Our role in this world is to change things and hopefully leave them better for future generations. It is all summarised in an old-age English saying: “Leave the place better than you found it.” However, these changes are increasingly becoming fewer.
Nowhere is this more visible than in our built environment. Whereas new buildings indicate positive change, sad boxes of structures devoid of aesthetics and an enabling access infrastructure prove the opposite.
In Nairobi, for example, Upper Hill and Westlands are becoming high population density areas but a corresponding road network is not being developed.
Indeed all roads into and out of Nairobi are getting extremely busy because there are no parallel routes to absorb some of the traffic, and neither do we have connecting roads.
In many areas of the city, if you want to go to a place that is barely five kilometres from your house, you may be forced to go through the city centre because there are no direct routes.
Construction around Nairobi’s peri-urban areas is at an all-time high yet all these areas have only one narrow link to Nairobi. It is either Waiyaki Way, if coming from the North, Ngong Road from the West, Kangundo Road and Thika Road from the East, and Mombasa Road if you are approaching the city from the South.
This single-route architecture contributes to traffic jams and driver stress and is a major contributor to loss of man-hours in our economy.
We are fast urbanising without planning. The roads aren’t being expanded to make our driving better. Instead, you see haphazard, primeval encroachment on the narrow roads by traders and even urban farmers.
If there are any plans, then they must be those setting us for failure. There is no urban planning discourse either in the county assemblies or the National Assembly.
The current traffic bottlenecks will only get worse in the next few years yet this is the era of smart cities concept, where planning stresses aesthetics.
Where we have made interventions on some routes like Thika Road, the resulting highway is a mass of concrete and tar. We failed to take into consideration three fundamentals of good infrastructure: economy, safety and beauty.
Diversion and deceleration lanes are too short, road signs too small, signboards too near exits, and unnecessary bumps.
New housing developments in low-income areas are concrete jungles where safety has been compromised yet the cost of putting up quality buildings is not significantly different from the current spend.
The curriculum in universities, which should be dynamic enough to respond to these changes, has been prevented from being innovative by professional bodies.
Our problem is greed and indiscipline. I cannot comprehend how some roads built by the colonialists are still in good shape whereas those constructed recently, for example the Narok road, are full of potholes.
Which government inspector approves these roads and why are they not in prison? Do construction firms give term guarantees for their projects?
The only guarantee I ever read about was the 50-year one given by the Chinese for the Thika highway. Each contractor should indicate on a big poster the number of years the road is expected to last without repairs.
Japan assisted Nairobi to revise its 1973 master plan. The result was the Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Master Plan. If we cannot start its implementation, it is as good as useless.
Many of the proposals in the report can effectively be implemented under public-private partnerships.
We must revisit the 1973 master plan and use it to develop the road networks as planned then.
The majority should not suffer due to the current state of roads while those who grabbed public land persist in ostentatious displays of wealth. This is how we can begin the process of respecting the rule of law.
We cannot build institutions if our professional organisations cannot stand up to mediocrity. Buildings are collapsing and killing people, roads are designed without safety in mind, bridges are collapsing, builders take forever to complete small road sections, and patients are dying because of professional negligence yet there is no prosecution.
There is greater need for discipline among professional organisations to serve as an example to the rest of the society.
When we design and develop our infrastructure, let us do it with aesthetic beauty in mind, greater economy and safety for people. It is what will define our cultural maturity to the rest of the world.
Buildings, roads, and other forms of physical infrastructure as they relate to our environment are works of art and art tells a powerful story of a people.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.