Nairobi is known as the city in the sun; the only capital city in the world with a national park in its borders. The name Nairobi – place of cool waters – evokes images of beauty, peace, harmony between nature and urbane life. It is a shame, therefore that Nairobi is staggering under the burden of mountains of garbage, heavy pollution and crumbling infrastructure. Pedestrians are subjected to countless obstacles and dangers during their daily commute, motorists suffer in traffic jams and children have no clean and safe outdoor spaces in which to play. Wealthier people have options of course, what with their gated communities but those in lower-income neighbourhoods have no choice but to live within neglected and dirty spaces.
Quality public spaces are key to ensure a good quality of urban life. They are proven to have great effects on public health, social cohesion, safety and even business. These spaces are not only parks such as Uhuru Park or Arboretum. We talk about streets and sidewalks where pedestrians and cyclists commute safely, playgrounds where children can meet with their friends from the neighbourhood, and small parks scattered across the city where one can sit and read a book while waiting for a meeting. Who would not want to enjoy such living standards that are common for urbanites in most of Western cities? Compared to most of these cities, Nairobi has an advantage: our climate is perfect for outdoor activities throughout the year. So what can we do to make our urban environment enjoyable?
Leaving the buck with our public authorities is certainly frustrating. Clearly, they have been unable to efficiently manage public spaces across the city as their Western counterparts. One-day clean-ups are certainly commendable initiatives but not sufficient to maintain all spaces sustainably. Nairobians need to start perceiving public spaces as their places. Maintaining them in good condition will benefit us all – users of these spaces. If we only keep passively complaining, situation will never change. It is up to all of us to take action and reclaim our public spaces. Transformation of our city starts with transformation of our mindsets.
Nairobi has its champions that have gradually been assuming the role of city co-managers. Youth groups, community-based organizations, resident associations and other groups have been reclaiming their public spaces in Kibera, Mathare, Korogocho, Dandora, Kilimani, Westlands and Lavington. While promising, when viewed against the vastness of the city and magnitude of the problem, one may think that these lone efforts are not enough to transform our city. So, what can you do? How can you get involved in shaping the Nairobi you want?
One of the easiest ways of making a space look better is to clean it up. The first thing to do is collect all the trash in the area. Installing garbage bins would also help immensely. People will feel less comfortable throwing trash on the ground if the area is already clean and there are conveniently placed bins all around them. Dusting, sweeping or washing surfaces also goes a long way in making a space attractive.
Cleaning a public space is only the first step; decorating it takes it a notch higher. Human beings are attracted to beauty: we derive comfort and pleasure from it, and it is surprisingly easy to achieve. You can plant flowers, add some greenery, slap a fresh coat of paint, and voila, you are good to go. Colourful graffiti can add an artsy vibe to your location and you can recycle waste products into tasteful decorations.
Security is vital in our public spheres. How can you enjoy being somewhere when you don’t feel safe there? Installing lights makes users feel more secure at night. Collecting garbage makes it safer to use because you get rid of pests and dangerous items. For example, removing broken glass from a field makes it safer for children play in it.
If you want your efforts to have a greater impact, find other people who have the same objectives as you and work with them. You would be surprised at the number of individuals who share your passion for change. Pooling resources and ability is a great way to change your public spaces and have a sustainable impact on your community.
There is only so much you can do as an individual or as part of a group – some transformation can only be brought about by policy change. Lobbying your local authorities is one way you can bring attention to a certain issue, such as the state of your public spaces, which could catalyse action from them. Social media is a great tool to gather support and put pressure on the relevant authorities to work.
You can revolutionize your public spaces by contributing in whichever way you can. The only way change is achieved is through the combination of different people’s strengths. Aside from money, you can donate your time, expertise or networks to help make public spaces safer.
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