There is something distinctly noticeable when you look at a map of Nairobi. The southern line of the metropolitan area is bordered by a national park, while the southern line of the Central Business District is bordered by an urban park, golf course, and an array of sports grounds.

Nairobi, Kenya is known as the “green city in the sun.” The city is built on an interesting mix of rainforest and savannah grasslands sloping southwards with several rivers running through. The built environment may now have covered up most of the original vegetation of the city, but the valleys and hills can still be seen.

Greenery has always been a part of the cityscape. Two dense rainforests, the 538 hectare Ngong and 1,063 hectare Karura, lie within the city boundaries. The city has an arboretum and an array of parks and open green spaces like Uhuru Park, City Park, and Jeevanjee Gardens.

Uhuru Park borders the south of the Central Business District

Maintaining these green spaces has not been easy. There have been several attempts to grab these open spaces for private development. City Park, for instance, was originally ninety acres and has shrunk to sixty-six acres. It is believed that recent questionable allocations have reduced it to a mere sixteen acres. Another case was the proposed conversion of Jeevenjee Gardens into a multi-story car park. The most famous attempt at grabbing a public space was in 1989, when some people in government attempted to build a sixty story building at Uhuru Park. Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai and her organization the Green Belt Movement ran a campaign protesting against this. Though her protests were not received well by the high and mighty, her determination paid off; the investors pulled out and the park was saved.

Sadly, most open spaces are marred by poor maintenance and neglect. As a result, concerned citizens have come together and formed lobby groups that watch over and, at times, maintain the parks. Groups such as friends of Nairobi Arboretum and Friends of City park Nairobi are but a few examples.

One park, however, stands slightly above others: the August 7th Memorial Park. Designed at a site of the 1998 US Embassy terrorist attack, it is privately owned and managed by the August 7th Memorial Trust. Aside from providing space for relaxation, it also has conference facilities, a small parking lot, an exhibition hall, and kiosks. These mixed uses enable the trust to have money for park maintenance and sustainability.

August 7th Memorial Park shows a multi-user approach

As Africa becomes more urbanized, there is increased appreciation of the importance of open spaces and greenery in towns. Sadly, the new urbanizing suburbs do not have much to show of this. Most green spaces in Africa were designed and planned by the colonial governments and early independent governments. Playgrounds for children are hard to find these days, as real estate developers opt to use every inch of space to maximize profits. Even though government by-laws require developers to set aside space for children to play, these are largely ignored with some taking the existing playing fields.

The battle between the built environment and open spaces will continue to be an issue. Do we really appreciate the value of these spaces for the benefit of all? What is the future of urban green spaces and green planning in Africa?

Credits: Images by Constant Cap. Data linked to sources.