zimmerman

Nairobi’s Zimmerman housing estate appears beautiful and well-planned. Viewing it from Thika Road, you would see a series of competing structures, coming up by the day, as though aiming for the sun. You see no congestion, murk, or pollution. That is until you walk on its narrow, muddy streets. Buildings as high as six floors, but with no lifts, stand on what used to be a swamp.

Open sewers flow along the earth roads to empty their turbid content into nearby streams. Still, a construction boom is on and the shortage of land has made people to “rehabilitate” swamps to construct more and cash in on the demand for residential houses.

Image of Zimmerman courtesy of

Zimmerman is not considered a slum, but it is well on the way to becoming just that. In 2007, the then deputy mayor for Nairobi, Mr Ferdinand Waititu (now assistant minister for Water and Irrigation), told a forum on biodiversity in Brazil that Nairobi was grappling with the problem of parks, wetlands, and other public utility spaces being converted into unplanned or ill-planned housing with dire consequences.

Mr Waititu conceded that the city lacks “an elaborate master plan and its enforcement of laws is weak.” He was right, but nothing concrete has been done since.

Nairobi uses a rigid plan developed in 1948 by the colonialists when the population was no more than 100,000 people. In 1973, the Nairobi Urban Study Group suggested an improvement on the colonial document, suggesting strategies for physical planning and transport to reduce traffic jams and congestion.

However, due to corruption and influence peddling, it did not see the light of day. During a mayor’s summit last year, both the Local Government Ministry and the Nairobi City Council admitted, again, that zoning laws had been thrown to the dogs.

It was further claimed that the city lacks professionalism on the part of the planners. Among the housing estates most notorious for disobeying by-laws
are Kileleshwa, Umoja, Lavington, Kasarani, Roysambu, and Embakasi.

Broken sewers, insufficient water, traffic jams, and frequent fires have been the character of our major towns for some time now.

Often, poor planning is blamed whenever firefighters are unable to reaching burning or col-lapsed buildings. But is it really the only culprit, given that proper plans have been disregarded by the enforcing authorities?

Now, another threat is in the offing. The new Constitution creates 47 counties, with governments that will plan and manage local resources, including public land.

Given that all district headquarters are ill-planned and where proper plans were in place, have been ignored, it can only get worse. “Counties should not be operationalised without proper institutions put in place.

This will help avert the problems occasioned by ‘muddle through’ planning,” warns Mr Geoffrey Njoroge, the managing director of Eco Plan Kenya.

And Kenyans are paying heavily for shoddy planning and disregard for properly drawn up plans, where they exist. Just last month, a makeshift factory in Kariobangi went up in flames.

By the time firefighters arrived, at least three people had died. The toll eventually rose to 11. No department accepted blame even as questions arose on who could have authorised the conversion of a residential house into a jua kali factory.

There is the city’s planning department and inspectorate, the National Environmental Management Authority, and of course laws governing the management of factories and health. But who, ultimately, is responsible for the mess?

The Kenya Institute of Planners admits that it has failed in regulating its members. According to its chairman, Prof Johnstone Kiamba, politicians take advantage of this weakness to ensure that the institute’s suggestions are not implemented.

“Some professionals find it more tempting to go for short-term gains,” says Prof Kiamba. Under section 29 of the Physical Planning Act, local authorities have the powers to approve or reject any development proposals for physical structures within their areas of jurisdiction.

The Kenya Alliance of Residence Associations (KARA) adds that somebody in City Hall should have been arraigned in court to answer charges of negligence.

“In other countries, the city clerk should have been in court to explain what happened,” says Mr Stephen Mutoro, KARA chief executive officer.

Yet this is not the first time we have had such calamities. This year alone, the National Disaster Operation Centre reports that about 5,000 households have been consumed in 110 fires.

According to the Kenya Red Cross Society, most of the fires were in urban areas, especially Nairobi. In April, a fire gutted a huge chunk of Mukuru slums.

It was later realised (not for the first time) that the narrow and sometimes blocked roads in the area mean its interior cannot be reached by fire engines.

The G4S director, Mr Clive Lee, noted that the number of government officials dealing with fires or disasters often complicate rescue efforts.

“Access to these areas (slums) was pretty much limited and even after we could, there was no coordination on the part of the government,” he said.

The blame game could go on and on, but it still gets back to the issue of planning and the absence or presence of a civic culture.

According to Mr Mutoro, Kenya does not need new laws to curb this deficiency; it just needs a society that will obey what the available laws and genuine planners say.

“We don’t need a new piece of legislation, what we need is to remove politicians from planning departments,” he says. The city’s department of physical planning scores low, according to KARA.

And so do the planners themselves. “The informal sprawl in our town centres is not as a result of poor planning, it is as result of a combination of factors,” adds Mr Njoroge.

These include dirty politics and corruption. In Kenya, physical planners are regulated by the Kenya Institute of Planners. Formed in 1999, one of its objectives is “to promote transparency and the acceptance of accountability to the profession, clients, and the society for actions and quality of work.”

But KARA observes that this role might never be properly played if wealthy, corrupt, and powerful politicians continue to influence plans.

“Politicians are like quacks and the faster the institute rids itself of their influence, the better because this will make their self-regulation a reality.”

Although most of Kenya’s big towns already have their physical development plans, none of them has religiously followed them.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a US agency that tabulates historical facts about towns, shows that there is no urban centre in Kenya that was carefully planned from inception.

All started as ad hoc centres. Worse still, even those that drew up plans never follow them. “We need to come up with authorities to oversee how our county headquarters will be planned. In fact, planning should be the key issue to focus on before anything else,” says Prof Kiamba.

The new Constitution, under article 184, provides for the creation of laws that will guide the management of urban areas. It also provides for citizens’
participation in all the plans of an urban area management team.

But will the corrupt and the powerful allow this? Kenya’s urban organisation has often been at the mercy of political influence.

As Judith Innes and David Booher write in Public Participation in Planning: New Strategies for the 21st Century, the “people we often call planners are often agencies or a person — often an agency head or elected official rather than a trained planner, even though some professional planners operate in this mode.”

Hence Kenyan planners have become typical “fixers” for politicians

Source: Daily Nation


  1. Helpful article, thanks. However, until qualified individuals are appointed to the ministry of planning and development, I don’t really know if anything is going to get done. Nothing wrong with a college degree; it just seems to me that ministers with backgrounds in finance and communication can only do so much in positions that require urban planning and design experience.

    UON graduates from the architecture and planning – where are you? Nairobi needs your help!

  2. Its the high time planners stop serving what ever political master come along. We planners should always advocate for the community interest no matter how they conflict with those of politicians.

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