Smothered by roads

Nanjala Nyabola mourns the loss of Nairobi's canopy, and questions the expansion of cities. 

Credit: Nina Stock/Pixabay

Nairobi’s tag line might be the ‘green city in the sun’, but over the past year there has been a constant assault on the green part. The government of Kenya has cut at least 200 trees across the capital and plans to cull several more while building an elevated highway to connect the airport in the east to the western suburbs. It will be constructed over the top of the main road that currently runs across the width of the country, from Kenya’s coast all the way to the border with Uganda. All this in the shadow of a pandemic that has forced a record-breaking number of private cars onto the road.

Parts of Nairobi have turned into dustbowls where the wind, with no trees to slow it down, picks up masses of dust and sprinkles it over cars and pedestrians like salt from a shaker. We have no quantitative evidence to prove it, but those of us who live here have noticed that temperatures have soared.

The destruction of the city’s legendary tree canopy results from a combination of state and private action, as unplanned urban expansion takes shape as dense residential neighbourhoods with zero green spaces. Apartment complexes with no common areas abound, particularly in working-class areas, and except for two parks in the central business district – both of which only exist through the protest actions of women like Wangari Maathai and Zarina Patel – all of the city’s protected green areas are in wealthy neighbourhoods.

At the same time, large old trees have been torn down to make way for a network of roads and junctions that have changed the character of the city but done little to address its traffic problems. In almost every case after a road has been expanded the traffic jams return, sometimes worse than they were before. Thika Road, Lang’ata Road, Outer Ring Road – all packed again mere months after multibillion-shilling expansions. Nairobi is learning the harsh lessons that larger cities have also learnt – that expanding roads doesn’t reduce traffic congestion; only investment in meaningful public transit does. Moreover, even though the majority of the city’s residents commute on foot and a growing number try to use their bicycles, almost none of the new roads have either pavements or bicycle paths.

There’s a broader lesson embedded in Nairobi’s road-building follies. For the last 50 years, development theory has seen the natural environment as a secondary concern compared to the need to build infrastructure. In the early 20th century, cities in rich countries aggressively expanded, destroying forests and rivers in the process, and even though these countries are now reversing course on some of these decisions, poor countries are still embracing the flawed logic of unchecked expansion.

Thus, while Amsterdam converts roads back into canals, and cities across the United States convert freeways and elevated highways into parks and public spaces, cities in Africa and Asia are destroying their natural heritage to consolidate the illusion of modernity.

The result, in a world where the reality of climate change can no longer be denied, is baking cities choking under swirls of dust and smog. To prevent more of the planet becoming uninhabitable under sweltering heat, cities in poor countries have to move away from an illusion of development that is intrinsically at odds with the natural environment. Liveable cities need trees.