Unplanned urban spaces set back Covid-19 pandemic fight

Friday, June 5th, 2020 00:00 |
Pedestrians and motorists jostle for space along Thika Superhighway during a strike by matatu operators. PhotoPD/GERALD ITHANA

Milliam Murigi @millymur1  

Lack of properly planned urban spaces in Kenya has been a major setback in the fight against coronavirus epidemic, planners say.  

Juliet Rita, chairperson of Town Planners Chapter at the Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) says most Kenyan cities lack proper housing, sanitation, open spaces for recreation and proper public transport systems. 

 And while other countries are restricting the use of their urban spaces and transport systems with coloured tape and markings, in Kenya we don’t have such spaces.

“Our homes have been rated as safe places to stay during this crisis, yet they hide negative aspects of staying at home,” said Rita. 

Urban planning is critical as it determines the urban settings in terms of how buildings are placed, sanitation facilities, open spaces, greenery, and densities among other factors.

“If there is anything that Covid-19 has brought to light, it is the need to have properly planned urban spaces,” she said.  

While urban residents enjoy better services than their rural counterparts, they also face more public health threats and the risks of infectious diseases.

“The high population density, close contacts between people, high level of mobility and shared means of transport turn cities into the hotspots of outbreaks and gateways for the disease,” she said.

Because of poor planning, Rita said, most households lack basic services such as running water and sanitation facilities.

Also, children and adults have no place to play safely and to practice social distancing, especially in urban centres. 

Moreover, the deprivation of an organised public transport system during this period has put everyone on high alert, with matatus struggling to keep afloat while observing public health directives with fewer customers.  

“We have realised it is safe to walk and cycle, but then we have no infrastructure to facilitate this.

Part of the congested Kibera slums, Nairobi. Photo/PD/GERALD ITHANA

Though the lucky ones can hop into cars, those who cannot afford such luxuries are still using our unsafe public transport, yet they are serving us in the supermarkets and hospitals. To be safe, we all need safe transportation,” she said. 

Rethinking town plans

Mairura Omwenga, Chairman of Town and County Planners Association of Kenya, concurs. “This disease is an urban problem.

It is our towns that are the worst hit by the pandemic, led by Nairobi and Mombasa, where large populations are concentrated, compared to rural areas,” he said.   

“There have been other pandemics in the past  (such as cholera) and we are likely to see even worse pandemics in future.

We now need to re-think how we plan and develop our towns,” said the planning expert. 

Rita called this rethinking urban planning culture and embrace building setbacks to create more room for the pedestrians and cyclists.

“We need to share our roads equitably, plan for adequate water and sanitation facilities and embrace new technologies in construction,” she added.

 Additionally, there is need to support initiatives that offer sanitation services in crowded areas.

Juliet Rita, chairperson of Town Planners Chapter at the Architectural Association of Kenya. Photo/PD/Milliam Murigi 

“Let us be our neighbour’s keeper and detest the culture of beacon-to-beacon construction so that we can have natural lighting in our houses.

Let us appreciate that our homes are only good enough if our neighbours are observing zoning regulations,” Rita said. 

She called  for organised public transport to ensure safe travel after this pandemic and to ward off future risks. 

Rita urges Kenyans to actively participate in the national and county planning and evelopment consultative fora, interrogate county spatial and county investment plans and most importantly, municipalities annual investment plans.  

“Kenyans need to know about all these plans so that we can question development decisions that are contrary to these plans.

With no implementation of urban plans, we are planning to fail when the next pandemic strikes,” says Rita. 

She says since social distancing programmes are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, we need to prepare our cities for this.

This can be made possible by putting in place adequate and safe infrastructure for walking and cycling as well as offering opportunities for exercise without causing high air pollution levels and sufficient safe public spaces (parks, beaches and other outdoor spaces) where people can exercise without running a high risk of contagion.

Transport hiccups

The planners say Covid-19 pandemic is a wake-up call and maybe also an opportunity to build better and more sustainable cities.

Currently, it may give us time to reflect and think about long-term solutions while tackling the short-term problem.

“We must make our towns resilient to shocks. We must plan to reduce densities in estates and CBDs by using zoning of towns– demarcations of towns into, for example, commercial areas, housing estates and industrial area,” said Omwenga.   

He called for integrated developments so that people travel less to work, schools, shopping centres and transport hubs.

The amenities should be in the neighbourhood to minimise travel and congestion.

“As a country we have been taking these measures lightly; it is now time to enforce them,” he said. 

He singled out Umoja estate in Nairobi’s eastlands and Githurai estate off Thika superhighway as examples of poorly planned residential areas.

Planning for these estates did not provide adequate spaces for schools, hospitals or shopping centres.

Omwenga called for provision of more green spaces— forests, bushes, grass fields and flowerbeds— going forward. “We must use more green fuels —electric cars and trains—to minimise pollution. 

“For instance, we have seen pictures of Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro taken during clear weather in Nairobi recently because there has been less pollution,” he said.   

Sympathising with the rising number of joggers, cyclists and boda boda in towns who are being harassed by motorists on narrow roads, Omwenga said roads needed to be expanded to facilitate everyone.

“We need to live more active and healthy lives. The government has to budget for roads that accommodate joggers and cyclists,” he said.     

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