Posing at Uhuru Gardens

Did you know that 47.5 square kilometres of Nairobi are public space? That almost one-twelfth of the city is ours, as the public, to do what we want with? To play, to create, to relax, to imagine, to paint, to dance, to make music, to perform, to protest, to sing, to come together, to share, . . . Let your imagination run wild.

Have you ever thought to yourself “I wish there was a place where I could try out my creative idea (e.g. a public dance, debate, art, etc)?” There are actually a lot of spaces that belong to us the wanainchi. Here are some fun facts on public space:

  1. What is a public space in Kenya?

According to the international Charter of Public Space (2013), “public spaces are all spaces publicly owned or of public use, accessible and enjoyable for all for free and without a profit motive.”

Here in Kenya, we do not have a universally acknowledged definition, but the National Museums and Heritage Act Cap 216, defines Open Space as “an open space not built upon in any urban or peri-urban area whether in a municipality or not to which the public has access and which may be used for parks, gardens, recreation grounds or any other use whatsoever.”

UN-HABITAT categorizes open public spaces into 4 types: local/domestic (e.g. community gardens), neighbourhood (e.g. playing fields), city level (e.g. forests, cemeteries), and linear (e.g. road reserves, riparian reserves).

Posing at Uhuru Gardens

Posing at Uhuru Gardens

  1. Why are they important?

Have you ever been to a beautiful city? What made it so pleasing to walk through? A city is made beautiful through its publicly accessible spaces. If Nairobi was gorgeous, green and clean, we would feel a lot more pride, joy and refreshment while walking through her.

Did you know that “Nairobi” originates from a Maasai phrase meaning “cool water,” and used to be known as the “green city in the sun”? We’ve not been great at preserving that lushness recently, as we stubbornly continue to replace trees with buildings. Green areas within the city are essential to absorb pollutants and cool the hot concrete. And they’re balm for the soul!

Public spaces are also important for building community and a sense of social unity. However, our city is becoming increasingly stratified, with people sticking to their class or ethnic groups, and often barely interacting even within communities.

UN Sustainable Development Goal #11 states “By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”

Family fun at Nairobi City Park

Family fun at Nairobi City Park

  1. What are our rights as citizens in public spaces?

As citizens, we can freely walk in and out of public spaces, using the area for relaxation or activities of our choice.

Public spaces are generally managed by the government, through a parastatal (like Kenya Forest Service or National Museums of Kenya), or by the County Government. In Nairobi, most public spaces are managed by Nairobi City County, also charged with maintenance. It has recently created a department to deal specifically with the same, so we as the public have much opportunity to work together with the team to own and shape our city.

Public space in Nairobi is under threat by road infrastructure development and illegal construction along riparian reserves. We as citizens must get informed on our public spaces and rights, in order to prevent further contraction of public space in Nairobi.

Garbage dump at Nairobi City Park

Garbage dump at Nairobi City Park

  1. Where are our public spaces in Nairobi?

8.2% of Nairobi is public space. Most of these spaces are derelict land with potential for public use that we can exploit. Other areas are already ready for us, in the shape of urban forests, parks, gardens, squares, road reserves and cemeteries. Some examples:

  • Urban forests (Karura, Ngong)
  • Nature reserves (Arboretum, City Park)
  • Parks (Uhuru, Central, John Michuki, Snake Park, Kamukunji grounds, Jevanjee Gardens, Uhuru Gardens, Kahawa West Community Park)
  • Squares (KICC Courtyard, Nairobi Station Square, Tom Mboya Square, Hilton Square)
  • Playgrounds (all over)
  • Cemeteries (Nairobi War Cemetery, Forest Road Cemetery, City Park cemetery)
  • Road sides (Waiyaki Way, Mombasa Road, Jogoo Road) and roundabouts (Museum Hill, Roysambu, Globe)
  • Riparian (Nairobi river-belt, Mathare river, Ngong river)
Nairobi's public spaces. Source: UN-HABITAT (2016)

Nairobi’s public spaces. Source: UN-HABITAT (2016)

Although most public spaces are currently of low quality, without sufficient trees, night lighting, toilets, or benches to sit on, this is an opportunity for us to work with Nairobi City County to shape them as we desire.

  1. How accessible are these public spaces?

Although one can usually walk in and out of a given public space, here are some barriers to access:

  • Distribution of public spaces is unequal between low- and high-income areas. For example, public space in Mathare is less than 2m2 per capita and of lower quality, whereas public space in Westlands is over 50m2 per capita and of higher quality.
  • Most (82%) of our public spaces do not have proper pedestrian pathways, and many of those that do are in a bad condition.
  • There is a recent trend of charging entrance fees to public spaces by management authorities. This started with Karura Forest, and more recently the Nairobi Arboretum adopted a similar rule. When an entrance fee is levied, the status of the space as ‘public’ comes into question, as it locks out those who cannot easily afford the fee and creates a kind of ‘elitism’ around the space. In Karura Forest, the trees were historically used by medicine men and women for their bark. However, it is now not allowed to remove bark from the trees (even sustainably and for medicinal purposes), whereas the trees are labelled to inform those who have paid entrance fees what these trees used to be used for.2
  • There currently aren’t many social programs in public spaces, leading to vacancy and an insecure environment. This issue can be tackled by increasing events in and usage of public spaces. See #7 below on Nairobi Placemaking Week.

These are all fights than can be won by us as citizens with rights enshrined in the Constitution.

  1. How can we get creative to own our public spaces?

Use your imagination – what have you ever dreamed of doing with your fellow Kenyans? I’ve thought of film screenings, discussions, dance, poetry, debate, painting, graffiti, music, civic education on alternative politics and histories, knowledge-exchange fairs, . . . One idea I really would love is a weekly public cultural dance, open and free to all.

The process is simple – approach Nairobi City County with your activity proposal. They may charge fees depending on how disruptive it is to public use of the area – for example, pitching a tent could cost 10,000/- while holding a public rally would cost 100,000/-. Don’t worry about costs though! If the activity is seen to be for public good, these fees could be waived. Or they could suggest organizations for you to partner with.

Graffiti at Uhuru Gardens

Graffiti at Uhuru Gardens

Anti Corruption March 2015. Photo from Team Courage.

Anti Corruption March 2015. Photo from Team Courage.

  1. What is ‘placemaking’?

Placemaking is the process of communally planning, designing and managing a public space. Nairobi Placemaking Week 2017 starts this Thursday 16th Nov and runs until Sunday 19th Nov, during which we the public will take over streets of Nairobi to create art, music and learn how we can own our city. Check out the schedule here, and see you on the streets! #PlacemakingWeekNBI

Love, peace and unity

Love, peace and unity

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1 UN-HABITAT, Nairobi Community-Led, City-Wide Open Public Space Inventory and Assessment (2016)

2 Ambreena Manji, Property, Conservation and Enclosure in Karura Forest, Nairobi (2017). Oxford UP.

3 Discussions with Nairobi City County


  1. One may not realise what opportunities abound in some of these ‘free’ spaces and how we can make good use of them, other than just being a place of relaxation on a Sunday!
    Thank you Narissa. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article on green and public spaces!

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