Public spaces such as children playgrounds, community centres, parks, high streets play a vital role in the social life of communities.

They are the setting for a multitude of activities such as festivals, trade, the movement of goods and people, community life and livelihoods. They are multi-functional areas that should be properly designed and managed to promote cultural activities and build peaceful and democratic societies. 

Countries that understand and appreciate the importance of public spaces in promoting the overall wellbeing of their citizens have invested heavily in design, protection and management of the spaces. In Kenya and particularly urban areas, public spaces are under great threat from individuals keen on using such spaces for selfish commercial interests. 

Grabbing of children’s playground and other spaces meant for social amenities is common place in most neighbourhoods. It is becoming increasingly common to walk into an estate and find children risking their lives by playing on the estate roads because there are no open playing spaces for them. What is more disheartening is that there are Government officers who are colluding with unscrupulous developers to circumvent laws and policies that are meant to protect such spaces. Poor planning, corruption, non-enforcement of laws and uncoordinated constructions have all contributed to interference and misuse of public spaces. 

The Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations (KARA) has received numerous cases from its members regarding grabbing or misuse of public spaces and is working with the National Land Commission and other relevant Government agencies to ensure that the spaces revert to the community and are put to proper use.

It is comforting to note that the world has recognized the importance of public spaces and their impact on urban development. Sustainable Development Goal number 11, target 7 specifically highlights provision of universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities by 2030. Additionally United Nations drew attention to the challenges and issues around public spaces by choosing the motto for last year’s World Habitat Day to be Public Spaces for All. Several activities were carried out aimed at creating awareness and rallying support for the protection and proper use of public spaces.

Kenya needs to put more effort in the design, management and protection of its public spaces. This includes developing strong polices and laws specifically designed to protect such spaces from misuse or grabbing. Emphasis should be placed on effective enforcement of the policies and laws. Additionally, the Government should embrace partnership with Residents Associations in the protection and management of public spaces in various neighbourhoods. Members of the Associations have useful information regarding public spaces within their neighbourhoods and using tools such as Citizens Report Card (CRC), they can join hands with relevant authorities to determine and assess perception and expectations on public spaces management, access, protection and utilization. 

County Governments have a big role to play and should be encouraged to develop tools and mechanisms for effectively identifying public spaces and ensuring proper management and use of the spaces. Nairobi City County Government is leading the way in this regard through their partnership with UN-Habitat that saw the development of Nairobi Open Public Spaces Inventory that was recently validated by stakeholders. The inventory should lay proper ground for developing strategies aimed at reclaiming, protecting and managing public spaces in Nairobi. 

Public spaces have a direct bearing on our economic, environmental, health and social wellbeing and every responsible citizen should take an interest in protection and management of the spaces.