Anybody who uses Mombasa Road into the city centre and then joins Uhuru Highway onto Westlands is all too familiar with the huge traffic snarl-up on most days. I experienced this last week as I travelled from a hotel on the road to Machakos where I was attending a training for environmental law lecturers in Africa.
A distance of around one hour took a whole four hours due to traffic congestion on the road. Against this background, the announcement by government that it would build an expressway from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Westlands should be welcome news worth celebration. However, this is not the case.
Concerns have been raised about the economic cost of the return of investments to the Kenyan taxpayer.
The figures in the public domain on how much it will cost to construct a kilometre of the road and how much motorists will be charged for using the road once complete demonstrate the concerns about the viability of this project.
Economics aside, the most outrageous aspect of the proposal is the decision to excise part of Uhuru Park to accommodate the road. The government, in response to public outcry pointed out that contrary to what Kenyans thought, they were not interfering with the park. Instead they would utilise 23 meters that was part of road reserve that had been set aside for future road expansion.
The response by government is both simplistic and unhelpful. To treat the historic Uhuru Park and possible excision to such a cavalier response is a demonstration of the importance government must attach to environmental conservation and protection of public open spaces.
Uhuru Park is not just any recreational ground in Nairobi. It has historical importance. It is used by families every day for rest, is a site for prayer sessions, several public functions are held at the park and is a venue for political rallies.
The history of Kenya cannot be complete without Uhuru Park. Destroying any part of it is tantamount to destroying Kenya’s history.
Coming on the heels of the construction of the standard gauge railway across Nairobi National Park, this news is not only a shock, it defeats the whole purpose why Kenya is endeavouring to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the international community in 2015.
Instead, it is confirmation that economic considerations are the sole priority for development decisions in the country. Ecological imperatives can and are trampled over in the process. Yet even the economic fundamentals seem to have been ignored in this proposed action.
The late Prof Wangari Mathai must be turning in her grave from this news. She led early efforts to prevent the desecration of Uhuru Park.
In 1989, she went to court seeking orders to stop the construction of the proposed Kenya Times Complex at the park. Kenya Tmes was a government owned newspaper serving the interests of the then ruling party Kanu.
The court refused to grant Prof Wangari Mathai the orders she sought. Undeterred though, she proceeded to organise demonstrations against the proposed construction. The international investors who were to construct the park grew cold feet and the building never took off the ground.
As a result, Uhuru Park still exists and serves as useful public space in what is an otherwise very congested city.
Open green spaces serve very useful purposes in any society. In Kenya, there is a legal requirement that as part of any planning process, open spaces must be set aside.
Despite this, the city is awash with concrete. The Report on Illegal and Irregular allocations prepared by the Ndungu Land Commission in the mid-2000s documents the manner in which a lot of public spaces were grabbed by those connected to the political establishment then.
Uhuru Park, consequently, remains amongst the few and indeed the greatest open space in the city. It is part of the country’s heritage and must be held in trust for the entire citizenry both as they currently exist and for future generations.