Urbanisation must not be an excuse for destroying green spaces

In Summary

• On Thursday, the government revised its decision to have the expressway pass through Uhuru Park after public outcry.

Wanjiru Wathuti.
Wanjiru Wathuti.
Image: COURTESY

On the 31st of October, the world marks World Cities Day. This year, the day has a rallying call hinged on innovations and better life for future generations within the context of global urbanization. Many cities across the world experiencing the resultant challenge of growing urban population must sooner rather than later, find sustainable means of handling development problems without having to destroy nature reserves. 

In the heart of the heart of Nairobi, once described as the city under the sun, is Uhuru park. This green space seen as Kenya’s national shrine, has had to weather several attempts by developers and government entities to scrap off its role as Nairobi’s only urban green park, with the latest one being the Express way estimated to cost $600 million.

On Thursday, the government revised its decision to have the expressway pass through Uhuru Park after public outcry.

The development project would have interfered with the 12-hectare piece of land that has some of the city’s most iconic and revered relics dating back to the independence days. Pinching part of whole loaf of bread would have decreased its value and worth. It reduces its size, weight and alters its shape. It was worrying when the government explained that only 23 metres would be hived off in its attempt to decongest the city of Nairobi.

Nairobi traffic jam is estimated to cost the country well over Sh18 billion annually according to recent reports by the Institute of Economic Affairs and World Bank, so I understand that mechanisms must be put in place to tackle this menace - but this must never be at the cost of the environment.

A walk down Kenya’s memory lane back to the 80’s will lead you to the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Wangari Maathai. Through her initiative, the ‘Green Belt Movement’, she fiercely defended the park against government plans to erect a 62-story building that would cut off vital sections of the recreational area. She maintained that the ‘open green space’ was the last of all the green places left by city planners in Nairobi, and as such was to be preserved. The laureate would also defend Karura forest at a time when there was no political opposition toward the project.

Fast forward to 2018, the bittersweet standard gauge railway (SGR) project that is now in its second phase also caused quite a stir when the government expressed its desire to build the rails over Nairobi national park. Opposition was mounted by environmentalists who called for a reevaluation of the project, but their efforts misfired.

In the wake of universal climate awareness and global environmental activism, Kenya cannot afford to take steps back in its conservation efforts. Let Uhuru park be the lush green patch of land where city dwellers and visitors come to enjoy personal or family time, rolling out picnic blankets on the groomed grass, going on dates, enjoying sporting activities and relishing some nyama choma during get togethers. Let us enjoy some calm and cool environment that reduces our risk of breathing in dirty polluted air in a city whose means of transport is heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

At such times and on such a day, the burgeoning and innovative Kenyan youth population should be brought on board when looking for solutions to the traffic situation in Kenya. The wisdom and wise counsel of the older generation who experienced the multiple benefits of green urban spaces should be considered. We must come back to our senses and moral consciousness of what kind of planet and society we will want to give the next generation.

In my contribution to the solutions, I wouldn’t be too late to suggest that Kenya adopts a public cycling programme. This can be coordinated by the state department of transport and infrastructure, within a proper policy framework to cater for commuters who merely need to connect to another part of the street.The policy framework could encompass routine maintenance for the bicycles and a sustainable disposal mechanism that involves the large and vibrant Jua Kali industry.

It would not be the wildest of ideas to declare mandatory car-free days to decongest the traffic craze. It may not be the most popular of paths toward the dealing with traffic snarl-ups but as soon as people ease into it, there is joy and happiness for all road users.

When planned well, car free days could be another solution. According the UN Environment Programme, car-free days are a massive opportunity for cities to realize how much pollution affects our lives. It is worth noting that vehicle emissions are one of the main sources of outdoor air pollution, especially in cities. The World Health Organization estimates that ambient air pollution alone caused some 4.2 million deaths in 2016.

The environment has solutions all around, it is up to us to develop the will to protect our urban green spaces and in so doing find ways of tackling our infrastructure problems sustainably. The challenges of urbanization must not overburden us to the extent of taking up the dire of choices such as ruining our ecosystems, rather present us with opportunities for a better life for us and our future generations.

Wathuti is an Environment and Climate Activist and founder of Green Generation Initiative.