Nairobi roads
| Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

As mega roads come up, Nairobi loses its green spaces

Nairobi was once known as the “green city in the sun”, as it had something distinctly noticeable when you looked at a map of it.

The southern line of the metropolitan area is bordered by a national park, while the southwestern line of the central business district is bordered by an urban park, golf course, and an array of sports grounds.

But what was once a darling of many has now been dissected by an elevated motorway that the government says will be used by thousands of vehicles a day. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

On the other side, the national park has a Standard Gauge Railway line cutting through and a 4km access road, which runs from the Nairobi Inland Container Depot, altering the park boundaries on the east and joining the Southern Bypass near Wilson Airport.

The capital city has become one huge construction site. Everywhere you turn, there is either a road under construction or a pavement being laid. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

The destruction stretches many kilometres, with thousands of tree stumps sticking out as the only remaining relics of what used to be a lush green expanse of green scenery.

Residents who regularly use city roads have noticed one big change - the scenic beauty once offered by the trees now seems like a distant memory.

Most of the trees that used to line city roads have been cut down, including on Waiyaki Way in Westlands to pave the way for the construction of the Nairobi Expressway. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Since work started on the elevated highway, many trees have been felled on Waiyaki Way, including Nandi flame.

Those majestic trees that once stood next to Free Mason Hall on Nyerere Road are no longer there. Trees are now competing for space and resources in new ways, and in Nairobi, there seems to be a war on trees – on the Southern Bypass, Ngong Road, Langata Road, and Argwings Kodhek Road, among many others.

Before the road projects, on Mombasa Road, opposite Nyayo National Stadium, there was always the sight of flocks of marabou stork, which no longer roost there.

The marabou storks are among the hardest-hit. After their habitat was destroyed, the birds migrated to Kenyatta International Convention Centre, right in the heart of the CBD. But even here their stay was short-lived, forced to leave when managers pruned all the acacia trees on the property. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

The city is built on an interesting mix of rainforest and savannah grasslands sloping southwards, with several rivers running through it.

Greenery has always been a part of the cityscape. The Ngong and Karura forests lie within city boundaries. The city has an arboretum and an array of parks and open green spaces like Uhuru Park, which has been closed, City Park, and Jeevanjee Gardens.

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.

Many of the trees in the city were reportedly planted by the Nairobi City Council when Waiyaki Way was completed in the 1990s.

Despite protests by Kenyans on social media and other platforms about the felling of trees and even a petition to stop the destruction, the government seems undeterred.

Even cries from conservationists, who had vowed to go to court to challenge the mega project's design, which effectively cuts a section of Uhuru Park and wildlife conservation spaces in the capital, fell on deaf ears.

In March 2020, Kenyans online pleaded with the Kenya National Highways Authority (Kenha) to intervene and spare an iconic sycamore fig tree that is said to have stood on the road for decades.

Kenyans’ cries were heard and President Kenyatta issued a decree to save the much-loved century-old fig tree from being cut down to make way for Kenya’s first double-decker expressway.

The presidential decree described the tree, the height of a four-storey building, as a "beacon of Kenya's cultural and ecological heritage".

“It is now a presidential declaration that this tree will be conserved,” Mohammed Badi, director-general of Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS), told a news conference next to the tree a week later.

Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia on Sunday said new trees will be planted once major road works are completed, as that is included in the contract.

“At the moment, we cannot start planting trees because they will be damaged as major works are still ongoing. But it is within the contract … that the trees which were cut will be replaced and will be even more in number,” he said.

China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) is building the 27km highway linking Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Westlands for Sh72 billion.

Under the conditions published last year by the national environment watchdog Nema for public review, CRBC will be required to plant trees covering double the area of public spaces affected.

Nema also said CRBC will clean up the sections of the Nairobi and Ngong rivers crossed by the expressway

According to Nema, the measures will open green spaces to compensate for permanent loss of vegetation and destruction of bird habitats at Nyayo Stadium and the Westlands roundabouts.

“The proponent will collaborate with private parties and State agencies to offset the loss of vegetation by planting trees in areas such as Nairobi National Park, Uhuru Park, City Park and Arboretum, public schools and other land along the corridor,” Nema said.

As Nairobi’s population grows, there is greater appreciation of the importance of open spaces and greenery. Sadly, new suburbs have little greenery to show.