Nakuru, the mighty economic and political epicentre of the expansive Rift Valley, is choking under garbage, which is smothering any signs of the town’s former sheen.
Its century-old Jacaranda trees that welcomed visitors are fading. The rains have settled its volcanic soil and people walk about aimlessly. This is a prelude to an urbanisation crisis.
Situated on the foothills of Menengai Crater, Nakuru once had Africa’s first motorsport race track at Langa Langa. Today, the former race track is now home to thousands of people courtesy of land grabbing by those who thought motor sport had no place in Africa.
The famed Lake Nakuru lies east of the grounds and still forms part of the Rift Valley tourist circuit. The flamingoes that were once a major tourist spectacle are dwindling in number.
The Kenya Wildlife Service says the birds have relocated temporarily due to falling food sources, which is caused by a cyclical phenomenon of rising water levels.
Locals, however, are doubtful and point to evidence of human habitation in neighbouring areas that is causing soil erosion and silting of the lake. This, they think, could be the cause of the artificial rising of the water.
Although the 2009 census put its population at 307,000, Nakuru is congested and could possibly have more people than what is recorded. This fourth largest town in Kenya enjoys the face of the country with a large cross-section of ethnic groups represented.
In the 1980s, it was the cleanest town in East Africa but lack of proper planning and failure to manage solid waste has cast a dark shadow on that sparkle. In the meantime, pressure on its resources continues to mount.
The need for collaboration, therefore, becomes important. By collaborating with experts in different universities and counties, or even the national government, skills can be pooled to successfully rethink the town’s development.
Most residents agree that something needs to be done to make the town shine again, but they cannot put their finger on what that is.
Most of Nakuru’s beautiful architectural landmarks are gone. The iconic Stags Head Hotel, once a landmark, was replaced with a pile of concrete devoid of aesthetics.
There are, however, the Posta and the defunct Kenya Farmers Association buildings built in the early 20th century that retain the old Nakuru lustre. The county government has a herculean task of planning for the future.
A modern town master plan and building code should be high on the list of priorities. Much of what is mushrooming in the town as re-development leaves a lot to be desired.
The so-called African architecture of storeyed buildings lacks style and character. If more thought was put into construction, buildings would cost less and have greater allure. It is time we begin defining architecture by legislation as we begin to re-develop these aging towns.
We should be worried of the future. The UN estimates that by 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will be urban and Africa will not be ready to face the challenges.
Kenya’s urban population will more than double by 2050 and towns like Nakuru will be in chaos if planning does not begin today. It is not prophesy that urban population will be the greatest challenge in the days to come.
The increasing number of people living in unplanned settlements is a testimony of the impending challenge.
Even if there are not enough resources to put up the necessary infrastructure, the least we can do is to plan and create the necessary wayleaves for future developments.
The pressure on resources is already being tested to the limits. Water is becoming a more scarce resource. Encroachment on game reserves, especially in Lake Nakuru, is pushing our flora and fauna into extinction. A number of rhinos have been killed here and the flamingoes are migrating.
The future depends on what we do now. For a start, we need closer collaboration with Egerton and Kabarak universities to do research and develop a better, sustainable model for the future.
This should take into account how we manage the environment while we seek to develop an industrial hub that would help ease the problem of unemployment.
Development is a science that will require every piece of data and from all sources to make informed plans for a better future.
As US business magnate Warren Buffett said: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” Let’s plant the seeds by planning well so that future generations live a better life than we did.
The writer is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.