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Transforming Nairobi: The quest for urban identity

Kenyans who have witnessed their vibrant capital’s evolution in the past decades discuss where the city might be going.

In the 1970s, Kenya was celebrated as an African success story: newly independent, politically stable and economically strong – with Nairobi as its proud capital. 

The city was caught between two identities. The colonial influence of the British was still strong, but Kenyans were trying to redefine their capital as a modern African city. Since then, Nairobi’s population has grown from half a million to 4.5 million. 

That sense of identity is a work in progress ... Many of us don''t see ourselves as Nairobians. Nairobi is still that place where we come for work, we come for school, probably raise our families here, and then we will go and retire somewhere else. But there is a generation now that is born here and that has weaker ties with the so-called rural base - and that is for me the beginning of that Nairobian identity.

by Joy Mboya, executive director of the Godown Arts Centre

Nairobi’s downtown arts complex is run by Joy Mboya, who explains how freedom of expression has evolved since the 1970s, when Kenya was a de facto one-party state. 

“Since our multiparty elections, and particularly since 2002, we in the cultural sector began to notice a shift. We saw a younger generation pick up the baton from previous artists and be bolder in terms of the themes they were tackling, with music, with spoken word,” she says. “Now, the city’s full with things to do every single day … It’s very, very vibrant.” 

According to Mboya urban planning was not a priority after the end of colonialism, and you can see the effects across the city now.

“The city is segregated along economic lines … Many people in the city are struggling to earn a livelihood, many people are unemployed, so it’s not a city that is a welcoming, comfortable city for the newcomer,” she says.

As its population grew Nairobi’s skyline has been transformed, with skyscrapers shooting up at a rapid pace. But architect Charles Kahura says the men and women who designed these buildings have failed to give the city a coherent architectural identity.

“What’s the character of Nairobi? You can’t pick it out … Apart from the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, which has some cultural definition, the rest takes its own shape. Architects get their own design and shoot it up,” he says. 

“We have not made a conscious decision to [give Nairobi an architectural identity] and it’s not driven by an institution. It’s unfortunate, but what drives it is the demand of the populace.”

Irungu Houghton has been arrested and has suffered death threats in his struggles with unscrupulous developers and land grabbers looking to cash in on Nairobi’s property boom. Is he losing his battle to save the city’s environment?

“We have to recognise that the demographic pressure from people coming to the city relentlessly is actually transforming the city – so we need a city that is actually able to absorb these large numbers of people,” he tells Phillips.

“But we also need green spaces, and we do need recreational spaces, public spaces and public utilities to match the private investment that’s happening. Because if you don’t have that, then essentially you call it organised chaos.” 

“What’s important is to make it a liveable city, make it a city of choice, a place where we would choose to live here rather than simply a place we go to work and then one day mythically we return to some ancestral home and go and die there. I think we have to say this is our city and we claim it.” 

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