Planning for reality in one of Nairobi’s largest ‘slums’
High levels of participation and a readiness to reconsider conventional approaches have led to promising plans to upgrade the Mukuru informal settlement.
Since 2017, IIED has been leading a research project examining the barriers to shelter access in three fast growing East African cities: Hawassa in Ethiopia, Mogadishu in Somalia and Nairobi in Kenya.
With the project nearing its close, the project team and municipal representatives from Hawassa and Mogadishu visited Mukuru, one of Nairobi’s largest informal settlements (‘slums’). Here, communities and the county government are planning a significant intervention to upgrade infrastructure and improve basic services for 100,000 households.
Our guides were local representatives from SDI Kenya – the Kenya affiliate of IIED’s longstanding partner Slum Dwellers International (SDI). SDI Kenya has a long history of working with Nairobi’s informal settlement residents and local government to develop co-produced slum upgrading solutions.
We were a mixed group, including some older researchers and municipal government representatives who had lower mobility. One team member was blind, accompanied by an assistant.
As we made our way into Mukuru, an SDI colleague asked me how, based on my first impressions, the slum compared with others I’d been to. I replied that it appeared similar to informal neighbourhoods of Maputo, Mozambique, where I’d spent some time.
But on turning the corner, I realised that conditions were much worse. Using stepping stones, we walked down muddy pathways with open sewage running down the middle. The path led to an expanse of water – foul smelling, full of rubbish and apparently stagnant.
Later we learned this was in fact a river flowing through the settlement; over time, residents have built housing on this reclaimed land, causing huge drainage problems. Luckily for us, it hadn’t rained for several days – otherwise many streets and alleyways would have been impassable.
Tough conditions and finding a way forward
By this point, some of our team were beginning to struggle with the heat and terrain. It was becoming clear how difficult life must be for Mukuru’s older, less mobile residents, and those with physical disabilities: just getting around requires agility and good balance.
As we looked out over the ‘river’, one of the Ethiopian team members said to me: "This is impossible. This area cannot be upgraded. It just needs to be razed and these people moved somewhere else". Across the world, a common approach for dealing with informal settlements is to demolish homes and evict residents.
Next on the schedule, SDI colleagues presented the plans to upgrade Mukuru. The presentation was worth waiting for and, for me, a highlight of the time I spent in Nairobi. The plan is based on the reality of life in Mukuru, not on outdated and inappropriate planning codes. It responds to very real problems in pragmatic ways that will work for the poorest residents.
Mukuru has been identified as an area needing substantial redevelopment and designated by the county government as a Special Planning Area (SPA).
Developing strategies to upgrade infrastructure and services – including roads, drainage, water and sanitation, and health, educational and recreation facilities – has been a highly participatory process, under way for two years. The plan has been designed to minimise the numbers of Mukuru residents displaced by the upgrading.
SDI took us through the plan’s various iterations. The first iteration applied national planning standards to Mukuru. This meant calculating the minimum legal requirement of land needed to provide schools, hospitals, roads and other social infrastructure, and mapping them on to Mukuru.
If this plan were implemented, these facilities would cover the whole settlement, leaving no room for housing: all residents would have to be resettled elsewhere.
Revise, rework, refine
The people involved in the planning process knew these standards would be unworkable for a large and densely populated settlement like Mukuru. But this first iteration was crucial as it set in motion discussions with residents and government on how these standards could be adapted to Mukuru.
The plan was refined – the second iteration would displace 27% of residents. By the third, this figure had been reduced to 12.5%. And with some new higher-rise buildings, this could even be reduced to zero.
This final plan not only dramatically reduces the number of residents who would be displaced, it is also creative in its suggestions for improving traffic mobility while promoting access for pedestrians. It limits the amount of land covered by roads (proposing new, narrower roads and introducing some streets solely for non-motorised transport).
It also addresses the lack of space for social infrastructure through sharing recreation sites between schools and opening up access to education and healthcare facilities outside Mukuru – a move that can also improve social integration.
At the end of the presentation I asked the Ethiopian researcher – who earlier had suggested Mukuru would have to be razed – how he felt about the settlement’s future. He acknowledged that this incremental approach where basic services are improved is a first step to a better quality of life for people in Mukuru, even though the plan does not extend to public investments in housing stock.
The plan is not a panacea. The SPA’s funding remains unclear and it will be a challenge ensuring low-income tenants – the group least able to cope with rises in rental prices – are not displaced.
Plan holds promise
Nonetheless, it seems that positive change will come to Mukuru. Our partners in Kenya, bringing their rich experience of community organisation, data collection and engagement with local government, have made a huge contribution to this process.
IIED will continue to work with SDI as the process unfolds and as they seek to replicate Mukuru’s pathbreaking experience in other slums in Nairobi.