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Empty streets offer chance to rethink our cities

by kenya-tribune

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It is 6am on a Saturday morning. The steep stretch of road that runs downhill from Roysambu is a beehive of activity.

From bike riders to joggers and those walking to keep fit, the steep pedestrian walkways on both sides of the 12-lane Thika Road have become a favourite spot for residents from the neighbouring Clay Works, Zimmerman and Roysambu estates determined to burn some calories.

Francis Ndung’u has been doing his regular morning runs for the last two years alongside a handful of other fitness enthusiasts.

But in the last two months, he says, the number of people taking to the road every morning has increased sevenfold. “We are talking of close to 500 people taking to the road every morning,” he says.

And this is not the only neighbourhood where people have ventured out. On Waiyaki Way, the ongoing work-from-home orders, social distancing, public gathering restriction, as well as the closure of hotels and bars, have left residents here with ample time to burn at home.

Kiundu Waweru, a resident of Kinoo in Kiambu County, is one of them. Clad in a tracksuit and a new pair of sports shoes, he’s taking to the road at least three times a week.


“You have very few choices. You can stay at home all day and go mad, or you could come out here and burn some calories,” he says.

“Working out used to be a pet peeve for me. But what do you do when all the social places are closed, you have to work from home, you can’t meet with friends or visit your parents upcountry? You eat your words and join the bandwagon.”

The situation on the roads, experts argue, is a big pointer to a behavioural change brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, which has also brought with it several positive impacts.

For instance, city streets are quieter, roads are crowded with people, not cars, and skies are clearer and bluer than ever, thanks to a reduction in air pollution.

Indeed, scientists over the last two months have reported a drastic drop in environmental pollution, attributing this to the fact that most factories remain shut in the face of Covid-19 as well as reduced air, road and sea travel.

Njeri Cerere, an urban and regional planner based in Nairobi, is not surprised that cycling, running and walking on the streets has become a safer and more accepted endeavour and that children are finally riding their bikes on the streets and sidewalks.

“This is what happens when public investment in neighbourhoods is focused on safety, the pedestrian and the family. What this situation is proving is that if you give priority to a majority of users and encourage various modes of mobility for short trips, then your sidewalks and your roads will be well utilised,” she says.

When President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a raft of measures to tame the spread of Covid-19 in March, such as closing down all learning institutions, hotels and entertainment facilities, banning all social gatherings as well as asking government offices and businesses to allow employees to work from home, no one knew what lay ahead.

But in the days that followed as is the case today, several streets in the city remain deserted as Kenyans heed the government’s call to stay and work from home.

For city dwellers, the efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus have also offered them a rare opportunity to see and experience the city without the choking traffic, the dirty air and the noise pollution that has made life in the city almost unbearable.

Indeed, with picture evidence, most city dwellers have been boasting about having spotted the snow-capped Mt Kenya from different parts of Nairobi on social media.

But for professionals in the built environment, the empty streets are a blessing in disguise. They provides them with an opportunity to re-examine the city, and most importantly, fix it for life after Covid-19.

For Cerere, a passionate urbanist, a pandemic of Covid-19 proportions reminds her of the origin of urban planning.

She says that the urban planning profession rose to prominence as a response to public health crises in cities at the turn of the century.

Take the Black Death, an infamous plague that caused an estimated 20 million deaths in Europe in the 14th century, for instance.

While doctors are said to have been powerless against infectious disease, all the conditions were right for an epidemic.

Germs, the fleas which carried them, and the rats which carried the fleas, flourished in the dirty towns. Busy trade routes carried the plague from one place to another.

“The planning profession arose from a need for people to be safe, healthy and socially connected while optimising their talent and opportunities in the city, so I think what this pandemic has reiterated is the critical importance of urban planning,” says Cerere.

Some of the factors that should come to the fore as far as urban planning is concerned include water and sanitation, zoning, building standards or codes, neighbourhood amenities, urban design standards and mobility solutions for non-motorised users.

Commentators have predicted a new world order after the coronavirus, asserting that working from home, online shopping and distant learning, non-motorised as opposed to motorised transport, will be ground zero for the new normal.

Terry Maina, a pedestrian advocate and director of Value Life Foundation Trust, agrees, asserting that after the global pandemic is over, societal norms might not be so normal again.

For instance, due to the current physical distancing requirement when using public service vehicles and the need to reduce any form of contact, most people are likely to prefer to walk or cycle if the intended destination is nearby.

Experience from other parts of the world backs up her claim. In Mexico City and Bogotá, Colombia, for instance, emergency bike lanes are being painted while in Berlin, the government is hiving off sections of the road using cones to ensure people adhere to social-distancing parameters as they walk and ride.

According to statistics from the World Bank, more than eight out of every 10 commutes in Nairobi involve walking as the primary or secondary mode of travel.

Maina expresses concern that this group, their huge number notwithstanding, has to contend with non-existent footpaths, and in instances where there are footpaths, they have been turned into parking lots, hawking spaces, car wash areas, or they are dotted with open manholes or trenches.

This is the time, she says, to repurpose our city streets to be for pedestrians, not vehicles.

“First and foremost, there has to be a major shift in our approach to non-motorised transport. It’s not a non-issue anymore; it’s a vibrant mode of transport that is reliable, affordable and easy to use. If the global lockdowns have taught us anything, it’s that even the most seamless infrastructure can be disrupted. Going forward, construction of our roads needs to be done with non-motorised traffic in mind, where wide footpaths and cycle lanes are as essential as the motoring lanes,” Ms Maina says.

She adds that sustainable transit is the backbone of any urban mobility. “Where there’s safe movement, there’s growth, and what better form of transit is there that’s almost contactless, unobstructive, pollution-free and health promoting than cycling and or walking?” she poses.

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, reports indicate that cycling has surged in many cities, with governments being forced to turn over streets to walkers and cyclists.

In Kenya, experts are calling on the government to make adjustments on the existing infrastructure to support safe cycling and walking while reducing conflict between motorised and non-motorised traffic.

And with the National Transport and Safety Authority reporting a 20 per cent increase in the number of pedestrians who have succumbed to road accidents between January and April this year (a total of 458 people compared to 417 in 2019), such a move would go a long way towards reducing the burden of disease brought about by road traffic injuries and fatalities.

When building roads, in most cases, investment priority is given to vehicular traffic. Something similar happens when conceiving and putting up city estates where the building is king.

This means that open spaces and playgrounds are never given the priority they deserve.

Cerere believes this has an effect on liveability and the residents’ mental well-being.

“If you want a vibrant population that is active and optimally productive, you need to provide accessible public spaces. This will allow residents to let out steam in a healthy way, without having to pay the price of admission or membership as is the case with restaurants, bars, sports clubs and religious venues” she says.

But behind every dark cloud lies a silver lining. The 2009 recession, for instance, gave birth to “tactical urbanism”, where out-of-work architects and designers were allowed to find temporary new uses for empty lots, which would otherwise sit empty after capital dried up.

At the end of it, parking spots were repurposed to small, temporary parks and urban farms. As a matter of fact, this is the origin of projects like Proxy in San Francisco and London’s Boxpark, which designed temporary retail structures from shipping containers, utilising vacant land and encouraging community interaction.

When asked to comment about “tactical urbanism”, Ms Cerere states that two factors go hand in hand: common sense (pre-emptive measures) and responsive urbanism.

“Common sense dictates that if 60 per cent of a population walks as their main means of mobility, including children, safe infrastructure should be provided for them. It is responsive because it addresses practical needs,” she explains.

For the built environment, simple measures taken by supermarkets and shopping malls – such as using markings on the floor to indicate the appropriate distance shoppers should stand from one another in line – are offering some insights into the possible future and the role of design in fighting a pandemic.

In homes, the idea of having shared bathrooms might become a thing of the past.

In the US, for example, Mass Design Group, a design firm that has been building new spaces and retrofitting existing buildings to promote infection control for the last 10 years, is now developing a series of guides that will include tips for homeowners, builders and designers on how to retrofit spaces for airborne-infection control, including strategies for emergency shelters.

If anything, this points to the new and important role architecture is going to play in fighting a pandemic.

As experts continue to weigh in on what the future will look like, the unique challenge Covid-19 presents is turning out to be how to bring people together while at the same time keeping them apart.

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