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Case Study: Urbanisation In Nairobi

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 3504 words Published: 9th May 2017

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With an ever-growing global population have come changes in the way that cities emerge and develop, with urbanization being one of the most prominent. While only 10% of the world’s population lived in cities in 1900, this percentage has now ballooned to over 50% (Benton-Short & Short, 2008, p. 66). During this period of urbanization, trends characterizing urbanizing cities have developed, each posing their own unique challenges for urban planners. These trends include: the emergence of predominant age groups, variations in the size and distribution of cities, environmental degradation, the introduction of institutional changes and participatory planning, and changes due to poor economic conditions.

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A city is largely defined by its residents. While developed and transitional countries are characterized by aging populations, it is estimated that 60% of residents in urban areas of developing countries will be under the age of 18 by the year 2030 (United Nations Human Settlements Programme [UN-Habitat], 2009, p. 10). These countries will also see their young urban populations grow by 50% within the next 40 years (ibid, p. 10). A country defined by older citizens and a declining or negative growth rate has different priorities and needs than a rapidly growing country with a young populace. These distinctions create different challenges for urban planners. Urban planners of developed and transitional countries are faced with the problem of renewing cities now in their deindustrialization phase. They have to transform areas and structures that have been abandoned by redeveloping waterfronts and brownfields, supported by programs such as the Brownfields Initiative in the United States, so that these areas can contribute to the future growth of the city (Benton-Short & Short, 2008, p. 83). They also need to consider how current health systems and facilities for the elderly population can be updated and expanded to accommodate the aging baby boom population. Urban planners in the global south, however, are tasked with developing infrastructures to supply rapidly growing populations with housing, water, and sanitation. Systems need to be developed that will support the surge in young residents, providing facilities and programs that will serve this age group as they begin to shape the future of the city. The emergence of predominant age groups challenges planners to consider the specific needs of that age group.

As cities grow in population, they also tend to grow in physical size and expand outwards. This expansion is apparent as the majority of the world’s urban population lives in cities and towns of less than 500,000 people rather than in megacities, which are home to populations of at least 10 million (Benton-Short & Short, 2008, p. 73; UN-Habitat, 2009, p. 11). In developed countries like Canada and the United States, this growth has manifested itself in the form of sprawl, creating suburbs that are “made up of homogeneous segregated uses: housing subdivisions, shopping centers, office/business parks, large civic institutions, and roadways heavily dependant on collector roads” (Randolph, 2004, p. 37). These suburbs are auto-centric, characterized by their residents’ tendency to travel by personal vehicle. Planners must consider how to guide a city’s growth and maintain its sustainability in the midst of the air pollution and high energy consumption associated with automobiles. Unlike these developed countries, Hostovsky (2010b) notes that growth in the developing world has manifested itself as over-urbanization rather than sprawl (p. 19). Huge populations form cities in these countries, which are then surrounded by informal housing areas known as “shantytowns” or “slums.” Since shantytowns are considered illegal, there is often no government support to provide the infrastructure necessary for adequate water supply, sanitation, electricity, trash collection, etc. (Benton-Short & Short, 2008, p. 90). Planners are challenged to consider how to approach these underserved communities as previous attempts to formalize these areas have resulted in further deterioration in quality of life (UN-Habitat, 2009, p. 12). Urban planners must consider how sprawl and over-urbanization affect the countries in which they occur, and ensure that infrastructures reach the necessary distances and serve the huge numbers of underprivileged citizens that they need to.

There is also an alarming trend of environmental degradation and an increasing frequency of natural disasters. Climate change is soon expected to affect the world’s ability to access water, produce food, and maintain healthy populations (ibid, p. 2). Exacerbating this issue of climate change is the proliferation of suburbs and industries that rely on oil as an energy source, leading to significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions (ibid, p. 3). The climate change issue is one that all countries must consider, be they developed, transitional, or developing. Countries are faced with the challenge of supplying their populations with access to food and water in an environment that will no longer be able to sustain such large populations and rapid growth. If the entire globe were to live at the same standards as North Americans, two additional planets would be required to accommodate the increase in ecological load (Hostovsky, 2010a, p. 35). In addition to the degradation of the natural environment, has come an increase in the frequency of natural disasters. The global rate of occurrence has increased fourfold since 1975, with a threefold increase in Africa in the past 10 years (UN-Habitat, 2009, p. 14). Of particular concern is the fact that disasters have the greatest impact on the poorest of the poor. Of the 270 million people affected by disasters in 2002, 98% of those people were residents of low-income countries (Benton-Short & Short, 2008, p. 125). This can be charged to the fact that these low-income countries simply do not have the financial capability to implement disaster preparedness programs like developed countries. Planners will need to use innovative ways to build infrastructures that will be able to withstand these natural disasters and mitigate the economic and human life losses that ensue. By mitigating climate change and planning for natural disasters, urban planners have a significant role in ensuring that the expected population growth is sustainable with one planet.

The trends of urbanizing cities are occurring not only amidst changes in the natural environment, but also changes in the political environment. Governments are no longer in the same form as when these cities were first founded. Citizens are demanding participatory approach to planning, no longer willing to merely accept the planning decisions of their leaders (UN-Habitat, 2009, p. 3). Planners will need to recognize that public consultations will partially guide their work and that their work will only be effective in a political environment that is stable (ibid, p. 3).

All of the trends discussed above exist in an economic context, one that has changed significantly over the past century. Economies of the world have become integrated through the process of economic globalization. As a result of this globalization, all countries are feeling the effects of the current recession. This recession is expected to decrease the amount of funding available for urban development projects, increase unemployment rates, and exacerbate current poverty levels (ibid, p. 12). All countries, regardless of whether they are developed, transitional, or developing, will have to face these financial issues. Planners will be faced with the challenge of developing sustainable urban centres with limited budgets.

With the trends associated with urbanizing cities (the emergence of predominant age groups, variations in the size and distribution of cities, environmental degradation, the introduction of institutional changes and participatory planning, and changes due to poor economic conditions) come unique challenges for urban planners to ensure that this rapid urbanization is successful and sustainable.

Part 2 – A Global City: Nairobi, Kenya


Located in eastern Africa, Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya (see Figure 1). With 3 million residents, the city’s population is growing at a rate of 3.8% per year (Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2007). The majority of the residents are between 15-64 years of age, with a median age of 18.7 (Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], 2010).

Nairobi was founded in 1902 by the British colonial government and informal housing has been developing there ever since (Warah, 2001, p. 1). The colonial government believed that Africans did not need, nor deserve, accommodation as they were the source of disease (Republic of Kenya, 2005, p. 4). Strict regulations and planning laws restricted the Africans’ access to urban land in order to isolate them from the Europeans and as a result, informal housing began being built on the perimeter of the cities (ibid, p. 4). These areas were soon destroyed and the residents were forced to return to rural areas. When Kenya achieved independence in 1963, new legislation was introduced that provided subsidized housing, but these subsidies favoured middle and upper income groups even though 70% of the demand for this housing came from the poor (ibid, p. 4). In the 1970s to early 1980s, the government provided minimal services to the slum communities, but when Structural Adjustment Programmes were introduced in 1986, the government no longer provided subsidies, causing life in the shantytowns to further deteriorate (Warah, 2001, p. 2). In the past, there have been attempts to upgrade these shantytowns but “lack of affordability, high standards for infrastructure, land tenure complication, misallocation and administrative inefficiency” have caused mixed results (Republic of Kenya, 2005, p. 5). The Republic of Kenya and United Nations came together in 2000 to develop the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP) which is in the process of implemented (ibid, p. 5).

Sixty-percent of Nairobi’s population lives in slums that cover 5% of the city’s land (UN-Habitat, 2010). In these slums, only 20% of residents are connected to electricity and 4% have water connections, while solid waste disposal services are nearly nonexistent (ibid).


Nairobi began as a stop on the Kenya Uganda Railway (Mitullah, 2003, p. 1). Although it used to be a mere stop on the route, the city became a centre for commercial trade and business when the railway’s headquarters were moved from Mombasa to Nairobi in 1899 (ibid, p. 1).

Today, over 86% of Nairobi’s residents participate in the city’s economy (ibid, p. 4). The city’s labour force is comprised of “67,900 individuals in…[the] manufacturing industry, 39,700 in building and construction; 57,300 in trade, restaurants, and hotels, 42,200 in finance, insurance, real estate and business services; while community, social, and personal services [employ] 155,900 people” (ibid, p. 4). Although so many residents are employed in these formal industries, the majority of people still engage in informal economic activities such as small trade because employment in the informal sector has grown by 176% while formal sector employment has contracted by 0.43% (ibid, p. 4, see Figure 3).

As Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi also plays a large role in the country’s economy, serving as the regional core for trade and finance (CIA, 2010). It is through this trading capability that Kenya can export almost $4.5 billion worth of tea, coffee, petroleum products, fish and cement to the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Uganda, Tanzania, the United States and Uganda (ibid) per year.

Social Issues

Nairobi is home to one of the largest slums in the world, Kibera (see Figure 2), which has a population of over 1 million residents (Amnesty International, 2009). Kibera is plagued by social inequities and issues, some of the most prominent being the high rate of HIV/AIDS, the high levels of youth crime, and inequality for women.

Youth in Kenya usually only receive ten years of schooling (CIA, 2010). With the lowest literacy rate in the country, Nairobi youth are not empowered to solve their own problems and problems of the community (City Council of Nairobi, 2009, p. 7). This lack of education continues with them and affects the quality of decisions that they make in the future. For example, leaders failed to recognize the effectiveness of antiretroviral treatment programs in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and it is estimated that their delay in making these programs available led to 3.8 million person-years lost in South Africa from 2000-2005 (Harvard School of Public Health, 2008). Over 1.2 million of the country’s population is estimated to be living with this disease with 150,000 dying each year, making Kenya 4th in the world in terms of the number of deaths attributed to this disease (CIA, 2010). There is a lack of education and social stigma surrounding this disease that prevents the country from mitigating its horrible effects.

Crime is another issue that proliferates throughout Kenya and Nairobi. The frequency of crimes such as “armed robbery, murder, mugging, car-jacking, housebreaking, physical and sexual assault” have all been increasing (UN-Habitat, 2007, p. 1). A trend is also occurring where the majority of crimes are committed by youth. In fact, over 50% of convicted prisoners are between the ages of 16 to 25 (ibid, p. 1). The Mungiki movement is a key case of this. The movement is considered the most organized criminal group in the country. They are responsible for the death of 23 residents in 2002, imposing illegal taxes, and controlling the security, water and electricity in slums (ibid, p. 1).

Although the residents of Kibera are all exposed to the issues that face the shantytown, women are particularly affected by this negative environment. They are not given the same access to education, they are expected to care for their families, and they are not protected by the police force. Although women are given access to an education, they are often so burdened with home responsibilities that they drop out of school. They feel this burden because they not only take care of their own siblings and children, but they often end up caring for orphans whose parents passed away from HIV. As a teacher in the area notes, “[Girls] are not given time to learn and study at home. So that means they will eventually fail” (Amnesty International, 2009). These women are not only underprivileged but they are also invisible to the systems that should be meant to protect them. The corridors of these slums are unsafe, especially at night. Should a woman be raped, her report to the police would be useless unless she herself can find the perpetrator herself (ibid). As a result, fewer reports are filed and the vicious cycle that allows these acts to occur continues on.

Nairobi residents, especially those of slums like Kibera, are often uneducated, without the knowledge to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and the growing rates of youth crime. Women and girls are often the greatest impacted due to the social inequality towards women, without the opportunity to receive a proper education and subject to the apathy of the police force.

Environmental Issues and Infrastructure

As mentioned previously, Nairobi is home to Kibera, one of the largest shantytowns in the world (Amnesty International, 2009). These areas of informal housing are exposed to the environmental issues. Residents are plagued by issues in air pollution, solid waste management, and potable water supply and sanitation.

Like many cities in North America, increased use of personal vehicles has caused an increase in air pollution in Nairobi. The pollution is also created from industries, charcoal fire, and the incineration of waste in open pits (City of Nairobi, 2007, p. 8). This air pollution has already led to a loss of biodiversity, an increase in acid rain and climate change (ibid, p. 8).

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Nairobi only has one solid waste disposal dump at Dandora, which is believed to have already reached full capacity (City of Nairobi, 2007, p. 9). With nowhere to dispose of their waste, residents of Nairobi slums have resorted to illegal dump yards, residential backyards and commercial property (ibid, p. 9). Over 50% of the wastes are organic (ibid, p. 9), and when these materials decompose, residents are exposed to high levels of bacteria and vector borne diseases such as malaria and Rift Valley fever (CIA, 2010).

The most evident environmental issue in Nairobi is related to its water supply and sanitation. Water is crucial to the survival of all living things, and yet, only 42% of Nairobi households have access to clean water (City Council of Nairobi, 2007, p. 11). Further exacerbating this issue of lack of clean water is the fact that contaminated water is not always treated. In fact, only two-thirds of Nairobi residents have access to sanitation, with many slum residents using a pit latrine that is shared by many people (ibid, p. 12). Forced to fetch potentially unclean water from other sources, residents are exposed to dangerous water-borne diseases which are responsible for 30% of deaths in the global south (Benton-Short & Short, 2008, p. 163). Residents are at a high degree of risk for waterborne diseases such as bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, and schistosomiasis (CIA, 2010).

Part 3 – Conclusions

Africa is one of the regions experiencing the greatest rate of urbanization in the world (UN-Habitat, 2009, p. 10). Although this urbanization provides new opportunities for economic and social growth, it also poses unique challenges and issues for the development of cities such as Nairobi. Planners need to consider trends that are true of most urbanizing cities (the emergence of predominant age groups, variations in the size and distribution of cities, changes due to poor economic conditions, and an increasing susceptibility to disasters), but also focus on the issues that are specific to Nairobi.

Nairobi has a growing population of young people. With the lowest literacy rate in the country, Nairobi youth are not empowered to solve their own problems and problems of the community (City Council of Nairobi, 2009, p. 7). These youth are also at a high risk for HIV/AIDS and are susceptible to being influenced by organized crime groups. If planners manage to develop systems that will educate and protect these young residents, they may reduce the risk of contracting such a deadly disease and the crime rate.

Like other urbanizing cities, Nairobi is growing in size as its population increases. However, unlike North America where this growth has been characterized by the emergence of suburbs, Nairobi has been over-urbanized. Since Africa is dominated by a few key cities, planners must be prepared to deal with the sprawl, congestion and environmental effects that are often associated with urban primacy (UN-Habitat, 2009, p. 12).

While the entire world is experiencing more natural disasters, Africa is at the peak of this, experiencing a three-fold increase in the past 10 years alone (UN-Habitat, 2009, p. 14). Since lower-income countries are more susceptible to both capital and human loss due to the lack of disaster recovery programs, Nairobi will be faced with the challenge of building infrastructures and implementing programs that will help in the mitigation of loss during these disasters.

Finally, these trends and issues faced by Nairobi are occurring in the worst economic recession since 1945 (UN-Habitat, 2009, p. 12). Planners will be faced with the task of building new infrastructures and implementing new programs with less financial support, and in an environment where unemployment and poverty levels are rising.

Nairobi will encounter a long journey before it can become an ideal model of a global urbanizing city. Its greatest weakness is its lack of an official plan. The latest approved city plan was developed in 1948, with a revised version submitted in 1973 that was never approved (City of Nairobi, 2007, p. 3). Without a plan, leaders and citizens can never expect to develop a city that is successful and sustainable.

Figure 1 – Map of Kenya (CIA, 2010)

Figure 2 – Kibera, a slum in Nairobi (Amnesty International, 2010)

Figure 3 – Comparison of formal and informal sectors (Mitullah, 2003, p. 4)


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