The ongoing demolition of structures built on riparian reserves is a confirmation of the rot in our City and the impunity that has reigned in Nairobi for several years.

It is also an indictment of the regulatory bodies charged with the responsibility of ensuring compliance to urban development regulations and laws. A quick look at some of the constructions in Nairobi gives a picture of a City that has not paid due attention to the basic principles of sustainable urban planning and development. A number of structures are built on riparian reserves, public spaces, road reserves and others are in complete violation of zoning regulations. Unscrupulous developers easily get away with glaring illegalities and irregularities because of working in cahoots with some dishonest government officers entrusted with the role of enforcing the law. The government must be commended for finally waking up and being courageous enough to bring down some of the buildings put up in contravention of the law. We encourage the government to not only go after the buildings on riparian reserves but also reclaim the grabbed public spaces and road reserves.   

However, even as we applaud the government for bringing down the offending buildings, we must look at the root cause of the problems we are currently dealing with so that a sustainable solution can be prescribed. The 1948 master plan for Nairobi gives an indication that planning for the city was intended to be based on the neighbourhood concept with adequate provision for public spaces and protection of natural resources like the rivers. Somewhere along the line however, implementation of the master plan was largely abandoned and compromises were made. The 1973 master plan equally had progressive recommendations but again implementation was minimal and development challenges got worse. Uncontrolled development crept in and facilities like public spaces increasingly came under threat from unscrupulous developers. The City now has the Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Master Plan (NIUPLAN) and it remains to be seen how effectively it will be implemented.

It is therefore clear that the development challenges we are currently dealing with resulted from lack of proper implementation of development plans and weak enforcement of physical development laws by the relevant authorities. Lack of commitment and political goodwill by those in position of leadership made the unscrupulous developers and corrupt public officers bolder and to act with impunity. While the demolitions may serve to reclaim the riparian and road reserves as well as public spaces and perhaps send out a warning to those intending to engage in illegal development, it is not a sustainable solution to the broader urban development problems facing Nairobi. A multidimensional approach that takes into consideration both preventive and curative measures must be employed in order to realize sustainable solutions to the urban development challenges.

To begin with, the Nairobi City County Government must demonstrate commitment to effective implementation of the integrated master plan which provides a guiding framework to manage urban development in Nairobi. Strict adherence to the plan will provide spatial order of physical investments and ensure that no approvals are given for development of structures on riparian reserves, public spaces and road reserves. The implementation of the plan coupled with strict enforcement of physical development laws will prevent construction of illegal structures and secure the reserves and public spaces from interference.
There is also need to strengthen coordination among the various urban development regulatory bodies. The back-passing and blame game that has been displayed in certain instances confirms that the agencies don’t consult among themselves before final approvals are given. The County Government, National Environment Management Authority, Water Resources Authority among others should not work in silos but rather coordinate their activities to ensure that only developments that are in strict compliance with the law and urban development plans are approved.

The design, approval and construction processes for any physical development involves professionals at various stages. Some of the professionals are therefore accomplices in the development of illegal structures and must be held responsible. The professional bodies must call out their members involved in illegal practices and take disciplinary actions against them. This will ensure that professionals uphold integrity at all times and refuse to facilitate illegal processes.  
Finally, the fight against illegal physical development cannot be won without involvement of communities. A number of Resident Associations have been consistent and very passionate about protecting their neighborhoods from unscrupulous developers keen on grabbing public spaces or carrying out construction on riparian or road reserves. It is important for the government to support such efforts by facilitating structured and effective engagement with Residents Associations and other community groups.

In Nairobi, the County Governments should ensure full implementation of the recently enacted Community and Neighbourhood Associations Engagement Act which provides a legal framework for engagement with Residents Associations and promotion of their activities that are complimentary to the work of the government. Based on the law, the County Government can enter into an agreement with Resident Associations to enhance the role of the Associations in monitoring compliance with the County planning regulations and zoning requirements in respect to their neighbourhood; protection of public utility land and recreational facilities from encroachment. Organized community groups can be very effective ally to the government in the fight against illegal development.