Wishing Nairobi were more like the affluent cities of the world is good and expected. However, I would urge caution when dealing with best practice vignettes and success stories . The major lesson from examples such as Mr. Penalosa of Bogota and Mr. Bloomberg of New York, is that people-friendly projects are, by nature, inclusive. They flow from a political decision to invest in all urban residents, rich and poor alike, and not from urban envy, or a mere desire to imitate more affluent cities.
Many cities we may seek to emulate have long taken care of both the physical fundamentals, including firefighting, building safety and sewerage, and the political fundamentals, including finances, fair electoral representation of urban residents and executive powers of elected officials. If these things are not in place, then Bloomberg-type inspirational leadership becomes almost impossible to achieve.
Nairobi, viewed through this lens has a wonderful opportunity, through the election of a governor with executive powers and some presumably predictable financing, to effect change. Making this city more liveable and people-friendly involves, first, including the less fortunate in improvements of fire safety, living conditions, transportation, education and wherever else the city has a mandate, and second, increasing public participation and transparency in governance.
We should ensure adequate firefighting for the whole city, because we believe that Eastlands matters as much as Westlands, that safety from fire in 2012 should not depend on our ability to afford G4S. Our firefighting mess is a shame and this city’s business potential, much of which lies east of Tom Mboya Street, shall continue to smoulder until fire is effectively controlled.
Whereas the loudest complaints about our traffic jams typically come from drivers and and matatu users, 47% of this city’s commuters walk to work. In addition to buses and trains, an adequate public transportation system should specifically target this group with safe bicycle paths closed to cars, throughout the city, because they also matter. Similarly, we should provide parks in Kayole, South B, Embakasi and elsewhere not just because New York is providing parks, but because we do, or ought to recognize, that every Nairobian is deserving of green space, yet hardly any can routinely access Karurua Forest, the Nairobi Aboretum or Uhuru Park, which looks rather dry at the moment.
Creating people-friendly cities also goes beyond revitalizing town centres to attract creatives a la Richard Florida, whose name is rarely mentioned in Kenyan newspapers, but whose creative class theory is writ large in planned developments such as Tatu City and Konza. To invest tax shillings in the less fortunate represents significant government spending, and so a leader is required who believes that all Nairobians are worthy of investments in basic livability and can make a case for such spending in the face of more fiscally conservative opposition. Such a leader should also be willing to take on those who profit from our shortcomings in public infrastructure in defence of the public interest.
Transparent governance, the other requirement of a liveable city, does not just involve public participation as set out in the Cities and Urban Areas Act of 2011, but also the right to observe local government as it executes substantive business. In Nairobi, the public is not allowed to witness municipal decision-making around development control, zoning and other otherwise public decisions. If Parliament allows the public to observe debate and motions, if the courts allow the public to observe acquittals and convictions, then city hall should allow the public to observe zoning, development, and other approvals. The effective Official Plan and Zoning By-law, which currently decide how land should be used in Nairobi, ought to be on the website of the Nairobi City Council today.
A city that values all its residents, cares for the most vulnerable, and is not afraid to transact business in the public eye is far more likely to be people-friendly. We must learn this lesson if we are to successfully emulate Enrique Penalosa and Michael Bloomberg. Merely wanting a better city won’t get us there.