Zoning? What zoning? The death of Nairobi’s neat estates

Nairobi’s property boom is attracting massive investments in real estate. Some hitherto controlled-development neighbourhoods like Ngei and (above) Harambee in Nairobi have, however, suffered from lack of clear zoning regulations. PHOTO| COURTESY



What you need to know:

  • Kenya Alliance of Residents Association says it cannot keep up with the number of complaints it receives every year detailing the grabbing or illegal allocation of public utility land, as well as the blatant disregard for planning and zoning regulations in major cities.
  • Property owners affected by this impunity also decry the slow response pace by the relevant authorities, which is affecting the value of their homes and making otherwise serene neighbourhoods lawless and filthy concrete jungles

Steve has lived in Nairobi’s Harambee Estate for the last six years. It is a second home to him, a place where he has set up a life and brought up his young family.

When he relocated here, he was attracted by two major things; the open spaces where his children could play, and the easy availability of good schools in the neighbourhood.

For him, therefore, the three-bedroom bungalow that the city government put up for sale was a great investment, as it would not only make him a property owner in the capital, but also afford him the chance to bring up his children in a safe and fairly serene environment.

“The prices were also affordable,” he says, “and, like every home buyer, the amenities they put on the table hooked me quite easily. The houses came with safe car parks, a playground and close proximity to educational and social establishments.”

That was how the 600 units that make Harambee Estate were snapped within weeks of being put up for sale. Families then settled in to the cosy life they had invested in, proud to have successfully pitched for one of the biggest investments in life anywhere in the world.


But now there is a problem; the estate they once loved is no more. The bungalows, now aging, are jostling for space with tens of flats that are springing up all over the place. The open spaces are gone, the serenity vanquished.

A concrete jungle is devouring Steve’s neighbourhood.

“It was one of the few city council estates that retained their lustre over they years,” he says, the words peppered with heavy nostalgia. “People used to praise it because of its cleanliness and order, the fresh air about it and the smooth roads. Now that’s gone.”

Today, Steve says, the estate has fallen from its former glory. It has been run down, and all that is left of the once controlled development are flowing sewers and a shantytown of kiosks.

Piped water only flows to their houses once a week, and even then the supply is never enough. Meanwhile, the flats keep tearing into the sky, their owners unperturbed by the fact that the place was never planned to accommodate such a high density of buildings and people.

Harambee Estate, however, is not alone in this filthy, disruptive pit of lost glory. Five years ago, Paul Oyier and his wife chose to settle at Ngei Phase II.

To them, the neighbourhood in Lang’ata was a perfect description of what they wanted: calmness, serenity, close proximity to the CBD, easy accessibility, and good security.


“We fell in love with the place from the first day we were taken round the estate,” recalls Oyier. “My wife and I particularly loved the serenity.”

But as they settled in, rogue developers were also eyeing the very serenity that had attracted the Oyiers to Ngei II. Little by little, block by block, the developers chipped away on the calm and peace of the place, turning it, like Steve’s Harambee, into a frenzied neighbourhood full of petty crime and choking with human traffic.

“The estate was built by the National Housing Corporation almost 40 years ago and there was a requirement that the public land would not be touched,” explains Oyier. Unfortunately, that promise was never kept.

“These developers are putting up highrise structures that are up to six floors high, ending up blocking natural light from getting to our houses,” says Steve.

“To top it all, we can no longer enjoy the privacy that attracted us here in the first place, and the flats have affected the market value of our houses.”

Steve and Oyier are just two of a growing Kenyan population that has been let down by the authorities in the matter of the management of their neighbourhoods, whether in Kileleshwa or Nyali or Ngei or Lang’ata or Riat or Milimani. Their heartbreaking experiences represent just a fraction of the cases reported to the Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations (Kara).

Next to Oyier’s neighbourhood is Ngei Phase I, where the residents are complaining that several pieces of land within the estate, initially meant for public use, have been grabbed.

“These public utilities were part of the purchase price paid by every (home owner here... and were) offered as part of the transaction,” their complaint letter, seen by DN2, reads.

In the meantime, in Embakasi’s Fedha Estate, the residents’ associations are contesting the grabbing of a piece of land initially designated as communal area and children’s playground.

“Fera (the local residents association) is extremely concerned with the developments, where the piece of land has now been sub-divided, ready for allocation,” reads a complaint filed to Kara. This land was the only recreational area within the estate, which has more than 350 houses.

Across the city in Lavington, residents of Chalbi Drive have also been up in arms against the construction of flats on a seven-acre wetland in the area that was sold to a private developer. The wetland has been the subject of a simmering controversy that has refused to die down for years now.

And that illustrates how alone many residents are in the fight to save their neighbourhoods. Despite all these complaints, and many more others, none of the cases we have quoted here have been resolved to date. Meanwhile, Kara deputy chairman Henry Ochieng’ says has forwarded the complaints to the National Land Commission for action.

Steve’s Harambee Estate has been trying to resolve the matter of flats springing up all over and fouling the environment for the last five years, but despite numerous promises that the issue will be solved, the estate still faces an uncertain future.


“Heavy trucks hauling building materials have ruined our roads, our children have now resorted to playing on the roads because their playgrounds are no more, and the level insecurity has shot up 100 per cent,” says Steve.

This, Mr Ochieng’ of Kara says, is the result of corruption in the corridors of city planning as “unscrupulous developers are colluding with officers in government to get fake approvals to develop structures on the open spaces”.

“At times when we follow up these cases, we find that the developers have the necessary approvals from the Government,” says Ochieng’.

Yet when planners indicate that neighbourhoods should have open spaces for recreation, they expect that those spaces will remain that way. An open space — or public land — is defined as any place which is publicly owned or of public use, accessible and enjoyable by all for free and without a profit motive.

Although the Constitution does not expressly talk about open spaces, under Article 62 1 (d), it defines public land as land in respect of which no individual or community ownership can be established by any legal process.

It further states in sub-section (m) that it is any land that has not been classified as private or community land under the Constitution.

“Public land shall vest in and be held by a county government in trust for the people resident in the county, and shall be administered on their behalf by the National Land Commission,” reads the constitution’s Article 62 (2) in part.

The Building Code, on the other hand, states that a residential building should have space immediately in front of it which extends the whole width of the building and not less than 20ft wide from the next building. It also should have access to a street or road.

“A building designed for residential purposes shall have an open space on one side with a width of 8 feet or more measured from the boundary of the nearest plot. The width should extend the entire length and height of the building,” it says.

Such spacing requirements are necessary not only for safety, but also for domestic uses as they act as open spaces for residents.

But like Oyier notes, the residents whose land has been encroached on are no longer sure of their security or sanitation. “It seems we are the ones who now have to adjust to living in an environment that is not only insecure but also suffering from the constant whiff of burst sewers,” he says.




So, if public land should not be claimed by anyone, then why is it that private developers are having easy access to these parcels of land?

“We always ask ourselves and the Lands commission who it is that gives a go-ahead for a developer to claim these lands, and to our surprise we never get any satisfactory answer,” laments Ngei Phase II resident and chairman of the residents association, Paul Oyier. “At what point does public land become private? Who is approving ownership of these lands?”

Tom Odongo, the Nairobi City Council’s deputy director of planning, says any grabbing of public spaces is contrary to “our current policy and initiative”, and that “the County has a programme of inventorying public spaces, including neighbourhood open spaces, and plans their rehabilitation to promote social interactions”.

But Kara deputy chairman Henry Ochieng’ says that while the government promises to act on the complaints raised by residents, and while the relevant authorities and commissions are mandated to take these complaints seriously, there is a “major challenge in the turn-around time” once an issue has been raised.

“And then, even after you file your complaint and the authorities tell you they are investigating the matter, construction of the offending structures is still allowed to go on.”

Rogue developers also rush to the courts to obtain stay orders, which make it difficult for the accuser or the National Land Commission to take any actions against them, “so all we are left to do is sensitise and educate residents to take charge of the open spaces within their neighbourhoods and resist any attempts to grab or misuse such spaces”, says Ocheing’.