(The writer is an Urban Planner)
Within a period of 20 days, six innocent Kenyans lost their precious lives in two of Nairobi’s high density residential zones when two separately located but almost structurally similar buildings in Makongeni and Huruma caved in. I emphasize the density because; existing city planning guidelines categorize Nairobi into zones and; on very rear occasions do we hear buildings collapse in low density up market residential zones of the city. It should be noted that such high density zones are usually characterized by densely occupied multi-story structures as opposed to the high income low density residential zones of the city. In addition to the six deaths, several people were either missing or were suffering serious injuries caused by the heavy concrete debris emanating from the poorly constructed buildings that had hitherto been home to not only the deceased but also to hundreds of city residents. Similar collapses have occurred in the past in areas such as Mathare, Pipeline and Thika road and once in Langata. It is imperative to note that due to the relatively high densities, and in order to accommodate the bulging workforce, the city’s eastland conurbation has continuously attracted rent hungry landlords who hurriedly combine brick and mortar in a desperate move to spend less cash but earn quick rent in return. This they do in absolute disregard to the laid down urban planning standards. Unfortunately, the hurriedly done brick and mortar never holds. It kills instead. Safety and security of city residents is at stake.
Collapse of buildings has become frequent and may soon become routine in our urban areas, thanks to the lackluster enforcement of our existing urban planning standards by responsible authorities. This is why each county government must take up their planning roles seriously as outlined in Urban Areas and Cities Act (2011) and the County Governments Act (2012) by effectively implementing the planning function. In Kiambu County, for example, two buildings collapsed between October 2009 and January 2010 and two more collapsed in 2014 leading to loss of lives and property. Counties such as Vihiga have not been spared either with buildings collapsing within the small Vihiga CBD. With this kind of a pattern, national safety and security is at stake if urban planning is not prioritized especially in this era of devolution. A critical assessment of the past indicates that inadequate enforcement of urban planning regulations and standards has impacted on safety and security of citizens in different parts of the country and unless drastic non knee-jerk reactions are prescribed, then such disasters will continue claiming lives until the return of Jesus Christ the Messiah. In fact disaster is waiting to happen, as long as existing physical planning standards are not properly enforced by responsible authorities.
In several instances, fire outbreaks have consumed markets and residential property leading to loss of lives, property worth millions of shillings and livelihoods. Gikomba, Toi and Ngara open air market stalls have been razed not once or twice. Mathare and Sinai informal settlements paid heavily in the past. But in response to such tragedies, authorities have always offered the usual knee-jerk reactions; donating food, blankets and money to victims of fire tragedies and issuing stern warnings to responsible personnel. They have never proceeded even an inch to address the root causes of such recurrent inferno. The real causes which are factors of urban planning such as narrow access roads that hinder effective movement of both human and vehicular traffic, congestion in markets due to rapid urbanization rates, encroachment and illegal occupation of road reserves, illegal construction below high voltage electricity transmission cables or even complete barricading of access lanes should be the action areas failure of which recurrent insecurity and lack of public safety becomes the norm. Towards the end of 2014, heavy earth moving equipment was deployed along Kangundo road to clear off private multi-storey residential and commercial developments that had been erected squarely on electricity way leave directly under high voltage power lines. The buildings were occupied by hundreds of living souls. Interestingly, the developers protested despite the fact that the buildings were illegally located. This shows lack of commitment to enforcement of urban planning laws both by the authorities and civilians. It is only through such demolitions that authorities can ensure safety and security of civilians.
During rainy seasons, low laying areas of the country including urban areas have faced massive flooding caused by poor drainage channels on road reserves. Large volumes of waste water or surface runoff drain into streams or rivers causing rise in river/stream volumes hence bursting banks. Narok town having been a perennial victim may want to develop an urban resilience and post disaster response mechanism in addition to exploring sustainable and readily available solutions such enhancing waste water drainage on roads and pavements through proper designing of road cambers and side drains and permanent evacuation of potential flood victims from flood prone areas and resettlement of the same to higher grounds. In fact a geographical information systems (GIS) generated database of all flood zones either within a county or nationwide can be established through effective mapping by respective county governments for proper flood control.
As I conclude, I must note that several expert-led discourses in which urbanization challenges have been extensively discussed have yielded to the fact that safety in urban areas is becoming an integral part of urban management and there is need to build safer cities. In this regard, urban planners must be involved in the preparation of safety and security plans either at national or county levels since physical planning contributes a lot to safety and security.
But urban planning as a tool for safety and security has also been applied in refugee settlements. The new Security Laws (Amendments) Act (2014) should not bother capping the number of refugees to 150,000 as a way of curbing insecurity. Instead authorities should enforce planning of refugee camps as a means to achieving national security and safety, irrespective of refugee population. I recall in 2012, when I (together with a team of surveyors and engineers) was involved in one of the most laborious professional call of my lifetime; planning of the existing and proposed extension of the Dadaab refugee settlements under the United Nations Refugee Agency. Originally planned and designed between October 1991 and June 1992 to accommodate some 90,000 refugees, the settlements were by 2012 nearly succumbing to population pressure exerted by the nearly 500,000 refugees, a third of this population having left Somalia in 2011 in the face of crippling conditions of drought, famine, and violence. By any definition, including parameters in the Urban Areas and Cities Act (UACA 2011) the refugee camps, with the bulging population, would qualify to be a “City”. Yet insecurity continued to scale up with the increasing population.
The real task lay squarely on our face; accommodating the sprawling population in limited land cover, providing access to basic sanitation and infrastructure services and ensuring safety and security of the refugees and the neighbouring host community. This is where actual landuse planning met “eye to eye” with security threats. Key principles of sustainable landuse planning had to be applied; accessibility, visibility, landuse compatibility, landuse complementarity, connectivity, environmental sustainability and safety were integrated into the landuse preparation process. The kidnapping of three aid workers, the killing of two refugee leaders and several Kenyan policemen as well as threats against humanitarian staff forced UNHCR and its partners to rethink the way that aid would be delivered. Infrastructure planning was one of those ways. Security installations had to be planned in each camp as a way to reinforce police presence in camps hence reducing operations by criminal elements. Further, we had to ensure that location of religious structures such as mosques, madrasa’s and duksis was as compatible to other landuses as possible to minimize unnecessary tension and conflicts among refugees. There existed instances when madrasa and duksi activities encroached into land reserved for primary schools thereby creating tension between informal and formal education stakeholders in the camps. We had to regularize the camp landuse plan in order to make spatial provisions for additional religious facilities in the old camps while the new camps had specific areas zoned for such religious facilities as a way of accommodating community needs while avoiding conflict. Plot sizes and measurements were defined and each community engaged in enforcement of camp planning & safety standards through select planning committees.
At the same time, we had to design and implement visibility of landuses as a way of enhancing accessibility, connectivity, form and pattern as well as reducing land grabbing and conflicts relating to land tenure especially on communal open spaces. Each residential community was appropriately addressed for ease of identification and reference. Land was specifically demarcated for sanitation, water, education, roads, environment and communal infrastructure. Depletion of green belts and opens spaces that acted as boundaries between adjacent landuses often led to spontaneous fights between refugee and host community. Human-wildlife conflicts were more pronounced whenever the limited but rich forest cover and greenbelts were dilapidated by pastoral and firewood harvesting activities. In order to reduce such environmentally-generated conflicts, we established protected green belts in line with the principle environmental sustainability. Site planning was a tool in ensuring the camp population is secured against floods. Designing of dykes and storm water drainage channels were incorporated into camp land use planning and road infrastructure design.
At the end of the day, and as part of the rapid response assistance for new arrivals, we managed to provide settlements services for some 150,000 refugees in the newly planned Ifo extension (today’s Ifo 2 East and West) as well as Kambi-Oos refugee settlements while containing the existing populations in Hagadera, Ifo 1 and Dagahaley refugee settlements while at the same time managing safety interests of the host community population through adequate land use planning.
In summary, we can enhance safety and security for our towns, cities and rural settlements by ensuring proper land use planning and enforcement of urban planning standards and regulations.