Why zoning review in Nairobi is long overdue

An aerial view of Kilimani in Nairobi

An aerial view of Kilimani in Nairobi in this photo taken on September 8, 2021. PHOTO | NMG

The recent spat between a media personality who owns an entertainment joint, a former model, a recently elected politician looking to stamp his authority in his newfound role and Nairobi County officials has once again brought to the fore a debate that is on everyone’s mind, but no one seems to be addressing it conclusively.

The spat centred on noise levels emanating from an entertainment joint located in a neighbourhood in Kilimani.

On one end are residents wailing over noise pollution in an area they call home and would love some peace and quiet, and on the other a businessman who says he has met all the legal requirements and approvals and was awarded a licence by county authorities to run a legit business.

Earlier, a number of entertainment joints had been blacklisted and set for closure over noise levels in residential areas before the stormy meeting was called.

The bigger question the parties seemed to want to answer is if Kilimani—and the wider Nairobi and other urban centres across the country--is purely a residential or a mixed-use neighbourhood where anything goes as long as one has a licence.

Urban planners and real estate development experts say the noise level complaints point to a bigger problem and are just one of the signs of a deeper issue that is affecting many areas of Nairobi and soon, a number of urban centres around the country as populations in cities and towns bulge.

Fawcett Omollo, a practising urban planner and a lecturer at the University of Nairobi reckons that the misunderstanding is a symptom of a neighbourhood crying out for a zoning review and is a representation of many neighbourhoods, towns and urban centres across the country since devolution started taking effect.

“It’s past time to review zoning classifications especially in and around Nairobi,” said Mr Omollo.

“Landlords and residents in Kilimani are living in denial. Kilimani is no longer a high-end single-dwelling area. It is now a mixed-use middle-income neighbourhood with businesses, residential units and recreational facilities set up side by side. At any one point, this is a recipe for chaos.”

While earlier Kilimani was meant to be exclusively single-dwelling high-end residential units, the area now houses everything from modern office buildings to entertainment joints to schools.

Urban planning and real estate experts say that such disputes will only increase an expand in scope to include issues around basic amenities provisions such as water, electricity, sewerage and roads unless a comprehensive zone review is done to accommodate all the various entities that are now located in Kilimani.

The last comprehensive zoning exercise was done in 1973 when the population of Nairobi was about 1 million people. Nairobi currently hosts just over five million people. Since then the reviews have been piecemeal and project-specific without having the overall bigger picture of the neighbourhood in mind.

The last such zoning review was done in 2006 but was not adopted comprehensively.

Damiano Njaramba, a physical planner and urban development expert says zoning is one of the oldest tools used worldwide by governments to control the built environment and instil order.

Zoning involves setting aside a certain locality within an urban set-up for very specific land use. The uses are normally classified into residential, commercial industrial, recreational, and public uses.

“The state has powers under the Constitution to order zoning reviews when the need arises as is clear in the case of Kilimani and a number of other areas. Zoning provides order on permitted land size and use in an area, density of buildings or plot ratio and ground coverage,” said Njaramba.

“Zoning serves to create functional real estate markets by bringing together compatible land uses. This ensures order, optimal and sustainable development in a particular area devoid of such conflicts (as is being witnessed in Kilimani).”

Experts say zoning regulations differ due to the nature of cities, municipalities or urban centres and that the regulations are guided by the nature of infrastructure development, population growth as well as economic adjustments.

Geoffrey Ochieng, a physical planning expert, says that there is need to regularly review zoning regulations from time to time to match up with population growth which in turn determines the size and numbers of urban areas.

“In the past, zoning tended to be driven by class and function segregation where a residential area was different from an industrial area. This was tenable as long as the population was low. With a rise in populations in cities, we are increasingly seeing a trend where home and office zones are getting merged,” said Ochieng.

“The reason why past reviews have failed is because of lack of inclusion of all the stakeholders to address and allay their fears.”