Bottlenecks preventing municipalities from living up to their status

A boda boda rider maneuvers through a flooded section along First Avenue Eastleigh, Nairobi

A boda boda rider maneuvers through a flooded section along First Avenue Eastleigh, Nairobi on March 25, 2023, after a heavy downpour. 

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

Devolution of state functions as stipulated in the new constitution of Kenya has made it possible for commercial activities to thrive in the counties, making these places economically self-sufficient.

As a result, within the last five-10 years, the number of people who have moved to the counties looking for work or to set up businesses has significantly increased.

County leaders keen on capitalising on this growing population have in turn moved to apply for the conferment of emerging settlements in their counties into the status of municipalities. By converting these settlements into organised municipalities, they have been able to collect more revenue through taxes among other revenue collection streams.

The county government of Kiambu, for instance, recently converted six urban settlements to municipalities, bringing the total number of municipalities in the county to 12. Similarly, the county government of Laikipia recently applied through the Urban Cities Act for the conferment of Nanyuki settlement into municipality status.

But while these municipalities have proven useful for the economic progress of the counties, David Muiruri, a spatial planning and design tutorial fellow at the Technical University of Kenya, says that the level of infrastructural development in the counties has not been commensurate to the level of population growth in these areas.

This has created a situation where some of the settlements have turned into replicas of Nairobi’s urban settlements such as Githurai and Pipeline, where the living conditions are poor.

“Ideally, the process of conferment should come with a certain level of the infrastructure upgrade. That is because infrastructure is always the underlying fundamental and the anchoring factor of any settlement,” notes Muiruri.

The scholar, who is also currently pursuing his PhD in planning, says that there is a planning handbook that gives the minimum criteria for each settlement to be conferred a municipal status. The problem, therefore, lies not in the availability, but rather, in the implementation of these plans.

“While there are a lot of good plans that have been developed even at the county level to guide the process of housing and infrastructure development for the smooth operationalisation of towns, there remains a huge disconnect between the plan preparation process and the implementation process,” notes Muiruri.

Political goodwill

The planner adds that there is a general appreciation of the importance of planning, however, what lacks is the political goodwill to actually implement the plans. Much as planning is a professional field, authorities mandated with implementing the plans, quite often politicians, tend to politicise the process.

“Plans are there, we make beautiful documents, and then they are shelved, so, what happens is that unless something is wrong, we do not fix it, that’s why only after it rains do we remember to unclog drainages, yet we had an entire dry season to do this. Planning itself should be a futuristic exercise, not a reactive one, but what we do is we fix problems as they come,” notes Muiruri.

Kitengela Town

Kitengela became the third town in Kajiado County to be elevated to a municipality after Kajiado and Ngong.

Photo credit: Stanley Ngotho | Nation Media Group

Because we are, in reality, still in the process of transition from an old constitution to a new one where roles have shifted, there is also a lot of confusion, overlapping of duties and general blame games when it comes to who should perform certain roles in the running of municipalities.

Muiruri says that especially now, as both the counties and the national government work towards delivering affordable housing for Kenyans residing in urban settlements, there is a need to set aside the governance and institutional issues that are creating a mismatch between plans and the resulting urban form, otherwise, we would end up doing rapid densification without any logical infrastructural upgrade and in essence, create modern slums.

With the provision of affordable housing comes the need to provide other utilities such as convenient public transportation, good schools, recreational spaces, social amenities, clean water, consistent energy supply, proper sewerage and waste management systems among other key amenities.

“The zoning guidelines in Nairobi for instance are such that each place has a specified density, and that density corresponds with the infrastructure available, so, when you go somewhere and make single dwelling units to occupy 10 to 15-storey buildings, without any effort to improve the infrastructure, then you’re going to have a problem. That’s what we are seeing in places such as pipeline where you find a 10-storey building but anyone beyond the fifth floor cannot get water, and there are all sorts of illegal electricity connections,” notes Muiruri.

Integrated urban development plans

Meanwhile, Mairura Omwenga, who is the Chairman of the Town and County Planners Association of Kenya, says to achieve sustainable development in municipalities, it is important to first ensure that the integrated urban development plans for those towns are in place to be able to guide and control the development.

“Elevation to municipal status is only good if the professional implementation of programmes is done and all proposed development captured in a spatial plan. This is the very fundamental that needs to be in place, as it will give stakeholders the guidelines of what needs to be done,” noted Omwenga.

Mairura, who was speaking during a Kenya Property Developers Association stakeholder conference held recently in Nairobi, said that setting up a board to manage the municipalities should then follow, to ensure that development plans are followed and adhered to.

The board should ideally comprise an executive arm led by the municipal manager, who then will be supported by a team of professionals including the town planner who will head the municipal planning department, the municipal engineer who will be heading the infrastructure in town including roads and water supply, the finance officers in charge of the treasury, architects as well as surveyors to plan and control development.

“Having a plan and a municipal board in place will ensure that there is effective development control and that developments are taking place according to the plans. It will also ensure that as we convert all these settlements into municipalities, then we do not have scenarios where development activities encroach onto the very rich agricultural land where we produce our food, and which are also our water catchment areas,” said Omwenga.

Mairura adds that money must then be made available to the municipalities for the efficient running of key functions. Further, he says the provision of adequate infrastructure and maintenance of the same by the government would be ideal for achieving sustainable development in the municipalities.

“Continued reduction of funding towards infrastructural development despite the rapid growth in construction activities in our urban centres is the biggest challenge facing urban planning in Kenya. When our towns are better planned, then our country would be a better place,” noted Omwenga.

His words are echoed by Hezron Kagia, an urban planner by profession, who adds that government goodwill would go a long way in helping to achieve sustainable municipalities, as it is only through an initiative that we will be able to see effective enforcement of the guidelines and standards set in place for the development of houses, amenities and other key infrastructure.

A view of the congested Kitengela town

A view of the congested Kitengela town. At the time of taking this picture, the county government of Kajiado was seeking to relocate the trucks in readiness for the beautification of the town after it acquired municipality status.

Photo credit: Stanley Ngotho | Nation Media Group

“The plans are there. Nairobi, for instance, approved a new plan around 2013 called the Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Plan, which addresses some of the issues we are facing in the city. Even in the counties, there are many good plans that have been established, the only problem is implementation, and at times a lack of willpower from the people mandated with enforcement,” notes Kagia.

Poor management

The planner, who also lectures at the Technical University of Kenya, says poor management and lack of enforcement have allowed some developers to build on riparian reserves, too close to the rivers, or on wetlands. This is what has resulted in flooding in parts of the city of Nairobi, even when the showers are very light since the water cannot sip into the ground, and has nowhere to go.

“Prohibiting development around these areas should go a long way in dealing with the flooding situation. Then when it is not raining, there should be clearing of drainage channels to ensure that when it rains, then there are no blockages.”
He points out that there are also other areas where drainage channels have not been provided.

“Take for example the design of the Nairobi expressway that spills rainwater onto Mombasa Road, because it has no natural drainage. This was the same problem witnessed when Thika Road was built,” notes Kagia.

As it stands, it is estimated that about 15 million Kenyans reside in urban settlements spread across the country. Within the next seven years, this figure is expected to double, and by 2050, the number of people who will be living in towns and cities is projected to hit 45 million.

The use of vertical spaces as opposed to horizontal spaces when designing buildings could also help to effectively realise the affordable housing dream while maximising limited urban land, and creating additional space for other amenities.

“Government could then consider incentivising developers working on these projects, so that they do not end up taking shortcuts to maximise their profits, therefore causing loss of lives or property through building collapse,” notes Kagia.
The planner also points out that governments need to take a more proactive approach to the running of public transportation to reduce the successive traffic congestion brought about in the country’s urban settlements by population growth. The government currently does not have a lot of influence on how public transport is run and organised, a factor that has been blamed on an unwillingness to do something about the public transport crisis situation.

“Worldwide, public transportation in cities is not designed to be a business, it is designed to be a service that people receive from the authorities. Even if it is privatised, it should have some form of control from the government to make it more organised. Back in the day, it was just the Kenya Bus Service operating within the city. The government slowly started ignoring public transport, as populations grew and road networks into other settlements were not as good, and that’s when private business people began supplying matatus to serve these routes,” notes Kagia.

Implementing modern transportation systems within the city such as the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, or a reliable train system into the estates, could help reduce the traffic congestion within the city, but this, adds the planner, can only work if the government first engages other public transport stakeholders.

“On Thika Road, for instance, they drew some lines, it was supposed to be a BRT, but nothing ever happened. As much as the BRT would have brought competition or conflict, had they sat down with public transport stakeholders and explained that they were not being run out of business, they certainly would have found workable solutions,” notes Kagia.